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Clive Howell – the man who was Penske perfect

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Clive Howell – the man who was Penske perfect
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Jun 14, 2019, 12:10 AM

Last winter, Team Penske said farewell to one of its IndyCar team’s cornerstones, as Clive Howell rode into the sunset to enjoy retirement after 39 years of service to The Captain. David Malsher persuades the normally media-shy Howell to talk about himself, while others add their appreciations for the guy who became a template for ‘The Penske Way.’

There was something different about Team Penske’s IndyCar team at the start of 2019 and it was hard to pinpoint at first. It wasn’t the performance of the cars on track – they remained fast, the driver line-up was the same as the year before, and the liveries were familiar too.

But if you studied the Penske garages hard between or during test sessions, it would eventually have dawned on any regular onlooker that there was a notable absentee. Where was that short mustachioed guy, the one who always looked busy, and seemed to avoid making eye contact with anyone not wearing Penske logos?

Well, that man was Clive Howell, general manager, and despite appearing to have stopped ageing soon after the age of 50, he retired at the end of the 2018 season aged 63. This year, for the first time since 1979, Roger Penske started a season without this Surrey, UK-born human dynamo in his ranks. Perhaps that explains why The Captain himself still speaks of Howell in the present tense.

“Clive has been an important part of Team Penske for nearly four decades,” Penske told Motorsport.com. “His work ethic, his focus and his attention to detail helped him stand out when he joined Penske Cars in England in the late ’70s. His leadership helped continue the growth of our IndyCar program and his track record is remarkable – he was part of 15 Indianapolis 500 victories with Team Penske. Although he’s retired, Clive is still a big part of our team and he always will be.”

Tim Cindric, team president, added: “Clive began his career when mechanics had to know how to make the cars and put them together. He truly helped establish ‘The Penske Way’ of doing things.”

Neither of their statements is surprising: it’s easy to imagine Howell as a general leading troops into battle, winning, yet content to return without fanfare. Similarly his disciplined and zero-bullshit approach would also work wonders back at base.

Howell’s business-like approach to the business of motorsport – get on with the job and do it to the best of one’s ability – means he tended not to regard one team member as more important than another, and he thus took a lot of convincing that he was worthy of a story here. Finally, thankfully, he acquiesced…

Born in 1955, Howell left school aged 16 to serve an apprenticeship at the British Aircraft Corporation [which in 1977 merged with Hawker-Siddeley and Scottish Aviation to form British Aerospace] at Brooklands, Surrey, and became a qualified tool-maker. But his mother was secretary at Motor Racing Developments, the company formed by Sir Jack Brabham and Ron Tauranac and bought by Bernie Ecclestone at the end of 1971, and even while Clive had still been at school, she got him in at the ground level there, cleaning parts. When he left BAC, he joined Brabham as a junior mechanic.

“I joined when Gordon Murray was chief designer, Herbie Blash and Charlie Whiting were still there, and we were running the Alfa Romeo flat-12 engine. Bit of a disaster – the only real success was Gordon’s fan-car that Niki Lauda won with at Anderstorp – and before the end of the ’79 season, we’d bailed on Alfa and gone back to Cosworth. I was working on Nelson Piquet’s car that year – he was quick as a rookie right away, kept Niki on his toes, but that car never finished.

Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT48 Alfa Romeo, Hockenheim 1979.

Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT48 Alfa Romeo, Hockenheim 1979.

Photo by: LAT Images

“Herbie wanted me to stay on as chief mechanic for 1980, but by then I’d had a call from Derrick Walker, who’d I’d overlapped with just for a short period at Brabham before he moved to Roger Penske’s F1 team. When RP quit F1 and decided to focus on Indy cars, Derrick went with him to America. So when I got a call from Derrick asking me if I’d be interested in working for Penske in the States, I thought about it in quite simple terms: I liked going to Watkins Glen, I liked going to Long Beach, but I didn’t know anything about the big bit in between! So I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll go for a couple of years, travel around America, see what it’s all about.’

