Weird and wonderful Indy cars: The Penske PC17

Published On November 30, 2016 » 10662 Views» By Marshall Pruett » Blogs, IMS History, Indy 500

Regular #SpeedRead readers will recall Marshall Pruett’s eight-part series on “Weird and Wonderful Cars of the ‘500’” that appeared in the weeks leading up to the 100th Running of the Indy 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Now, the feature continues with one car featured regularly.

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Penned by the great Nigel Bennett and built at Penske Racing’s factory in England, the PC17 was an “everything done a little bit better” car.

Radical advancements weren’t regular features on Bennett’s designs; stripped of paint and viewed from 20 feet, this 1988 Penske chassis would be hard to differentiate from a contemporary March or Lola (shown below with Bobby Rahal). Given those visual similarities, Bennett’s accumulative achievement in design with the PC17 is remarkable.

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Nose-to-tail improvements in downforce, drag, cornering ability and, most importantly, usability by its drivers made the PC17 an unstoppable force at Indianapolis. The tidy pushrod front suspension, with the dampers buried deep within the footwell, and the rocker-arm rear suspension fit perfectly into Bennett’s clean packaging with the car.

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In the engine bay, the 2.65-liter turbocharged Ilmor Chevy “A” motor was primed and ready for success after coming close to victory with Mario Andretti in 1987. Like every other aspect of the PC17, there was no wasted space; Bennett fashioned a slimline engine cover that was so heavily tapered, Ilmor was forced to cut and flatten the trailing edged of the turbo intake plenum to fit the Penske’s bodywork.

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And those wheel covers. Perfection. Simple, polished perfection. Two holes would be odd; four would be too many. Three is just right.

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Used to reduce drag in qualifying, “Rocket Rick” and the PC17’s slick wheel covers earned pole position with a new four-lap record of 219.198 mph and added a new single-lap record of 220.453 mph. And with that big lap, Bennett’s fine machine and Ilmor’s red-hot Chevy also became the first Indy car to break the 220 mph barrier in qualifying. With teammates Danny Sullivan and Al Unser in tow, the PC17 dominated time trials by sweeping the front row. How’s that for making a statement?!

As he explains in our special-edition podcast below, come Race Day, the wheel covers were traded for standard wheels until Mears struck upon an idea that might deliver the exact handling he was seeking. It didn’t come easily—not with Mario flying in a Lola-Chevy and trying to win his second Indy 500—but Mears and Penske prevailed, delivering Chevy’s first Indy 500 victory while adding his likeness to the Borg-Warner Trophy for the third time.

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The biggest gains, according to the man who used the superb PC17 to such devastating effect, came from the mysterious intangible known as “feel.” Listen to Mears as he explains what made the car different from its predecessors, and how that 1988 win stands out as one of his personal favorites:

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About The Author

Marshall Pruett

Marshall Pruett transitioned from more than 20 years as an open-wheel and sports car mechanic, engineer and team manager into his current role as a writer and reporter in 2006. Follow him @MarshallPruett [https://twitter.com/marshallpruett]
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