Will Power admits that after the 2008 IndyCar Series season he was down but not out.
“I was concerned that I wouldn’t have a ride because the Surfer’s Paradise race was going away and to my sponsor, Craig Gore, that race was crucial for him to stay in IndyCar,” Power recalled. “When I was at Surfer’s I felt that was the end. I even talked to a couple of V8 SuperCar teams back in Australia.”
But deep inside of Power’s soul was a convincing feel that thought otherwise.
“I thought, ‘No, I can’t,’” Power admitted. “I worked so hard to become a paid driver first in Champ Car and then IndyCar. I felt I had unfinished business and thought it was worth the risk to hang out in America and see what I could get.
“Then the Penske thing came about.”
The “Penske thing” was an opportunity born out of adversity.
Team owner Roger Penske was faced with the prospect that his star driver, Helio Castroneves, would be unable to begin the 2009 season while he was embroiled in a tax evasion trial in Miami. Penske stood behind Castroneves, but had a contingency plan in place.
That meant he needed a fast driver.
“Tim Cindric (team president) and I sat down with a couple of drivers back when we saw Helio’s situation start to look like it was going to take some time to reach a conclusion,” Penske recalled. “We told Will that if Helio gets out before the first race then we don’t have a deal, but here is what we will do for you — give you an opportunity to run in the Indy 500. He would get a good ride for the Indy 500. Then we would see how things would go that if we picked up sponsorship we would run a third car in some races.”
Power, who admits he is sometimes his biggest critic, could not believe the sudden turn of events that brought him to the most successful team in IndyCar Series history.
“I was floored when I got the call,” Power said. “I called Tim Cindric and told him I was a free agent and didn’t have a ride for 2009. He said he had to get me up to Detroit to meet Roger Penske. That was very nerve-wracking. I went away from that interview not really sure what they thought of me.
“Talking is not my strong point — convincing and talking.
“They called me before I left for Australia for Christmas and they told me I had a ride. That was awesome.”
Power realized it was a ride with conditions; that if Castroneves was acquitted Power would have to step out of the car. But the upside to the deal made it a dream opportunity.
“To me, it was still worth taking the risk to be on this team,” Power said. “It didn’t seem like a risk to me, just to get my foot in the door and show them how I work. In the races that I did, I did the best that I could.
“At that point I was just guaranteed testing and wasn’t even guaranteed to race. They said, ‘Look, we’ll run you at the Indianapolis 500 no matter what.’ Man, to get to run with Penske at the Indy 500 — that’s worth it. If you are ever going to have a chance at winning it there it was.”
Power got the contract, signed it and sent it back.
After finishing fifth in the Indianapolis 500, Team Penske held true to its word and put together a limited race schedule for Power. The highlight was his victory at Edmonton last July.
“It was one of those weekends won on actual speed and not on circumstances,” Power said. “I had to push so hard in qualifying to be on the pole. I did a really good lap in qualifying and that was very satisfying. Then to win from the pole and get held up by backmarkers and have those guys on my gearbox and keep it cool, it was one of those races where I felt this is how racing should feel; that you have to fight for it.”
When IndyCar arrived at Infineon Raceway at Sonoma, Calif., Power was considered one of the leading contenders in the race.
Everything appeared to be going in his favor until he drove over a hill in practice and saw Nelson Philippe’s car stalled on the track. Philippe had spun out and his car had blocked the track. Power had no warning, his car was at speed and he slammed into Philippe’s car.
The impact was so severe Power broke two vertebrae in his lower back and he was out for the season.
“I broke my back but my focus was never not getting back in the car; it was I have to get better to get back in the car,” he said. “At some point in your career you have a setback, but you have to get over it as quick as you can and get on with it.”
Despite the injury, Penske was already sold on Power. The team convinced one of its NASCAR sponsors, Verizon, to switch to IndyCar and back a full-time effort for Power in 2010 giving Penske his first full-time three-car effort since 1994 when Al Unser, Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy won 12 of the 16 CART races that season.
Power’s impressive start in 2010 — winning the first two races of the season — is reminiscent of that dominant team in 1994.
“Will has the talent,” Penske said. “We have given him good equipment. He has good stuff and can get input from Helio and Ryan Briscoe. Only one of them can win each weekend, but Will has done a great job. He is passionate about the sport. He doesn’t have a lot of other things on his windshield. He thinks about going racing every day and that is key to us. We need to win races and see how it works out.”
With Power, Castroneves and Briscoe, Penske is bringing three gunfighters to the IndyCar shootout.
But despite his incredible start, Power realizes there are many more battles that need to be waged.
“It’s a good start to the season, but it’s a very small percentage of what we have ahead of us,” Power said. “It’s going to be a tough year. A lot of guys are very quick and we have to keep at it. It’s only race two of 17. To win the championship you have to keep at it every weekend. You have to have a chance to win and if you can’t you have to make the most of it.”
Power has struck fear into the other drivers, including his two teammates.
“We just have to stop Will Power,” Castroneves said. “He’s got too much power. We have to stop that.”
Briscoe may not have Castroneves’s verbal flare, but his statement is just as convincing.
“It’s going to take a lot to catch him,” Briscoe said.
What may be more difficult than catching Power is getting to know the fast driver with the catchy name. He understands that many racing fans in the United States know little about him, that they truly don’t know his personality.
“I think I’m a little quiet on race weekends,” he admitted. “Away from the track I can be a bit more talkative and funny. I’m very focused on race weekend and down to business. You are here to work and that is what I do. The more comfortable I am with my situation the more you are yourself. That just comes with time.
“I’m starting to feel pretty comfortable. This is my first full season with Penske so I can’t be a maniac, whatever that means.”