“So first I moved down to Penske UK, in Dorset, working under the tutelage of Nick Goozee and Geoff Ferris [designer] as a fabricator until the season started. Then I headed off to the States for 1980 as a mechanic on Bobby Unser’s car and working out of Penske’s base in Reading, Pennsylvania. I went back to the UK to work for Penske Cars in the off-season, returned to the U.S. for ’81, and then at Indy I met Mary, who’d become my wife. Bobby’s wife of the time, Marsha, had introduced us, we’d been on a double date, and it went from there. Again I went back to the UK in the offseason but after that, I never worked there again, and America became my home.

“I went from being mechanic for Bobby, to then leading the test team, working as crew chief on various cars, and ran the shop for a while…Then when Derrick left at the end of ’87 to run the new Porsche team, there was a bit of a shake-up, and Roger put Chuck Sprague in charge and I was Chuck’s right-hand man until he was put in charge of the Marlboro Racing School. I then ran the race team until the Tim Cindric era started [in ’99], and that’s been good for everybody there; he’s a very accomplished guy. And I enjoyed being team manager, and general manager and all the other things that went with it.”

By anyone’s standards, 39 years is an extraordinarily long time to stay at one team, and Howell says he could never have foreseen establishing such roots when he signed up.

Bobby Unser's Penske PC9B-Cosworth wins the 1981 Indianapolis 500.

Bobby Unser's Penske PC9B-Cosworth wins the 1981 Indianapolis 500.

Photo by: IndyCar Series

“I knew some guys who’d gone to work for RP,” he says, “and everyone told me he was a great guy to work for, it was a good environment and so on. But that’s all I had: I mean, there are no guarantees in this business, are there? But once I was in, I didn’t want to be one of those people who bounced around from team to team. Some people do that and maybe earn a little more money but they also go into the off-season wondering where the next paycheck is coming from because they’re looking for their next job. That wasn’t for me. I like the security, and in this business, working for Roger is about as close as you can get to a secure job.”

Unsurprisingly, Howell doesn’t like the way IndyCars have become spec in all but engine and shock/dampers. For him, job satisfaction came from two directions. One was “doing the oddball stuff when we felt as an engineering team we could really make a difference. Running that pushrod 209ci Mercedes for Indy in 1994 was great fun but it felt like Anderstorp ’78 with the Brabham fan-car – we do the job, we win, and the authorities ban it right away!”

The second aspect he misses is the innovation and problem-solving from engineers working directly with the drivers.

He explains: “When I first came over, you could find big chunks of time through engineering. You’d have Bobby Unser dreaming up something, and we’d be fabricating new underwings in the garage at midnight, and you’d be looking at it saying, ‘Yeah, that looks about right, let’s try that!’ The only proof you’d have was when it was on the racetrack, and Bobby or Rick [Mears] would set a time and come in and tell you how it felt.

Pocono 1984, with Rick Mears' Penske-run March (6) leading Mario Andretti's Newman/Haas-run Lola (6) and Tom Sneva in the Mayer March. Howell misses the era of multiple chassis manufacturers and more engineering freedom for teams.

Pocono 1984, with Rick Mears' Penske-run March (6) leading Mario Andretti's Newman/Haas-run Lola (6) and Tom Sneva in the Mayer March. Howell misses the era of multiple chassis manufacturers and more engineering freedom for teams.

Photo by: LAT Images

“Compare that to now, where your hands are almost completely tied because it’s all so spec. All you’re allowed to do is change the shocks and change the wicker: that’s not going to keep engineers happy. I mean, the guys running CFD [computational fluid dynamics] to get a read on the aero mapping probably gain satisfaction from that… but from what I’ve seen, CFD is far too dependent on ideal-world scenarios, which rarely arise in the real world.”

The fact that doing things ‘The Penske Way’ has less influence on engineering an IndyCar these days reduced Howell’s love of racing, but it was a heartbreaking personal loss that brought his retirement forward a few years.

“Five years ago, Mary died of cancer and that changed my outlook,” he says. “I decided that as soon as I was in a position to retire, I’d start doing the other stuff that I wanted to while I still can. I love touring on my motorbikes, and although I’d ridden up and down the east coast, I’d never done anything out west. So I bought a toy-hauler – like a camper but with 10 foot of garage space out back for storing a bike – so I can drive out west of the Mississippi River, and even on to Texas, and then go touring on the bike.

“And that’s what you’ll find me doing a lot of the time now – making a trip or planning one.”

