Analysis: IndyCar cheating scandal risks sullying Roger Penske's perfect image

Santino Ferrucci once made a typo in a social media post in which he incorrectly spelled Josef Newgarden's first name.

Newgarden, a two-time IndyCar champion at the time, quickly responded to Ferrucci, who does not drive for a powerhouse such as Team Penske.

“It’s Josef(asterisk)” he wrote two years ago. “At Penske, we care about details.”

It was a zinger that earned Newgarden scorn at the time for his arrogance to a driver on a lesser team. But he was being honest — attention to detail is next level under Roger Penske's watchful eye — and that's what makes the cheating scandal that has rocked IndyCar so troubling.

IndyCar last week disqualified Newgarden's victory and teammate Scott McLaughlin's third-place finish in the March season-opening race because it realized weeks later that the Team Penske push-to-pass software had been illegally used by both drivers during restarts.

Newgarden says this is all just one big misunderstanding and the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner thought there had been a rule change allowing the extra boost of horsepower on restarts. Team Penske officials called it an error in transferring the software systems from hybrid test sessions onto the 2024 cars.

Roger Penske, who owns the team, IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has said he was embarrassed by all this. He summoned all IndyCar owners into his motorcoach for a brief Saturday mea culpa session in which the 87-year-old apologized for the damage his team had done to the series.

A.J. Foyt, who was not present for the meeting but represented by his son, on Monday staunchly defended Penske.

“I think the drivers thought they could use the (system) at a certain time, and it turned out they couldn't, so I think it was all just a big misunderstanding,” Foyt told The Associated Press. “I have known Roger longer than anyone in my career. He is straight up. He's not a B-plus guy, he's an A-plus guy. He doesn't need to cheat for his cars to win races and I really respect him for standing up to the owners and offering his side."

Here's the problem: Penske Perfect is a way of life and, as Newgarden himself stated, the entire operation pays immaculate attention to detail. So there is only one of two options in this scenario: Either Newgarden and multiple members of the No. 2 team cheated, or, Penske's employees are incredibly inept at their jobs.

Newgarden's explanation

Newgarden said that when he pushed the P2P button on a restart and it worked, he assumed there had been a rule change. That doesn't match the Team Penske claim that some software simply wasn't changed on this year's cars before the season began.

You aren't alone if you believe Team Penske is playing you for a fool; that was the feeling across the paddock all weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. Penske drivers McLaughlin and Will Power, the only one of the three not accused of any wrongdoing, went 1-2 in the race but it was heavily overshadowed by this controversy and what it could mean for Penske's legacy.

It's simply not believable that one of three cars owned by series leadership thought a major rule had been changed without any public announcement. Newgarden and the No. 2 team also didn't bother to talk over any suspected rule change with their teammates.

The data that Newgarden had illegal access to P2P would be obvious to any Penske or Chevrolet engineer who reviewed his daily on-track metrics. Only a glitch during warm-up at Long Beach that knocked the software out on all the cars except the three Penske cars brought the issue to light. The systems were ordered fixed before the Long Beach race.

The Captain

Penske is adamant he had no knowledge of the situation until IndyCar competition officials alerted him early last week. Newgarden used the word “interrogated” to describe his conversation with his boss.

Even after his in-person apology to his colleagues on Saturday at Barber, Penske still has doubters. One rival car owner told The AP that Penske knows “exactly how many cars he sells daily and what the tire pressure is on every one of of his global leasing trucks,” offering an analogy as to how Penske couldn't possibly have been unaware of the shenanigans.

Another team owner reminded the AP that in 1967, Trans-Am race stewards discovered Penske and driver Mark Donohue had figured out that by dipping their car in an acid bath, it would eat away small amounts of metal and make the car incrementally lighter and faster. It won its final race by lapping the entire field and was found in post-race inspection to be 250 pounds lighter than the minimum weight requirement.

Penske warded off a Donohue disqualification, but the rules were changed ahead of the 1968 season.

The road ahead

Even before this mess, the pristine nature of Team Penske had been questioned this season. Joey Logano was caught wearing an aerodynamic-deflecting glove in qualifying for the second NASCAR race of the season; he won't address if he wore the same illegal glove one week earlier when he put a Penske car on the pole for the Daytona 500.

Penske says he comes down hard on his drivers, who he says are supposed to be the team leaders, but there's some institutional horseplay happening right under his nose by his very own employees. They are sullying his name in the process.

When Penske closed on the purchase of Indianapolis Motor Speedway in early 2020, it was a legacy buy for him. The speedway was a crown jewel he plans to pass down through his family and is meant to be the defining asset in his multibillion-dollar empire.

Now rival team owners are criticizing his slow marketing spending (even though he kept them all afloat during the pandemic) and the difficulty in hammering out a charter agreement for team ownership. Michael Andretti even publicly called for Penske to sell IndyCar if he won't increase his investments.

Now there's a cheating scandal in which Penske's own people are offering implausible explanations and in doing so staining his name.


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