A fish out of water?

The Penske PC22 was designed to lap Indianapolis at 220-odd mph, among other things, yet one has recently been active within the statelier confines of Prescott and Goodwood…

By tradition, this is the kingdom of the diverse. Nestling close to the small village of Gotherington (population 1200), Prescott customarily welcomes everything from Austin 7s to the muscularly aero-efficient Goulds and suchlike that proliferate in the British Hillclimb Championship. Even so, a Marlboro-liveried Penske PC22 looks slightly out of place. It’s not just the striking looks, either, but the little details – a fading Dymo label that confirms the cockpit padding once supported the head of Emerson Fittipaldi, or a note on the steering wheel that confirms it was previously gripped by Al Unser Jr. A car, then, of some provenance.

Built at Penske’s old UK factory in Poole before heading off to its career in the States, the PC22 is here for a demonstration run at the Gloucestershire hill’s annual US-themed Autumn Classic, its third appearance since it returned to Britain two years ago. Earlier in the summer it had been shaken down during a high-speed parade at Brands Hatch’s American SpeedFest, while driver Jeremy Smith took it to second overall at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, beaten by Justin Law’s Jaguar XJR-12D for the sake of 0.09sec. At Prescott, though, there are a couple of hurdles: it can’t run in the rain, as it has but one set of rubber with very limited tread, and it doesn’t have enough steering lock to negotiate the tight left-hander leading into the return road at the course’s summit. Nor is it fitted with a reverse gear… In the end the weather relents and a compromise is struck, Smith completing a few short runs via a figure-of-eight loop at the bottom of the hill so the crowd can at least watch and hear the car in action.

BUILT BY one of the world’s largest motor sport corporations, and believed to have been tested by works drivers Fittipaldi, Unser and Paul Tracy before being sold on to Bettenhausen Racing (for whom Stefan Johansson finished 11th in the 1993 Indy 500 – a race Fittipaldi won), PC22 chassis no1 is now operated by a team running out of a garage attached to a family home in Selby – so how did it find its way from Indiana to Yorkshire?

The car is owned by Jeremy’s father Anthony – known to all and sundry as ‘Taff’. Steeped in the art of vintage aircraft restoration, but with a strong leaning towards historic cars (he currently races a Formula Junior Elva), Smith Sr was friends with the late Paul Morgan, co-founder of Ilmor Engineering, and knows his son Patrick, whose company Dawn Treader Performance restored the Penske PC26 featured in the February 2010 edition of Motor Sport.

“I’ve always admired the shape of Penske’s cars,” he says, “and have long thought the PC22 looked best of all. Patrick helped a great deal when I was looking around and an opportunity arose two years ago to buy one from a dealer in Indianapolis. It came as a show car, having belonged to Anthony Edwards – the actor who appeared in ER and played Goose in Top Gun. I believe it was in his front room for about 20 years. It came without an engine, so we had to buy that separately and Paul Knapton at XTec Engineering gave us a great deal of assistance.

“The original turbo was a Garrett, designed for trucks, but we’ve gone for a BorgWarner that’s the same size and is used on current Indycars. The way Paul has mapped the engine, there are no nasty surprises and the torque curve is quite linear. One of the things we couldn’t do was run the original Gen4 ECU, because it’s a slow system and you need old computers to talk to it. ECUs have come a long way since 1993, so through Paul we converted the engine to run with a MoTeC system, which is much easier from our perspective. We are doing this very much as a fun, family thing – myself, Jeremy and my sons-in-law, James Dean and Mark Herbert.

“I like building and running cars and get as much of a buzz from that as I do from actually racing. It might be a disadvantage in some respects, because once I’ve finished a new project I really don’t want to abuse it – but you have to do that if you want to be competitive. With the Penske, the arrangement is that Jeremy drives and I’ll be the grease monkey and team patron. We are also building a Group C2 Spice, though, and the plan is to share driving duties in that.”

There were one or two teething troubles during the Penske’s restoration, but to Anthony such things belong in the realm of the straightforward. “The engine wasn’t the same as the original,” he says, “and didn’t quite marry up to the gearbox, so there were a few things to change. But as our main interest is aerospace, we have access to all kinds of appropriate expertise when we need it.

