Penske in temporary HQ after shop flooded

Updated: July 13, 2006, 4:54 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

In typical Penske fashion, the facility was immaculate. Every part and piece of equipment had its place, anything that could hold a shine was meticulously polished and maintained. You could eat off the floors or the tops of the tool boxes and workstations.

The Reading, Pa., race shop, where so many winning race cars were built and maintained since 1973, was a source of pride.

That's why it hurt so much to see garage doors in shambles, mildewed walls and rapidly expanding rust.

Just over two weeks ago, Mother Nature threw a violent curveball at what had been an otherwise storybook season for Team Penske's Indy Racing League teams. The floodwaters that devastated parts of the Northeast ran directly through the Penske IndyCar shop, leaving a path of muck-coated destruction.

"It takes one's breath away," said Penske facilities manager Jerry Breon. "I was overwhelmed by the extent of the damage, the way water moved things from place to place. I witnessed some things I still can't explain."

The mood was not one of panic, just one of acceleration that afternoon and evening of June 27. Reading was under a flood watch for the next 24 hours, and Team Penske was not taking any chances. Anything that could move three feet or higher off the floor in the 33-year-old race shop was elevated, and the team's IndyCar haulers were loaded and sent on the road to Kansas a day earlier than usual. It was all they could do.

It wasn't enough.

When the water from the nearly Schuylkill River rose the following afternoon, the estimates of two feet turned into three feet, then four, then nearly four and a half.

Garage doors that were sandbagged from the inside caved in under the force of the water. Items moved on top of desks weren't high enough to avoid the relentless river.

A day later, on June 29, team members were allowed back into the facility and greeted with bizarre destruction. Breon marveled at the outdoor picnic tables that had been on the south end of the building, yet moved seemingly upstream 50 yards. Team spokesman Chris Schwartz noted how the six-foot fence surrounding the property acted like a giant filter, catching mud and debris so thick only a rake could get it off.

Team manager Tom Wurtz was particularly struck by the condition of a small plastic tote bag, the sort used in team motor coaches for personal supplies. The bag managed to collect someone's pants, cleaned and undisturbed in a laundry bag, and float to another end of the building.

"Those first couple days, everybody was pretty much in awe," Wurtz said.

Then the cleanup began, and two weeks later it's still going on. There's not a dollar value yet on the total losses incurred, as some items are still being salvaged and others are found to be destroyed.

"We moved everything to bench height or desk height throughout the facility, but obviously big machines, whether it's milling machines, lathes, welding equipment, tool boxes, dynamometers, pieces and parts; you can go on and on in terms of the equipment that was still left behind," said Penske Performance president Tim Cindric. "Most of the stationary equipment was lost."

It's a cruel irony that in another two months, Penske's IRL operation was scheduled to move out of Reading anyway. Its NASCAR and American Le Mans Series cars are based in Mooresville, N.C., in a sprawling 424,697-square-foot facility built in 2004, and the IndyCar teams were to follow at the close of this season. (The story of how Team Penske started in Reading is also ironic. Cindric said Roger Penske was able to get the land cheaply and with favorable tax breaks in 1973, one year after Hurricane Agnes had flooded the area. So, essentially, a flood helped bring the team in and, 33 years later, hasten its departure.)

For now, all the moving is seven miles down the road to Exeter, into a building housing a Penske subsidiary. Over the past two weeks the team has built a makeshift headquarters, complete with the phones, computer systems and the like that were lost in Reading. It has been no small feat, working through the July 4 holiday and for 12- to 14-hour days since.

And, of course, Penske hasn't missed a beat on the track despite the catastrophe back home. Days after the floodwaters in Pennsylvania receded, Sam Hornish Jr. and Penske won in Kansas, continuing a remarkable season that has seen Hornish and teammate Helio Castroneves win six of eight races and claim the top two spots in the points standings.

Saturday night at Nashville, Penske will expect to win again. It's just another week of everyone doing their jobs, however remarkable and improbable now those might be.

"We're all racers. You see the same thing at the racetrack, you put all your efforts into building a shiny race car, then within seconds it's destroyed. But unless there's any injuries to people, you put it out of your mind and move on to the next one," Breon said. "That kind of training pays off in a situation like this.

"But it's hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence."

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com