INDIANAPOLIS – For Roger Penske, it was No. 18. But for John Menard, after decades of trying, it was No. 1.
Simon Pagenaud’s maiden victory Sunday in the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge expanded Team Penske’s record to 18 wins in the race. Menard, who sponsored Pagenaud’s No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet, competed in 15 Indy 500s as a team owner in the 1980s, ‘90s and 2000s without winning.
As a sponsor, though, he finally found victory.
“John and I have been around here a long time, haven't we?” Penske said after Pagenaud prevailed in a thrilling duel with Alexander Rossi. “I've watched him and he watched me, and a couple years ago, we said, “Look, maybe we'd do better together.’”
Menard first entered the 500 as a team owner in 1980 with Herm Johnson driving the car, but Menard’s team didn’t qualify for the race until 1984 (Johnson started ninth). After that, Menard’s team was a fixture at Indy, but his best finish came in 1992 with Al Unser, who finished third in a Buick-powered Lola.
“This was really, really special,” Menard said Sunday. “(I’ve) been trying to win this thing for 40 years. … There's a lot of history here, a lot of memories. It's a journey, not a destination sometimes. But this is a good destination.”
The billionaire owner of the Menards hardware chain, Menard merged his NTT IndyCar Series team with Panther Racing following the 2003 season, then eventually ceased operating following the 2005 season.
However, Menard continued his involvement in motorsports through sponsorships in INDYCAR and NASCAR.
“It took a couple of years,” Penske said during the postrace press conference before turning to address Menard. “But John, to see the Menards logo and certainly your excitement and commitment to the sport for so many years is terrific, and we (were able to) bring home a winner with you and you with our guys. Just tremendous.”
Menard’s son, Paul, is a regular in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series and the Menards logo has been a featured lately on Pagenaud’s car. After finally being part of a winning Indy 500 effort, Menard said he wants to do it again.
“You ever watch that movie called ‘The Candidate’ when that guy works and works and works and finally gets elected?” Menard said of the 1970s film starring Robert Redford. “After the election, he … gazed into the mirror and said, “What the hell do I do now?’ That's the way I feel. We'll go try to win another one.”
In the days leading up to Pagenaud’s May 11 victory in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, rumors surfaced about Pagenaud’s future with Team Penske. After winning the IGP and now the 500, Penske indicated Pagenaud’s future with the team is safe.
“That was scuttlebutt. I think that's a good word for it,” Penske said. “But what he did this month, certainly he achieved records in his own personal life and certainly what he had expected to, and the run today, it's a history-book run for me when we think about some of the races – an opportunity to be in the winner's circle, so he did a great job.”
When asked if Pagenaud will return to the team in 2020, Penske said, “Absolutely.”
Team Penske has won three of the last five Indy 500s and eight of the last 19. Penske, 82, isn’t slowing down.
For a moment, however, he took time to reflect on his accomplishments at Indy.
“I came here in '51 with my dad, and we put teams together,” Penske said. “We got commitments to sponsors like John, and we've become almost a family, everyone. We work together because when you walk out of that garage this morning, only one guy can win. But we won as a team today.
“Look, the success here is amazing, but you can't do it without the best people. … We had over 700 years of experience in our pit this weekend and this month. So that's what makes the difference.”