Clive Howell on drivers

Clive Howell, as an enthusiastic 22-year-old Brabham employee, was standing at the pitwall in Kyalami for the 1977 South African Grand Prix when Renzo Zorzi’s Shadow expired and halted on the other side of the track, smoke wisping gently from its engine. A few feet away from Howell, two volunteer marshals responded by running from the pitwall across the track, and the one carrying the fire extinguisher, Frikkie Jansen van Vuuren, never made it. They were just beyond the brow of a hill and suddenly four cars appeared at 170mph; one was Zorzi’s teammate, Tom Pryce, who struck van Vuuren and the extinguisher, the impact killing both driver and marshal.

This was one incident that persuaded Howell never to get too close to drivers. The incident that convinced him he was right came in 1999 when cheery and talented Gonzalo Rodrgiuez was killed in a Penske at Laguna Seca.

Gonzalo Rodriguez's death convinced Clive he was right not to get too close to any drivers.

Gonzalo Rodriguez's death convinced Clive he was right not to get too close to any drivers.

Photo by: Sutton Images

Howell asserts: “Drivers are just commodities like the rest of us, they’re employees like the rest of us, they’re mortal like the rest of us. So they go in and out of your life according to contracts or death. So I never wanted to get close or buddy-buddy with our drivers. Hanging out with them isn’t my idea of fun because drivers at this level are generally selfish bastards. I’m sure that’s what makes them fierce competitors on the track but it doesn’t exactly make them congenial company away from the track.”

In a way, that relative lack of emotion or personal bond made Howell a good choice for calling strategy up on the pit wall, and he admits he did quite enjoy it – at times…

“I liked calling the races for Paul Tracy at the start of his career, although he could be brutal,” he recalls. “I liked spotting for Helio [Castroneves] – him and Gil de Ferran made a good team – and I liked working with Will [Power] because he was young and eager to learn ‘The Penske Way’ so if you told him to jump, he’d ask how high. But they’re working relationships, and that’s far as it needs to go.

“When [Juan Pablo] Montoya came to the team [in 2014], he was the epitome of your typical racecar driver. Tim had asked me to call the races for Juan and I said, ‘OK, if you can’t find anyone else,’ but I wasn’t thrilled by the idea. Well, it lasted until Detroit [round six]. I don’t remember what happened but Juan ripped into us about something or other, and I think it’s important to maintain self-respect so I had to tell him to go f*** himself.”

Brabham F1 drivers from the first stage of his career didn’t impress Howell much, either.

“They all seemed a bit aloof from where I was standing,” he says, “but I suppose that may have been because I was very young and new on the scene. John Watson was a decent and polite guy but I can’t say I really knew him.

“Honestly, the only driver who I’ve regarded as a friend is Rick [Mears]. We can hang out and talk about racing but also motorbikes, boats, remote control planes and so on. Maybe it’s because he’s the only top driver I’ve worked with who didn’t come across as a head-case in some way or other!”

Rick Mears on Howell

Rick Mears with Roger Penske, 1980.

Rick Mears with Roger Penske, 1980.

Photo by: LAT Images

“Well that’s nice of him to say,” chuckles Mears on hearing Howell's comment, “but I think we’re all head-cases in different ways: we’ve all got a screw loose to be doing what we do, and I’m no better than the rest of them! But yeah, me and Clive do plan to meet up and go out on the boat. And I think he wants me to teach him to fly drones. We’re old and retired – we’ve got time on our hands to do all that now.”

Although Howell was put to work on Bobby Unser’s car when he arrived in 1980 – Mears’ second season as a Penske full-timer, but already an Indy 500 winner and CART Indycar champion – and Rick recognized an industrious colleague with zero interest in the frippery and irrelevancies that can infiltrate a close working environment.

“Clive was all business, which fitted with the team very well,” says Mears. “Roger never would tolerate any politics that stops a team from working as a team, and so Clive was an ideal employee.

“He was also great at looking at the big picture and the chain of events. If you had an issue with the car, he’d be asking, ‘Well what issue caused that issue?’, and he’d gauge the knock-on effect of one thing after another. So if you said, ‘We’re wearing our outside front too quickly, can’t get the car turned in,’ then he’d ask, ‘So is that the cause or the effect of the understeer? Have we got the car sitting down too much on one corner so we need to change springs at the rear to put more weight over that right-front?’ And so on. He’d come up with these different ideas of things we could try and say, ‘Well if we solve it this way, that might have this side-effect or that side-effect on the car.’

