MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Legendary car owner Roger Penske will turn 68 on Feb. 20, the same day the Nextel Cup Series season opens with the Daytona 500. He approaches the season with three teams: Dodges driven by Rusty Wallace, Ryan Newman and Travis Kvapil.He talked with reporters about his plans in NASCAR, as well as other issues within Penske Racing South.
Here are some excerpts from that question-and-answer period:
Question: You were one of the first car owners in NASCAR to start a driver development program. Where is that headed?
Penske: As we move into the next decade, we're looking at some younger drivers. We obviously can take people out of the open-wheel series if necessary, but at this particular time, Ryan (Newman) is a pupil out of our ABC program -- ARCA, Busch and Cup. I think we're in good shape. We haven't made a decision on who is going to replace Rusty (Wallace) next year, so that's going to be an interesting thing as we move through the current year. We've talked about potentially running selective Busch races this year. We're not going to run a full season. I don't think it's necessary. I'd rather bring somebody up in maybe a lesser series and run some Busch and maybe some Cup races. As we look at Travis (Kvapil) this year, it was an opportunity to get somebody who's been on these types of tracks and then run some races with us and then make a decision.
Question: It's no secret that Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman have had their problems with each other. As the car owner, does that concern you?
Penske: They've talked and they're going forward based on they've got a job to get done. These are grown men, and obviously this is an energy-charged sport. You take one night when one guy thought he could win the race and got bumped by the other one. It's just one of those things. I guess I'd rather have to grab the back of their belt than be kicking them in the butt. They've handled it, and we've got to move on to next year. It's professional. I've talked to both of them, and I think they know they've got to race hard. They might bump into each other from time to time, but it wasn't a big deal to me. It was two guys charged up, trying to win races. It's like two of your kids. I don't want to call them kids, but here are two young guys who decided they didn't agree with something, so it's over as far as I'm concerned.
Question: Were the rumors true that Wallace wanted to fire Newman?
Penske: No way. If he was going to get rid of Ryan, he would have gotten rid of other guys long before Ryan.
Question: You've built an enormous new shop to put all three of your teams under one roof. Comment on that.
Penske: Part of it was our IndyCar team was all under one roof, obviously not this size. We don't have to have the requirements we do in NASCAR, but I wanted the ability not to have six or seven locations. I wanted to build a shop where everybody was in the same house. In NASCAR, we've kind of grown up with the (No.) 2 shop some place and the 12 shop (somewhere else). I think in this kind of environment we need to cross information across the teams and not have a bunch of silos where no one really talks. At the racetrack it's too hard to get the information because so much is going on. Engineering can be more consistent. I think our body work -- we're building the cars so they're the same. You look at our chassis shop, our fab shop, we have a separate (shop) we're using exclusively for our speedway cars -- an area we think we need to do a lot better in, so I just think it'll make us a much better team. We designed it together. Every single room here was laid out by the specialist in that room whether it was the paint shop, the fab or the chassis shop. I think we basically took a building that was sitting here. It was the Panasonic building. We had the benefit of the footprint of a big building and yet we wanted to utilize it wisely. I think we want to build a test track on the 50 acres outside. Those are things we want to do in the future. Being out here (in Mooresville) we don't have to worry about being in town and some of the noise restrictions they have. This gives us a much better benefit for the long term. For me, it's all about the people inside, not the building.
Question: What are your feelings on Rusty Wallace's final year in racing?
Penske: I think it's absolutely a smart move. He's an attractive guy. He's a smart driver. He's got a great reputation. He's one of the best I've ever had interfacing with sponsors. He's got his son coming up, and he's got other business interests. I think he saw (Dale) Earnhardt, one of his good friends, you know this is a sport that has some risks, and I think Rusty can have a great season. He's not at the bottom of his game. We don't want to see him do like some other great drivers and wait until it's almost too late and then decide to close the door. I told him this. I said, 'You're doing it at the right time.'
He made his decision a couple of years ago, and he stayed on track. I think it's going to be fine. I take my hat off to him. I think we're all going to see him have one of his very best seasons. I see it in his eyes. I would be disappointed if he's not (in The Chase). Being in that Chase is a tough situation with the competition like it is. There are 10 or 15 other ones who should be in there also, and that makes it so exciting, but I think Rusty has been in the top 10 for many, many years. There's no reason he can't be in the top 10. We've got great equipment. I think he's got a great crew chief in Larry Carter, and he certainly knows how to drive the car. He's got RWI with (son) Stephan coming up and the things he's doing. I told him let's not talk about what happens at the end of the season. I think we need to focus on the 2005 Nextel Cup season and what you're going to do. If we start thinking about other things, you're going to lose your focus.
Question: What will you look for in his replacement?
Penske: I've either got to take a driver who has not had the experience that Rusty's had or I've got to go out and get one of the best drivers out there. It's interesting to see what goes on behind the scenes, so we'll see.
Question: What do you expect from your three teams this year
?Penske: There's no question from the standpoint of Ryan and Rusty: Both of them have the ability and the equipment and capability to be in the final 10. That would be minimum expectation for myself. I think Travis is a long shot. I think he's shown us a lot. I've watched him. I was on his radio the last couple of races. He's going to learn a lot in the first few races, but I think we're going to see a lot of him over time. You look at the Kurt Buschs and even Ryan, these are people no one really regarded as a superstar. I think putting him in a good car with a good team with consistency and reliability, I think these guys are capable of making a big score.
Question: You brought in Brendan Gaughan last year, but he went back to the truck series this year. What happened?
Penske: We didn't get the results we wanted. We had a one-year contract and ran it out. We even ran a fourth car to get some experience with Travis. Brendan at the end of the season had some pretty good runs, but we had made the decision to look elsewhere, and we'll see if it was the right decision. We left on good terms. We gave him a good car. He gave it everything he had. This is a business we're looking for final performance.
Question: What will Rusty Wallace's role be at Penske Racing South after he retires from driving?
Penske: I think the first thing we've got to do is finish this season and see what he wants to do as an individual. He has a lot of other interests. He's got his car dealerships. He's got his son Stephen. He's got his own RWI there, and I think we'll have to wait and see. Rusty will always be a part of us one way or the other, so that's a business decision he'll make at the end of the season.