It was 3 am, and Roger Penske was still trying to apply decals to the replacement front wing for the old, battered Dallara chassis.
Penske had been a decent enough racer in his day, but decided to start up his own race team. What he didn’t expect was the victory drought, race after race of frustration.
Penske sighed, as he realized the “L” in “PENSKE TRUCK RENTAL” wasn’t transferring, much like his team in knockout qualifying.
Sure, he’d had some good runs. The grinning Brazilian fellow that always hung around turned out to be a pretty solid driver, and had even scored a podium or two. But victory? As of late, it seemed as if the words “Roger Penske” and “victory” went together about as well as Sebastian Saavedra and a military barber.
Penske stood up, stretched, and thought back to the last two races. There was the indignity of a third of his team not making it one lap, and the Australian having another mid-race tirade. At least he had grabbed a Top 10. That was something, he unsuccessfully tried to tell himself. Maybe one of the big sponsors would see it, so he wouldn’t have to keep putting the family business on his cars. Someone like Rachel’s Potato Chips, or a start-up, unheralded energy drink looking to cash in on the vacuum Four Loko had left.
Four Loko. A man down on his luck could use one of those about now.
There was a soft knock at the side door of the garage. The door swung open, and a bleary-eyed Tim Cindric surveyed the scene gloomily.
“Working late tonight, chief?” queried the loyal employee, who still threw around words like “championship” and “Victory Circle” as if they were some sort of Penske birthright. Roger admired the fact the man held on to that dream, and hadn’t gone into a shame spiral like the Australian, who mainly sat around these days in between races attempting to somehow play funeral dirges on his drum set.
Roger nodded. “I sent the boys home. Too few of them, and we’ve been asking far too much.”
Tim gave a short shake of his head, and turned to go when something in Roger’s expression caused him to linger. “Was there something else, chief?”
Roger began to wave his hand in dismissal, only to bring it up to cover his reddened eyes.
“Yes—I mean no—well, it’s just—DAMMIT!”
Roger wadded up the transfer paper and threw it across the garage in one angry, fluid motion. It skittered to rest by a pile of oily rags no one had bothered to clean up in months.
“Why is it, Tim?” Roger turned to face Cindric, eyes pleading. “Why is it these fat cats have to win every race? Why? Just because they can hire better engineering, and can afford to go testing? I’m so sick of having Dale Coyne laugh at me every weekend! Do you know what he did at Indianapolis? He threw a bunch of Sonny’s Bar-B-Q coupons at me as he drove by on his golf cart, saying it looked like my boys ‘hadn’t eaten in a while!’”.
Tim sighed. It was the sigh of a man facing reality after a long day behind a façade of optimism.
“We aren’t alone, Roger. Chip said Michael Andretti keeps prank calling him at 3 in the morning, asking if he needs directions to Victory Circle. He hasn’t slept in weeks. He’s stress-eating again. I had to pick him up from a Golden Corral last night—it was that, or the manager was going to call the cops”.
Penske nodded. He knew that Chip didn’t handle it well when his shoestring operation struggled. There had been the time back in CART when he had to fireman carry him out of a Tim Horton’s.
“I just wish—“ Roger paused, as a wave of fatigue swept over him, “—I wish, Tim, JUST ONCE, we could win one for the little guy. I’d love to show those smug big-timers over at Foyt, Coyne, and Schmidt that they can’t just push Penske around. We may be the underdog, Tim, but I FEEL IT. We can WIN. It’s not supposed to be like this. I have to believe that.”
Tim just smiled. His optimism was never far from the surface.
“Well,” Roger finally continued, breaking the silence, “Once we scrounge up a new air gun and slap some paint and tape over this old gal, maybe things will be different. Maybe we’ll get those uppity snots, or maybe one of Chip’s boys will. Maybe Justin Wilson will have engine trouble, or Andretti Autosport’s flight will get diverted to Albuquerque”. He laughed, a mirthless sound of one beaten down into cynicism.
Tim picked up the transfer paper from where it lay in the corner, and carefully smoothed it out. Every dollar counted, and might mean that the Penske boys could finally get those matching crew shirts they’d been saving up for.
“Well, don’t stay up too late, Roger,” said Cindric. “Remember, we have that meeting with that Formula Angola guy tomorrow who wants to run the 2 car sometime this year. He was P18 in his country’s second-biggest series last year, and he's the son of an eccentric shipping magnate, so he might work out”.
Roger shrugged. You did what you had to, and hoped if you got a good driving prospect, Dale Coyne or whoever Eric Bachelart was working with didn’t lure them away.
Tim hesitated once again, and then said, “The Series called, and wanted to know if we have any idea who’s going to be in that car for any races this season. What should I say?”
“Tell them,” said Roger, as soured resignation churned once more in his stomach, “tell them it’s TBA”.