Roger Penske took a tough stance this week by suspending two senior leaders and two engineers ahead of the Indianapolis 500 as punishment for a cheating scandal that has engulfed his IndyCar team.

The issue centers on Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden’s illegal use of his car’s push-to-pass system in his March 10 season-opening victory at St. Petersburg, Florida. IndyCar stripped Newgarden of the win and teammate Scott McLaughlin of his third-place finish, docking both and fellow Penske driver Will Power 10 points each and hitting all three with $25,000 fines.

The Penske suspensions are the latest fallout from an incident that is unusual for IndyCar (first disqualification in 29 years) and for Penske, the IndyCar series owner and motorsports giant whose image has generally been considered one of the most impeccable in auto racing.

WHAT HAPPENED?

The push-to-pass software provides extra horsepower for a brief amount of time depending on the track. IndyCar controls the system from race control and deactivates it during starts and restarts.

Team Penske installed a version of the system on its cars while testing hybrid engines last August that allowed push-to-pass to be used on starts and restarts. Penske told The Associated Press this week the coding was not reverted back to its legal form before the March 10 race.

That meant the three Penske drivers hit the track able to push the button for the extra horsepower during starts and restarts.

IndyCar didn’t catch it at St. Pete and in fact did not become aware of the problem until six weeks later, just before the third race of the season.

In the aftermath, McLaughlin said he hit the button once, out of habit, and the less than 2 seconds it was utilized gained him no on-track position. Newgarden has admitted to using it three times; he says he assumed a rule had been changed. Power did not use the system.

HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?

Penske has been adamant there was no “malicious intent” to cheat, and chalked up the oversight as a breakdown of both processes and communication at Team Penske.

There was sharp skepticism from other team owners and drivers, who wondered how an entire pit crew would not be aware its driver was using P2P against the rules during a race. Engine data would have shown usage.

IndyCar is also trying to figure out how it missed it during the first two races of the season; it was only noticed April 21 when a glitch knocked out the software at Long Beach on all cars except the Penske entries.

THE FALLOUT

To counter the growing outrage, Penske suspended team president Tim Cindric, team managing director Ron Ruzewski and engineers Luke Mason and Robbie Atkinson.

Cindric is Newgarden’s strategist and Mason is his engineer. Both will miss this week’s race on Indy’s road course and the showcase Indianapolis 500 later this month. Ruzewski is Power’s strategist and Atkinson is his engineer — and the employee who uploaded the manipulated software last August.

McLaughlin did not have any members of his crew suspended.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Penske has won the Indy 500 a record 19 times and returns to historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway — a track he owns — with Newgarden seeking to defend his victory. But it is not insignificant that he benched Cindric, considered the top strategist in the series, for the biggest race in the world.

Cindric has been with Penske since 1999 and was named team president in 2006. His son, Austin, won the Daytona 500 for Penske in 2022.

At the height of the pandemic, many teams developed “war rooms” at their race shops where employees could contribute electronically and during races. Cindric and Ruzewski could theoretically still handle some strategy remotely.

WHAT’S NEXT?

IndyCar said it has reviewed all Team Penske data from 2023 and found no anomalies and all entries were compliant.

The series said it will create “a more obvious and clear infraction indicator is being installed for Push to Pass to create heightened awareness.” It is also requiring all competitors send their data files to the series following each race.

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AP Auto Racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing