Motor Sport history books are few and far between and IndyCar history books are even more rare. I feel lucky to have read two very good ones in the last month. The first was one I reviewed a few weeks ago: Black Noon: The Year They Stopped the Indy 500 by Art Garner. The second, and the subject of this review is Beast: The Top Secret Ilmor-Penske Race Car That Shocked the World at the 1994 Indy 500 by Jade Gurss. Both books involve Indianpolis 500s in seasons that changed IndyCar. Specifically, Beast is about Roger Penske, Mario Ilien, and Paul Morgan’s pushrod engine project for the 1994 Indianapolis 500. I remember watching that race; twenty years later it’s incredible to read the story behind it that all but a few knew at the time!
Gurss has done a good job of balancing the story and the technology. Sure there could have been more technical information but if he had gone too far to the technical side I think the book would have a more limited appeal and wouldn’t engage as many readers. As a fan of the technical side of racing, I’m satisfied with amount of technical content. The differences between pushrod and overhead cam engines are described and technical drawings are included to illustrate the complexity of what Ilmor and Penske were trying to do. There is also good narrative on the process of not just building but testing and developing an engine, too. The reader come away with an understanding of how racing engines don’t just come to be overnight. I enjoyed the description of the process and the testing but it was also good to read about the personalities of the major players and the men behind the scenes; unlike today’s social media world, we didn’t have Twitter and other outlets in the mid 90’s to hear from them and get insights into what makes them tick – but we certainly have through this book. Paul Morgan is certainly a man I would like to have met.
You can’t broach the subject of American open wheel racing in 1994 without getting into the origins of the CART/IRL split that was beginning to occur. This is the one part of the book where readers may have a problem with Beast, but I think Gurss has handled it well. He definitely points the finger at Tony George (and not without good cause) but he also makes it clear that there was plenty of blame to go around. This is a subject that deserves and would fill a book on its own but he treated it well and in my opinion fairly. Going any more in depth on the topic would have taken away from the main subject of the book.
I have no problem giving Beast five out of five stars. It is an excellent read; once you start it’s a hard book to put down. Race fans will love it because it tells the story of an epic effort from inception to development to the race. Non race fans would likely enjoy it because it’s just a great story of accomplishment on its own. I highly recommend this book – go out and grab a copy today, you won’t be disappointed!