Tuesday, February 7, 2017

1979 Penske PC-6 Indianapolis winner

The 2016 edition of the Performance Racing Industry trade show held at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis featured a special display devoted to the 50th anniversary of Penske Racing, with special focus on four of the sixteen Team Penske Indianapolis ‘500’ race winners.  
Click to enlarge and notice the discrete CART sticker on the engine cover
The earliest Roger Penske-owned Indianapolis 500 winner on display was the Penske PC-6 driven by Rick Mears to victory in 1979 an event which was dogged with controversy in the weeks leading up to running of the race itself.

In November 1978, the United States Auto Club (USAC) 21-man board of directors which governed the ‘500,’ rejected a series of demands from a group of dissatisfied championship series car owners led by Dan Gurney. Days later, that core group of disgruntled car owners which included Gurney, Bob Fletcher, U.E. ‘Pat’ Patrick, Roger Penske, Team McLaren and Jim Hall formed Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART).

CART soon allied with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and announced plans to sanction a 13-race championship racing series in direct competition with USAC which saw its 1979 schedule shrink to seven races. In mid-April 1979, 19 entries for the International 500-mile Sweepstakes submitted by CART car owners were refused by USAC “because you are not in good standing with USAC" with the $1,000 entry fee for each car returned. On April 26 1979 CART filed suit against USAC in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana and cited violations of antitrust and right to work laws.

Roger Penske had entered only two drivers for the 1979 Indianapolis 500-mile race; veteran Bobby Unser who won the 1968 and 1975 Indianapolis 500-mile races and 27-year old Rick Mears from Bakersfield California. Penske hired Mears in 1978 to run a limited USAC championship schedule in place of Mario Andretti who was focused on winning the world Formula 1 driver’s championship. 

In his second attempt at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Mears qualified the red and white #71 Penske PC-6 “CAM2 Motor Oil Special” in third position for the start of the race.  Although Mears fell out with engine failure on lap 103 and finished 23rd, he was named the co-winner of the 1978, Stark Wetzel Rookie of the Year award with Larry Rice who had finished eleventh.  Mears scored three race wins in his remaining nine 1978 USAC races and finished ninth in USAC points despite missing seven races.    

After a three-day hearing, on May 5, the official first day of practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Judge James Noland agreed with CART that USAC and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had conspired to keep the six racing teams out of the 500-mile race and granted the temporary injunction due to the “severe hardship the drivers would suffer far outweighs the harm to the defendants by allowing them to race.”

On May 7, his first day of practice after having his entry reinstated Rick Mears turned the fastest of the day at 187.578 miles per hour (MPH). His teammate Bobby Unser elected to race with the new Penske PC-7 chassis which had limited aerodynamic ‘ground effects’ while Mears stuck with a proven year-old PC-6 chassis which had been driven to the USAC/Citicorp Cup championship in 1978 by Tom Sneva.

The following day May 8 Mears ran the Speedway’s fastest unofficial lap to date for the year at 193.5 MPH. After the first day of qualifying was rained out, on Sunday May 13, Mears as the last pole position eligible driver recorded a four-lap average of 193.736 MPH to take the pole position, his first of his record six career Indianapolis  pole position starts.   

The Penske PC-6 is widely publicized as “the first Penske IndyCar” which is incorrect. During 1973, as part of his push to race in Formula 1, Roger Penske bought the McRae Cars Limited 5000 square foot race car fabrication shop in Poole England from John Heynes. The first Penske built race car, dubbed the PC-1 was designed by Geoff Ferris for Formula 1 competition in 1974, and was followed by the Formula 1 PC-3 in 1975 and the PC-4 used during the 1976 Grand Prix season.

Meanwhile the Penske USAC championship teams used McLaren customer cars until the latter part of the 1977 USAC season, and the debut of the Penske PC-5 an improvement on the design of the McLaren M24 chassis. Tom Sneva drove four 1977 USAC races in a Penske PC-5 entry on his way to the USAC championship while Mario Andretti drove a Penske PC-5 chassis once at the Michigan Grand Prix, the first race where two Penske Cars Limited chassis appeared. 

The Penske PC-6 also designed by Geoff Ferris which used a fiberglass body over an aluminum monocoque tub, debuted at the start of the 1978 USAC season and won the season championship for Tom Sneva. The PC-6 recorded just one race win in 1978 as the #7 “Gould Charge” driven by Mario Andretti which won the Machinist Union 150  in Trenton New Jersey The 1978 PC-6 was later immortalized in 1/25 scale as AMT sold three versions (Unser, Mears and Andretti) as styrene model kits.   

The Penske PC-6 was powered by the Cosworth DFX the 161-cubic inch turbocharged version of the Cosworth DFV Formula 1 engine. The Vel’s Parnelli Jones/ American Racing Wheels team exclusively used the DFX engine during the 1976 USAC season and won two races.  For 1977 onward multiple teams had access to the DFX power plant and the engine won the first of its string of ten consecutive Indianapolis ‘500’ race victories in 1978.

Despite qualifying for the pole position, Mears in the #9 Penske PC-6 “Gould Charge” was far from dominant on May 28 1979 as the race was dominated by the Unser brothers Al and Bobby who between them led 174 of the 200 laps. Bobby Unser in the #12 Penske PC-7 “Norton Spirit” appeared destined for victory until his car’s Hewland transmission lost high gear on lap 181. Rick Mears led the final nineteen laps to score his first ‘500’ victory as the first winner in the history of the world’s greatest race to be born after World War Two.   
Rick Mears won the inaugural 1979 PPG Cup emblematic of the CART championship 
Penske drivers won it five more times before the ward was retired in 1999

Mears drove the PC-6 chassis in the “Trenton Twin Indy” races on June 10, then switched to the PC-7 chassis for the balance of the 1979 CART season and scored wins in the “Ditzler 150” at Trenton New Jersey and the “Rich’s (department stores) Indy Atlanta Classic” at Atlanta Motor Speedway on his way to capturing the first PPG Cup for Team Penske.

The restored PC-6, Penske’s second Indianapolis 500-mile race winner displayed at PRI 2016 is part of the Penske Racing Collection and is typically displayed in the Penske Racing Museum located in Scottsdale Arizona.
Photos by the author

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