INDIANAPOLIS 500 : Twenty Years Later, This Old Wildcat Remains in the Hunt

Times Staff Writer

Pat Patrick’s race cars are no longer Wildcats, but the venerable Indy car owner is still wildcatting.

The thrill is the same, Patrick says, if you strike oil or gas at the end of a hole two miles deep as it is if your car takes the checkered flag at the Indianapolis 500.

U.E.--for Ueal Eugene--Patrick, 60, of Jackson, Mich., knows both feelings well.


His cars driven by Gordon Johncock took the checkered flag here in 1973 and 1982.

And wildcatting has been a way of life for Patrick for more than 30 years, but he’s still on the lookout for live holes. Last year he scored with two rich strikes in the middle of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

“The competition is fierce, I mean really fierce, in both,” Patrick said while relaxing in his garage at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “It’s so intense, so rare to score a hit when you’re drilling a wildcat hole or racing in the 500. You’re bucking the toughest odds imaginable. It gives you a tremendous sense of accomplishment when it happens.”

Patrick, in his 20th season as an Indy car owner, hopes to win a third Indy 500 Sunday. His driver, two-time world Formula One champion Emerson Fittipaldi of Brazil, will start on the outside of the front row in a Penske PC-18 powered by a turbocharged Ilmor Chevrolet V-8 engine.

“This is the first time since 1976 we have been on the front row,” Patrick said. “Emerson is very, very bright. Some people think he’s cautious. I say he’s crafty. If a man is good, he’s good. I say Emerson is damned good.”

Fittipaldi won world championships in 1972 and 1974, before he was 28, and retired in 1980. Four years later, he left retirement to race an Indy car in the Long Beach Grand Prix, then joined Patrick’s team later in the season.

He has won six of the 73 Indy car races he has driven, among them the 1985 Michigan 500, and finished second to Rick Mears in last year’s Indianapolis 500.

“We had the fastest car on the track at the end of the race last year,” Patrick said. “Emmo made 14 pit stops during the race when the other finishers made eight or 10. Even with that, we finished only seven seconds back of Mears, and we were gaining.

“The kind of a day it was, Emmo had to come in once after a bird hit him in the helmet.”

Curiously, the first three finishers last year--Mears, Fittipaldi and Al Unser--are the three in Sunday’s front row. All will be in 1989 model Penske PC-18s.

A lot has been made of Patrick’s purchasing two new cars from Roger Penske for Fittipaldi. Racing teams just don’t sell their latest model car to competitors. Year-old cars, yes, but not state-of-the-art equipment. Patrick sees nothing unusual about the transaction.

“Roger and I have been good friends for a long time,” he said. “Maybe it’s not a well-known fact, but I am the second-largest stockholder in the Penske Corp., so why shouldn’t I get a couple of Penske’s cars.”

From 1975 through 1983, Patrick built his own race cars, appropriately called Wildcats. Johncock was driving one when he beat Mears by a scant 0.16 seconds in 1982 in the closest race in Indy history.

“When we found we could buy a competitive car from March cheaper than we could build one, we quit building our own cars,” Patrick said. “When we found that Penske was building a better car than March, we decided to buy Penskes.”

In wildcatting, as well as motor racing, there are more failures than successes.

Patrick drilled 18 dry holes before hitting his first gusher after founding Patrick Petroleum Corp. 25 years ago.

And he had 41 entries in Indy car races before the Patrick Racing Team won its first, with Johncock in 1973.

Johncock, who also won a United States Auto Club national driving championship for Patrick in 1976, will be in Sunday’s 500, but not in one of Patrick’s cars. Johncock, in his 22nd Indy 500, will be driving for the Hemelgarn team.

“The similarities in drilling for oil and running a racing team are remarkable,” Patrick said. “Both demand a tremendous amount of technology and homework. Then, after all the preparation and attention to detail, you need a hell of a lot of luck.

“Look at three years ago here when Kevin Cogan (a Patrick driver) was leading and had the race in hand when a yellow caution flag came out. That gave Bobby Rahal a chance to catch up and he beat Cogan on the restart. Without the yellow, Cogan’s the winner. With it, the luck went Rahal’s way.”

