THE MODERATOR: We’ve now been joined by vice chairman of Team Penske, Walt Czarnecki. We appreciate you spending some time with us in advance of this weekend’s race in Phoenix.
WALT CZARNECKI: You’re most welcome. Pretty exciting time for all us. I’m glad I could join Mr. Hendrick and Coach Gibbs in doing this.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll go to questions.
Q. There’s a lot that Roger Penske, we’ve run out of things that he hasn’t accomplished. This is a situation where he’s only done it once, Indianapolis 500 and Cup Series championship in the same year. How important would that be for the history of the organization to do it again?
WALT CZARNECKI: It really would be another hallmark in the tradition of the company.
Of course, last year Joey won the championship and Will Power won the INDYCAR championship. That was quite an achievement.
To do this, we didn’t win the INDYCAR championship, but the 500 is, as I said, quite an achievement. This would be a big deal, for sure.
Q. What Ryan is doing this year is similar to what Joey did last year, coming on strong in the right amount of time. With the fact that your setups are going to be similar to what Ryan had at Martinsville, how confident are you that Ryan could go out there and duplicate what Joey did last year?
WALT CZARNECKI: Well, I think the fact that we’ve seen – you make a good observation – that the 12 car team has been on an upward trajectory for these last 10 or 11 races, certainly since the Playoffs began.
You’re right, things are coalescing. Ryan had a good start to the season. I think he was eighth at Daytona, second at Phoenix in the spring, good run at Talladega in the spring, finished third. Went through a little of a bumpy patch. Things started to come together as we got towards the end of regular season and the Playoffs.
As I said, I think things are coming together well and we’re going to be utilizing all of our assets to ensure that momentum continues.
Q. You think about Blaney, he’s a little bit underestimated. He’s been really good. He’s been really strong the last couple of weeks. What do you as an organization see in him that he doesn’t get enough credit for?
WALT CZARNECKI: Well, first of all, that’s a great question. It’s hard for me to believe but this is Ryan’s eighth full season at the Cup Series level. Ryan has really gone through a maturation process this year. He’s had seasons, one season before, where he won three races. It seemed all to come together this year. He’s been able to meld that seven or eight years of experience with a good team and, as I said, I’m not a scientist, I can’t describe the chemistry to you but it’s all seemed to work here in the latter part of 2023.
I saw a real change in Ryan, particularly this year after he won the 600 on Memorial Day weekend. I saw a different approach. I saw a different I won’t say more serious but a more thoughtful perhaps approach to the sport and to racing than perhaps he had before. I think that’s part of that learning process.
Q. His crew chief seems to want to focus his passion during the race into a burning fire, I think that’s how it was described, that goes through the whole race. Do you know what they’re talking about?
WALT CZARNECKI: I’ve not heard that expression, but Jonathan Hassler, great part of our organization, is a very intense person. I can understand where he might characterize something like that, that burning fire, that passion, because Jonathan certainly has it. I think he’s carried it through to the entire team.
I’ve not heard that expression, but it sure makes a lot of sense in the results we’ve seen.
Q. Should we not underestimate Blaney in the finale at Phoenix?
WALT CZARNECKI: Not by any stretch. I spoke to one of your media colleagues here several weeks ago. He asked what I thought Blaney’s assessment would be, what would Blaney’s chances be. I said, Don’t count him out. Here we are at Phoenix, Don’t count him out.
Q. Typically we see crew chiefs become crew chiefs in another series before moving up to the Cup Series. Jonathan became crew chief immediately with the Wood Brothers, then moved to Team Penske. How it led to looking at him as a candidate and pairing him with Ryan, especially somebody who didn’t have as much experience, a younger driver?
WALT CZARNECKI: Well, fortunately Jonathan had a great career, a great record as a race engineer, so he was at the right hand of Todd Gordon and others as he rose through the ranks.
When this opportunity presented itself last year, he was the ideal candidate. We didn’t know if there was going to be a crew chief availability. Turned out that there was. He was the next person in line that we’d seen the potential in this guy. We’ve seen his work ethic. We’ve seen his understanding of how the sport operates, how to manage a race. He sat next to the best in the business.
When the time came to make that decision, he had all the credentials.
Q. With Ryan, how have you seen him grow and develop in the last year or two to where he’s not at this point beating himself with mistakes or not allowing certain things to happen and putting together races you thought he could?
WALT CZARNECKI: First of all, he’s a great racer. We know that. Perhaps it’s genetic in his case. Certainly it’s more than that. Certainly his vast experience.
2023 in my view, I use the term it’s been a growing up year in terms of his race management and understanding the patience sometimes it takes to be successful in this sport. He clearly understands the cars mechanically. He listens to what the crew chief advises him to do. They have a great working relationship.
When we meld all those things together, he’s had this growing up or maturation year. I see that really as a solid foundation for the rest of his career.
Q. Roger has accomplished so much. Few things to get other than getting another one of this or that. It would be understandable if he retired to Indianapolis Motor Speedway or went someplace and retired. What is it about him at this age, when he has every right in the world, that he still is involved in the race teams, something that’s a motivator?