“Right from the start, he was a real bulldog, very determined: you presented him with a problem and he’d get after it and keep digging, digging, digging until he came up with a solution. Well, that ability to problem-solve is what earned him a position in management, because if you have experience in how to sort out issues – and learn from them, which Clive did – then you’re the right guy to put in authority to foresee problems and head them off before they happen.

“So once he got into that position, Clive was great to have onboard leading a team of guys and looking at the overall picture.

“And he led guys by example in terms of work ethic – ‘Whatever it takes, however long it takes, get it done and get it done right.’

“You can’t ask for anything more from a guy, which is why Roger was so impressed with Clive and trusted him in different positions in the team. Zero BS, just work, for almost 40 years.”

Derrick Walker on Howell

Derrick Walker, who went on to become IndyCar president of competition and operations, was responsible for recruiting Howell to Team Penske in time for the 1980 season.

Derrick Walker, who went on to become IndyCar president of competition and operations, was responsible for recruiting Howell to Team Penske in time for the 1980 season.

Photo by: Rainier Ehrhardt

“I got to know Clive while I was at Brabham,” recalls Walker who, after a dozen years at Penske, would go on to run the Porsche Indycar team before forming his own successful squad, Walker Racing. “Then I joined Roger, and when Team Penske quit Formula 1 at the end of ’76, I joined the main arm of the operation out here.

“I’d stayed in contact with Clive and recruited him in the winter of ’79 I think, and he said 'yes' to a U.S. move pretty quickly, and he joined us in time for the 1980 Indy car season. He was a very good mechanic – I never had any doubts about hiring him, and thank God he justified my faith and judgment. Made me look like I knew what I was doing!

“He went on to be a strong manager, too, still good at giving his blunt, no-nonsense opinions, and if someone hadn’t done their job, he’d want to know why the hell not. If something hadn’t happened on time, Clive would be the one who asked the guy why not, why hadn’t he been kept updated, or why this guy had given him an unrealistic due date. So, he was pretty unvarnished and unfiltered in that regard, because he saw no point to it.

“That might not be everyone’s ideal management style, but actually when you look at what he actually does and how he does it, he’s been a very valuable asset to Penske. He’s got that burrowing instinct for getting to the bottom of a problem, and he has a lot of stamina. A very strong player in the team, very dependable, and very efficient: don’t stand around talking about what you’re going to do. Just get on and do it. He wasn’t intolerant of mistakes, but if someone made a cock-up, he’d want to know why and how it happened, and would expect that person to not make the same mistake again.

“He had no time for the lightweight people in the sport, and he’d make that fairly clear, but within Penske he felt comfortable enough to be quite talkative. He never wanted to be in front of the cameras and being interviewed, I think maybe because he never really dwelt on the successes. He was happy buried deep in the team and the one who was saying to all his peers and colleagues, ‘OK guys, well done, but let’s get on with the next task,’ and keeping their feet firmly on the ground, as it were. To Clive, the idea wasn’t to get the job done and then sit around with the guys drinking Coronas and talk about the latest win or whatever: once a job was done to his satisfaction – and he did have high standards – he’d be impatient to get home to be with his missus, or head out and have fun on his bike.”

Ron Ruzewski on Howell

Ron Ruzewski, who has become managing director at Team Penske since Howell's departure.

Ron Ruzewski, who has become managing director at Team Penske since Howell's departure.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images

Ruzewski, who joined Penske as an engineer back in 2005, became Helio Castroneves’ race engineer, then technical director, and is now managing director. In Howell, Ron recalls a colleague who was all about the work and the practicalities.

“Clive is a man of few words but a lot of knowledge,” says Ruzewski. “He has just seen so much, absorbed it and applied it. He was very good as a manager because he knew how to get the opinions of the experts about various aspects of the cars, because he knew what questions to ask. For example, if there’s a part that hadn’t performed as we wanted or expected it to do, he’d ask, ‘Is it the material? Is it the design? Is it the manufacturing process?’ And once he’d gathered all that knowledge, he’d figure out the best way forward. To my mind, that’s good managerial methodology, because it not only sets him along the right path of solving the problem, it also made the rest of us think harder and cover a wider area of investigation for maybe coming up with solutions.