Patrick cars have finished second three times at Indy in the last decade. Mario Andretti was runner-up to Bobby Unser in the controversial 1981 race, when Unser took the checkered flag but was disqualified and Andretti declared the winner. Four months later, Unser was reinstated as the winner.

A Patrick hallmark has been his knack for raising money.

“I’ll admit, I have been pretty good at it, or maybe I’ve been lucky,” he said.

When Patrick Petroleum was hard hit by the global drop in oil prices several years ago, Patrick rescued his failing company with a $200-million arrangement that helped it move back into the forefront of independent oil companies.

When his racing team fell on hard times in 1983-84 with a series of crashes that injured four drivers, Patrick landed as a sponsor one of the world’s biggest advertisers, Phillip Morris’ Marlboro.

“We’ve had five good years with Marlboro, but the partnership is up this year. We’re actively looking for a new sponsor for next year. You can’t run an Indy car program without one these days. Marlboro is going to Penske (as sponsor of both of Penske’s cars). That frees up Miller, but I don’t know what they’re going to do, or what Emmo will do, either. His contract with Marlboro is up this year, too.”

A win Sunday would be particularly satisfying for Patrick, as he is, by his admission, “either phasing out, or cutting back, I’m not sure which just yet. “I’d like to win Indy again, and win the championship one more time, but your perceptions change as you grow older. You watch your children growing, doing their own thing, and you realize it’s time to find other things to do than running around from race track to race track.”

Toward that end, he has sold an interest in his team to Chip Ganassi, one of his former drivers whose promising racing career ended for all intents and purposes when he suffered head injuries in a high-speed accident off the second turn in the 1984 Michigan 500.

“Chip used to drive for me and we retained a friendly relationship, so when he tried to buy Dan Cotter’s team and the deal fell through, I suggested that he buy into my team.”

Ganassi, 31, bought into the team before the start of the 1988 season and this year became its executive vice president.

“It couldn’t have worked out better for me, and I hope for Pat, too,” Ganassi said. “Pat doesn’t want to retire tomorrow and the fact is, I couldn’t run the race team right now by myself. We’re partners, and we’re going to have some fun and win some races.”

Winning and losing aside, Patrick’s legacy to auto racing is his founding and guidance, with Penske, of the Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc. “Without qualification, I say that the Indy car series is the most prestigious in the world, and without CART it never would have reached that stature. It was floundering under USAC before Roger and I sat down and formed CART in 1978.”

After several years of friction between the two organizations, CART emerged as the sanctioning body of all Indy races except the Indianapolis 500, which remains under the USAC banner. “I have nothing against NASCAR or Formula One, and I know they have their supporters, but as far as I’m concerned we have no competition as to being the best racing circuit anywhere,” Patrick said.

Now that CART is firmly established with a $17-million series, Patrick is looking toward the future with his own racing baby, the American Racing Series. The ARS is designed to develop drivers for the Indy car series.

“The way the Indy car series is structured now, with ovals, big ovals, road courses and street circuits, ARS is the only true training ground. Racing has become so diversified that you can’t come up as a specialist in one type of racing and be prepared properly. Fellows like Johncock, Pancho Carter and Johnny Rutherford, for instance, were great oval drivers, but they couldn’t convert to road racing, and half our schedule is on road-type circuits. I tried to convert Sammy Swindell from sprint cars to Indy cars a few years ago, but he just couldn’t get the hang of it.”

In the ARS, in its fourth year, all drivers are in Wildcat-March chassis powered by Buick V-6 engines. “ARS hasn’t been accepted as well as I had anticipated, but I’m quite pleased at this year’s series,” Patrick said. “We are running in 12 of the 15 sites the Indy cars run and we have a fine group of young drivers like Parnelli Jones’ boy, P.J., Danny Ongais’ son, Brian, and Roger Mears’ son, Roger Jr. Tony George is also driving in the series.”

George is the grandson of the late Tony Hulman and is heir to the family-owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Escalating costs are Patrick’s chief concern for the Indy car series.

“You take the four top teams here--Penske, Patrick, Haas and Galles--and it costs in the neighborhood of $5 million per car to run the full series,” he said. “And that doesn’t include your capital investment in things like a dyno, tractor- trailer, garage, machine shop and things like that. And after all that, there’s no guarantee anything good will come out of it. Like I said, it’s a high-risk game.”

Spoken like a true wildcatter.