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Left: The Locomobile Type 1906, "Old 16", driven by George Robertson on its way to winning the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island.

Center: Action during the 1916 Vanderbilt Cup event at Santa Monica with William Bolden (#12) leading Omar Toft.

Book Review
by Russell Jaslow

Beast: The Top Secret Ilmor-Penske Engine that Shocked the Racing World at the Indy 500
by Jade Gurss
Octane Press
ISBN: 978-10-937747-33-6. List Price: $29.95.

Beast Cover ImageThere was a time when the Indianapolis 500 was just as much about innovation as it was about racing. From the ubiquitously told story of Ray Harroun's rearview mirror to the turbine and beyond (and everything else in between), Indy meant pushing the technological, design, and power envelopes.

The last time such an effort was made which would send everyone into overdrive was an engine Emerson Fittipaldi nicknamed Beast, formerly known as the Mercedes-Benz 500I, derogatorily referred to as "that Penske pushrod." It was 1994 just before the sport of Indy car racing would be torn asunder when Ilmor and Penske teamed up in one of racing's greatest cloak and dagger stories to take advantage of a new rule (some would call loophole) before anyone else had the same idea.

Finally, 20 years later, Jade Gurss tells us the behind the scenes story of that great accomplishment in his aptly named new book, Beast: The Top Secret Ilmor-Penske Engine that Shocked the Racing World at the Indy 500.

Mercedes-Benz 500I Cutaway Image
The Mercedes-Benz 500I, a.k.a., the Beast, in a cutaway illustration by artist Tony Matthews.

Like the rest of us at the time, Gurss was merely a spectator at that 1994 race. However, he soon entered the PR world where one of his jobs was working as publicist for Mercedes-Benz and Ilmor Engineering from 1996-1999. While there, he heard the stories which seemed to flow better after a few rounds at the pub. When Ilmor co-founder, Paul Morgan, died, he felt the urgency to once and for all tell the complete story of the Beast.

And tell it he does. With a page turning writing style, his inside contacts, interviews with all the players on all sides of the equation, Gurss provides a rare complete inside look to a major development cycle. From the initial decision making to the design to the buyers to the manufacturing to the supplier issues to the building to the testing to the marketing to the naming rights to the unveiling and ultimately to the real world application. And all the obstacles and failures in between. All the while keeping the entire project under the veil of secrecy.

Penske PC23 Cutaway with Mercedes 500I Image
The Penske PC23 chassis and the Mercedes-Benz 500I in a cutaway illustration by artist Tony Matthews. (Photos courtesy of the publisher.)

For all those racing fans who always wondered (which is pretty much all racing fans) what exactly went on behind the scenes of the Mercedes push rod engine, this is a must read. For all those who wonder how Penske constantly gets the Unfair Advantage, this is a must read. For all those who wonder just how a racing engine manufacturer, chassis maker, and team operate, this is a must read.

The one thing missing in this book is a proper epilogue. Just as we all wondered how this program was pulled off in the first place, there was another great mystery which occurred after the 1994 victory -- what caused the colossal failure in 1995. Gurss briefly mentions how Paul Tracy found the problem when he was rehired after 1995, but never explains what the solution was. Many fans have always wondered did the extreme power of the Mercedes-Benz 500I hide a fundamental handling problem with the PC23 chassis which was unmasked the following year? Gurss never answers that.

However, Gurss does answer all the other questions anybody has concerning the 1994 surprise that shook the racing world, the last time racing fans got to enjoy Indy for what it was originally intended for. And for that, we should all be grateful.

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