Before 'The Captain' won his pips

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The nickname says it all about his reputation as a businessman, but before all that Roger Penske was quite a racer
By Gordon Kirby

At a time before his name came to represent both the best in American racing and a renowned corporate brand, Roger Penske was a pretty darned good racing driver. Consider this: prior to starting Penske Racing in 1966 he was one of the USA’s best road racers, scoring major wins in 1962-64 aboard a variety of cars. He started the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in 1961 and ‘62, finishing eighth and ninth respectively, and in the fall of ’62, driving his rule-pushing Zerex-Cooper, won the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside and the Pacific Coast GP at Laguna Seca, as well as the Guards Trophy race at Brands Hatch in August 1963. Penske was victorious in a NASCAR stock car race at Riverside in May ’63 and the following year won the Pacific Grand Prix at Laguna Seca and both feature races at Nassau aboard Jim Hall’s first rear-engined Chaparral 2. And he won that year’s GT race at Nassau too, driving a Corvette Grand Sport. This was no small-time amateur.

By the end of 1964 Penske had started 130 races and won 51 of them driving 14 different cars in seven categories. He was offered a test drive by Clint Brawner and his chief mechanic Jim McGee in one of Al Dean’s USAC Indycars, but turned down the opportunity to retire from driving and begin his career as a car dealer, entrepreneur and team owner. You could argue it was the defining decision of Penske’s life – and there was a knock-on effect for another future US icon, too.

The Dean/Brawner ride was taken up instead by a hotshot midget and sprint car driver from Pennsylvania named Mario Andretti, who rapidly shot to worldwide prominence. Meanwhile, Penske began to build a company which today employs 38,000 people, generates US$17 billion in annual revenues and includes a multi-faceted (NASCAR, IRL and ALMS) race team which is one of the most successful in American racing history.

“Jim McGee and Clint Brawner asked me to take a test at Indy,” Penske recalls. “But because I had a job I couldn’t get the time off and Andretti took his rookie test in that car. He became the driver and I went the other way. I had an opportunity to go into business and I took it.”

Born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, Penske went to college at Lehigh University in south-eastern Pennsylvania where he studied business and started racing. In 1958, when he was 21, he bought a fuel-injected ’57 Corvette in which he got his SCCA racing licence. He raced the Corvette in three SCCA nationals, winning one of them, and also ran and won a hillclimb with the car.

In the autumn of 1958 he got serious about racing, buying a Porsche RSK from Bob Holbert. Penske raced the Porsche twice late that year and ran a dozen SCCA Nationals in north-eastern America with the car in ’59, as well as taking a couple of trips to Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin and one to the old Harewood airfield circuit in southern Ontario. He won eight races and a hillclimb with the Porsche in ’59, and continued to race the RSK into 1960 before trading with Jim Hall for a newer RS60 in the summer. At the end of the year he bought an RS61 for the annual Nassau season-closer, where he scored his 15th win of the year in a preliminary race.

“The RSK was actually a better car than the RS60,” Roger grins. “I bugged Jim Hall a long time to buy the RS60 he had and I think he took the K, which was a better-handling car.”

In the spring of 1959, Penske met Porsche mechanic Karl Kainhofer and the Austrian was soon working for him on a part-time basis. Kainhofer prepared a number of Penske’s racing cars through 1962 and would rejoin him in ’66 as the fledgling Penske Racing’s chief mechanic. Kainhofer held that role for nine years, through the entire Mark Donohue era, and later became the boss of Penske’s engine shop, building many Indy 500, USAC and CART championship-winning engines until his retirement in 1997.

“Karl started to work for me when I got the Porsche, especially after Harry Blanchard was killed,” says Penske. “He then came to work for me full-time and, of course, spent almost his whole career with me.”

Kainhofer started his working life in 1947 as an apprentice mechanic in his native Austria. For five years he worked for a motorcycle racer who ran dirt tracks, speedways and hillclimbs. “It was a little repair shop and we did everything,” Kainhofer says. “You name it, we worked on it. Anything that had wheels, whether it was two, three or four, and trucks. But at the same time we raced motorcycles at the weekend. That’s how I got into the trade. I was a machinist, a fabricator and an engine-builder. I learned to do anything, really.”