WALT CZARNECKI: I could say you’ll see him at Phoenix on Sunday and can you ask him that question. I’ll tell you my perspective, since you asked me.
It’s his passion. As you know, Roger and I have been together as business partners and associates for 53 years. I’ve seen it for all those 53 or 54 years. He has not lost his enthusiasm for this sport, and consequently what it really means to our company. It’s really important for the rest of our businesses that we continue to perform on the racetrack. He takes that very, very seriously.
Plus he loves it. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you. I know the cliché is that he could pursue other hobbies, a retirement. That’s not going to happen. He’s not going to pursue a single-minded approach Indianapolis Motor Speedway as much as he loves that place. It is all of Team Penske, all of the things we are involved with, whether it’s our NASCAR Cup championship opportunity that’s been presented to us, IMSA this year or the INDYCAR SERIES. He’s going to stay involved as much as he can as long as he can.
Q. Team Penske obviously has been in this championship situation before with Brad and Joey. With Ryan, the team has been involved with since the beginning of his NASCAR career. What does it mean to you that somebody Penske has nourished as a homegrown talent make it to this championship stage?
WALT CZARNECKI: Well, it certainly means a lot. I think you touch on an important point. This is a championship, what we’re focusing on Ryan, he’s getting all the accolades that he justly deserves, Jonathan Hassler on that 12 car team. It’s an entire team effort.
I said to someone just the other day, if we have this opportunity, which now we do, we’re going to marshal all the resources of the team, all of our technical knowledge. I was on a phone call with the drivers and crew chiefs yesterday, beginning the strategizing of our plan for Phoenix.
It will be the culmination of everybody’s efforts this year. Ryan had been the tip of the spear, so to speak, but it will be a Team Penske effort.
As you said, he’s homegrown. When you think about it, Joey and Brad were to some extent. Neither started their careers with us, but they spent the majority of their careers with us. In any event, we’ve given each of those men the opportunity to perform and given them the opportunity and resources and assets to do that with.
Q. You mentioned this is Ryan’s eighth full season. We’ve seen him in the Round of 8 before. It was his ceiling. How big of a deal or how important was it for all of you that he has now taken this next step and broken through to get to Phoenix?
WALT CZARNECKI: I think you used the operative term there ‘breakthrough’. It’s given him the self-confidence. I looked at something the other day, he’s been in the final eight four times previously. He never entered the last elimination race above the cut line. That happened this year. That was part of that confidence building. Of course, to win at Martinsville really put him over the top.
I had several people comment to me about his demeanor after the race in the interviews, on the stage, the rest. Someone said, He looks like a champion. He really did.
Q. Confidence for him, do you think this is a good next step in the sense of when he was teammates with Joey and Brad, he saw them compete for championships multiple times, and Ryan hit the ceiling. Do you think this would be a good next step for him to feel like he is officially a leader, a Team Penske championship-caliber driver?
WALT CZARNECKI: He’s paid his dues. If he wins this championship on Sunday, he will have paid his dues with a flourish.
Joey being the senior person, Joey is still a great source of stability, information, assurance to both Austin and Ryan. He’s been a great aid to both of them.
I think you’re right. If he wins this championship on Sunday, and even if he doesn’t, the fact that he’s gotten to this point is really important for his future.
Q. Maybe give us some insight from the meeting the other day. How can Joey and Paul Wolfe help Ryan Blaney? What type of advice can they give about the championship race that will be most effective?
WALT CZARNECKI: That’s a great question because I referenced a minute ago the call that we had yesterday. I participated via Zoom with the drivers and the crew chiefs.
One of the first things that was discussed, that was on the agenda, was previous performances at Phoenix going back last year, the year before, perhaps the way you have to run the track. That’s being very, very specific as it relates to this coming week.
Joey offered up and Paul offered up some I won’t say techniques but advice on how he might consider doing it. The fact that he’s run very well there in the last couple of notwithstanding. He listened, questioned, and they were able to provide that information that he looked for. They volunteered it, by the way. Really made me feel good, again, because it made me feel that this truly is a team effort going into the weekend, just like Joey’s was last year as a matter of fact.
I was looking at Ryan’s performance at Phoenix last year at this race, he had a very strong car. I think he led over a hundred laps in that race. Pushed Joey as well. Wouldn’t surprise me to see that Joey is going to raise the bar a little bit, maybe Austin will, too, but that’s not saying that Kyle and William and Christopher aren’t going to do that. He’s going to have that kind of competition.
I think his teammates are going to help him there, as well. They’re going to push him.
Q. There’s some people that think Ryan could have won that race but wouldn’t dare go anywhere close to what Joey had at stake.
WALT CZARNECKI: We’ll never know. That was last year.
THE MODERATOR: Walt, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.
WALT CZARNECKI: You’re welcome.
Q. Best of luck this weekend in Phoenix.
WALT CZARNECKI: I thank everybody for their time and everything they do for this sport.