“It took about a year and a half to get everything right, because this is a serious bit of kit – it will do 100mph in first gear and the 2.65-litre Ilmor-Chevy V8 puts out 790bhp at 14,000rpm, though we’ve limited it to 12,000 for the sake of longevity. It was important to do the job thoroughly and everything has been stripped down and rebuilt to the correct specification. The Penske shocks have all been serviced and everything is as new as we can make it. There are lots of similarities between how you assemble racing cars and aeroplanes, because you can’t afford to have anything go wrong, and Dawn Treader has given good advice that has been gratefully received.

“We’re getting accustomed to running on methanol, which is something we haven’t done before – I’ve sourced a supplier in Scotland and he delivers it to us. We reckon the Penske returns about two gallons per mile, so it has quite a thirst. We certainly weren’t used to the heat the exhaust generates when running on methanol – as soon as we switch off we have to cover the engine with wet towels, to prevent the paint blistering.

“We have run a couple of late 1970s Formula 1 cars in the past, but nothing that comes close to this. We used to own the March 2-4-0 six-wheeler, which I found as a bag of bits in Rotherham. It took a bit of time to get that running properly. We did the Festival of Speed twice with it, Jeremy taking one class win, and a few of the Historic Sports Car Club’s Derek Bell Trophy [Formula Libre] races. It was starting to become more competitive, but we felt we’d reached the limit of what we could achieve. When a Swiss collector made us an offer, we decided to accept and that helped us to fund the Penske.”

Have there been any significant obstacles to restoration?

“Not really,” he says. “It has just been a series of little things – a matter of keeping our heads down and paying attention to detail, then one day you look up and it’s all done. We’re short of wheels – we have only four and they built eight PC22s in all, so I’m sure there must be a few in the States – if anybody has any PC22 wheels, let us know! There is a chance we might in future be able to acquire chassis no5, which would help us build up a parts inventory. These aren’t particularly expensive cars in America, but what you get for your money in terms of performance and build quality… it’s amazing. Look at the suspension welding, for instance: it’s beautiful.”

Spoken like an engineer.

JEREMY IS similarly positive about the way things feel from his perspective. He competed in junior single-seaters (and placed third in Class B of the 1999 British F3 Championship) and the UK Porsche Carrera Cup before later stepping up to historic F1 cars, firstly with a Surtees TS20 and then the March, but nothing quite prepared him for the current challenge.

“It does feel insanely fast,” he says, “a bit like sitting at the front of a rollercoaster and holding a steering wheel. It has loads of torque and spins its wheels in most gears, despite which – and this is going to sound like a contradiction – it actually feels quite tractable, and very forgiving. It’s awesome and has loads of grip once it gets into its stride, even at somewhere like Goodwood. We crossed the finishing line at about 150mph at the Festival of Speed and probably pulled about the same along the top straight at Brands.”

He’s smiling as he talks.

“I feel like I’m grinning every time I get in it,” he says. “At the kind of cornering speeds that would cause the March’s back end to step out, this doesn’t. I’m sure I could have gone quicker at Goodwood, but it’s a matter of building confidence. I was a bit gutted afterwards – it was great to finish second, but to come so close with not much preparation… We don’t get many opportunities to test and each time we go out we discover something new. It is a very steep learning curve.”

Despite the bewildering array of motor racing championships in the UK, there isn’t an obvious slot for a Penske PC22. “We could do the BOSS GP [Big Open Single Seater] series in Europe,” Anthony says, “but that’s not really the objective. I bought this car because I love the engineering and the way it has been built.

“We weren’t expecting a great deal at the Festival of Speed – we had no idea how the car would perform and Jeremy hadn’t raced for a couple of years – but we were delighted with the way things went, especially as we’re a very small team and there are a few professional outfits there. To mix with them and do well was great – but we’re sure it can go quicker.

“We’ve been invited to take part in an exhibition event at next year’s Indy 500, which we’re looking at, and then a week later there’s a competitive race for historic Indycars on the infield circuit at Indianapolis. We’d like to do that, too, and then it will be a matter of hurrying back to the UK for Goodwood – if we’re invited again, of course.

“I’d also like to run the car competitively at Harewood next season, if an opportunity arises, because that’s a reasonably local venue for us and would be very convenient. British hillclimbs are mostly rather tight, though, as we’ve seen here at Prescott, so we’d have to make sure it can negotiate all the corners. Steering lock is obviously limited and we have to bear in mind that this is a 200mph car – a bit of a guided missile.”

Or, as Jeremy puts it, “I’m fairly sure ours is not a typical family garage.”