Roger Penske's hunt for the Michelin man

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One of the most capable and influential racing ‘mechanics’ (an inadequate term) that I recall from my reporting days around the teams was Don Beresford of McLaren. He worked at Frazer Nash, Aston Martin, the Yeoman Credit/Bowmaker team with Cooper and Lola chassis, then at Lola Cars and Ford Advanced Vehicles before Bruce McLaren and Teddy Mayer invited him to join them at Colnbrook, as works manager. He remained a major player for McLaren well into the 1980s, and when he left in 1983 missing the small-group culture of decades past he became head of composites for Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander’s lndycar team, re-engineering and racing March cars. This morphed into Formula One Race Car Engineering, producing their 1985-86 HaasLola Fl cars. He then became Penske Cars Head of Composites in 1987 before retiring at the end of 1998.

Don died in 2008, but meantime his son Nigel had followed in his footsteps, becoming a Tyrrell race engineer through 1989-91. He moved to Penske Racing in 1992 in Reading, Pennsylvania “…as race engineer to my hero, Rick Mears. When Rick retired I worked with his replacement Paul Tracy. We had a very successful working relationship, and Paul narrowly lost out to Nigel Mansell in the 1993 CART Championship. At the end of 1994 Tracy left the team and I went back to Tyrrell (but)… having been with a successful, well-resourced team like Penske it was difficult to cope with the constantly hand-to-mouth life. When Tracy returned to Penske in 1996, Roger made me an ‘offer I couldn’t refuse’ and I went back, on the proviso I could live in the UK. I worked at Penske Cars as head of engineering under Nigel Bennett and then John Travis. When John left I became technical director of Penske Cars.”

In the mid-noughties Nigel was very closely involved in Penske’s collaboration with Porsche, building, developing and racing their DHL-liveried LMP2-category RS Spyders (pictured above) in the American Le Mans series.

Nigel recalls: “A vital part of this very successful project was the relationship with Michelin. We had one of their top guys, Vincent Barhe, assigned to look after all our tyre management affairs, both at the track and back in Clermont-Ferrand.

“Sports car racing is very important to Roger Penske. I always felt that for him NASCAR was ‘business’, lndycar (with the exception of the Indy 500) was ‘pleasure’ but sports cars were ‘passion’. RP started out racing sports cars, and he is still very much in touch with those roots. He takes the Indy 500 more seriously than anything, but would approach those relatively minor ALMS races with just as much focus.

“The biggest ALMS race is the Sebring 12 Hours. Our main competition was the Audi R10 turbodiesel. Although our LMP2 RS Spyder was nominally in a lower class than the Audis, we were typically able to give them a real run for their money on the tight, bumpy American tracks. On the grid at Sebring in 2007, Roger was wound up super-tight, sensing that we had a real chance against Audi.

“Everyone at Penske Racing is there because they want to work for Roger. He sets the standards he’s deep into his 70s, but nobody works harder or longer hours. He wants to know everything and you’d better have the answers. Don’t ever try to fudge him because he’ll know you’re fibbing…

“So, the cars were on the grid, ready for the big race. There were thousands of people crushing around the cars and crews. For some reason Roger decided to ensure our cars’ tyre pressures had been set correctly. Tension began to rise and the mechanics sensed that maybe now was a good time to go back and check the spares at the truck. Roger decided he needed Vincent from Michelin. He fixed one of the most junior mechanics with his full focus and called: ‘You! Where’s the Michelin man?’

“The young man swung around, spotted his target and bawled, ‘There! There’s the Michelin man!’ You can imagine the withering stare that followed as RP swung around to see the man, parading past, waving at the crowd in his Bibendum costume…”