“As far as dealing with people, Clive was quite old school in that he’d welcome new guys to the team but would then be, ‘Right, show me why you need to be here!’

“And you always knew where you stood with him because he would never let things fester: he’d tackle any issues head-on as soon as they arose. And he’d expect the same honesty from those who worked with him and for him: if you screwed up, then he appreciated you being honest about why it happened but would want to know what procedure you were going to put in place to prevent it happening a second time. Again, that’s him encouraging you to stand on your own two feet by making you think about what you’re doing.

“Clive was also easily accessible in the literal sense: because he never wanted to be removed from the shop floor, whatever role he had and he always liked the hands-on practical aspect of racing, he made sure his office opened out onto where the cars were being worked on. So he knew everything that was going on out there. I liked that.”

If he wasn’t much of a talker, and when he did speak he didn’t sugar-coat his words, was Howell somewhat intimidating?

Ruzewski smiles. “The first time I went to see him, he exchanged three, maybe four words with me – he’s always very brief until you get to know him, and vice versa. I suppose that was… not intimidating, but it could be a bit difficult because you wouldn’t necessarily know what he was thinking. But after a couple of years, once you’ve proven yourself and he respects you, he’ll start opening up a bit, and I’d say the last four or five years I very much enjoyed my time with Clive. We’d touch base almost every morning, and some days we’d chat for 20 or 30 minutes. And when my role changed, from race engineer to technical director and now managing director, he was very supportive. I appreciated that.”

Matt “Swede” Jonsson on Howell

Matt Jonsson, who has won titles with Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish Jr. and Will Power, was a Howell recruit back in 1996 and worked with him for 24 years.

Matt Jonsson, who has won titles with Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish Jr. and Will Power, was a Howell recruit back in 1996 and worked with him for 24 years.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images

The crew chief on Will Power’s #12 Penske-Chevrolet since 2014, Matt Jonsson also won the title with Sam Hornish Jr. in ’06 and Gil de Ferran in 2000 and ’01. But the Swede – hence his imaginative nickname – came to the country on the recommendation of Stefan Johansson who helped him in the door at Bettenhausen Motorsports, which at the time was running one-year-old Penske chassis.

Jonsson told team owner Tony Bettenhausen that one day he’d like to work for Team Penske, and Bettenhausen being the kind of guy he was, he allowed Jonsson to include him as a reference. In January 1996, Swede got the call from Clive Howell.

Jonsson recalls: “Clive actually hired me, and it was a phone interview – I had gone back to Sweden in the off-season – and then I flew over for a face-to-face interview, it went well and that was it.

“So over 24 years I worked with him and for him, and the things that impressed me were his consistency as a manager, as a boss, and his ability to make decisions. There was no humming and hawing: when he made a decision, it was because he had a very strong opinion and belief that it was right. So those two qualities – the consistency and decisiveness – is exactly what you want from a boss in any job.

“Two more things that I appreciated were that he was always passionate about racing, and he’d never blow his own horn. He was driven purely by the sport itself and the satisfaction of doing his job properly – he didn’t need to be seen to be doing it or to be known in the media.”

Howell was also, it seemed from the outside, constantly working. Even when he was grabbing a quick smoke, he wouldn’t be looking at his cellphone or standing around shooting the breeze: he’d be doing something whether it was tidying up the garage so it looked Penske-perfect, or helping to move toolkits or wheels.

“That’s exactly right,” says Jonsson. “Clive was a very, very hard worker at the race track and back at the shop, and when he made decisions they weren’t based on time factors. If we had a better part that was going to make our cars faster, then we fitted it, because Clive had the attitude, ‘There’s 24 hours in a day, so let’s use them if that's what it takes.’

"He saw things in quite simple terms: 'We are a race team, our whole purpose is to make the cars go as fast as we can do to maximize our chances of winning, so everything we can do we will do.' I think that’s why he fitted in to the team so well: there’s no convenience factor involved. Every effort is made all the time, and that’s traditionally what has separated Team Penske from a lot of our rivals over the years and decades.

“So Clive was always Clive, and that’s what made him perfect for this team.”

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Series IndyCar
Author David Malsher