Kainhofer left Austria in 1956 to become a factory Porsche mechanic in Stuttgart, Germany. He worked in Porsche’s factory race team in 1956-57 and went to the USA with Porsche in ’58. Kainhofer first worked for Ed Hugus’s Porsche dealership in Pittsburgh, but Hugus started racing a Ferrari, so Porsche transferred Kainhofer to Harry Blanchard’s operation in Greenwich, Connecticut. Blanchard raced a Porsche Spyder and a Carrera, and Kainhofer prepared his cars until Blanchard was killed in the 1960 Buenos Aires 1000Km sports car race. “We were together down there and I had to bring him home underneath my seat,” Kainhofer recalls. “Those were the sad days of motor racing. We lost a lot of people back then.”

Kainhofer and Penske met for the first time in the spring of 1959. “I think it starts on April 12 at Vineland, New Jersey,” Kainhofer says. “I’ve got a picture with Bob and Al Holbert, when he was about nine or 10 years old, and Roger and myself. That’s when we first got acquainted and when Roger started running his RS which he had bought from Bob Holbert. All he had was a station wagon, a trailer and a race car. He was 22 years old and I was just about to turn 28.

“I was a Porsche specialist and he realised I could help him. I stayed and worked with him in 1959 and ’60, especially after Blanchard was killed. Next year it will be 50 years since I first got together with Roger and this year is actually the 50th since Roger first started in motor racing.

“My factory contract with Porsche came to an end in 1960 and I freelanced for a few years. I actually lived with Roger for a while. I didn’t have a shop. I worked for Harry Blanchard and Bruce Jennings and other guys a little bit, just to make a living. But in 1960 I mainly worked for Roger. In those days, nobody could afford a full-time guy.”

*

A classically meticulous mechanic, Kainhofer was near-fanatical about the finish work on his cars, a sentiment he shared with Penske. “I appreciated Roger’s approach and he appreciated my spit and polish,” says Kainhofer. “I was the guy who cleaned and cleaned and cleaned, and he enjoyed that. My cars were always cleaner underneath than most guys’ cars were on top.

“We raced all over against a lot of people and their cars were never like ours. I guarantee you his Porsche Spyder was twice as clean as the guy lining up next to us, even Holbert. We polished our wheels inside and out, and nobody did that in those days.”

Penske says: “I think preparation and attention to detail has been part of our mission plan through our businesses and certainly in our racing endeavours. We brought that discipline to the way our cars looked and we continue to today. We take pride where every decal is and how the cars look on the race track. It creates a degree of professionalism that drives all the way through the organisation.

“You see the way guys like Ron Dennis and some of these teams these days are bringing the attention to detail on their cars to an extremely high standard. I’ve always believed that kind of presentation sets the tone. There’s no question about it, whether it’s your truck, or your trailer, or your pitstall. People want to work in that type of environment.”

In 1961 Kainhofer got married and the following year his son Greg was born. Needing a full-time job, Kainhofer went to work for Tom Payne. “Tom had a business and a shop and I worked on his Porsches for the next four years,” he says. “But I still worked with Roger in ’61 on the Formula 1 car he raced at Watkins Glen and then again in ’62.”

Penske raced in the Sebring 12 Hours for the first time in 1961, co-driving Bob Holbert’s RSK to fifth place. He also bought a Birdcage Maserati T61 in which he scored a brace of SCCA National wins. “The Birdcage was a great car,” he says. “We had some great races with it. I remember racing with Hall and Schroeder at Elkhart Lake. We were changing the lead three or four times a lap going down into turn one and turn five.”

Kainhofer says of Penske’s strengths as a driver: “Roger was a very hyper individual and he was a hyper driver, too. Just like as a businessman, he never took no for an answer. He didn’t go racing to lose. He always put a good effort in.”

A born salesman, Penske began his business career selling Alcoa Aluminium and sponsorship for his race cars. “Of course, Roger always had the ability to find somebody else to pay for it,” says Kainhofer. “He did that more or less from day one. He was the first one to really sell sponsorship. He was motivated and he could motivate somebody to give him money to race. He’s still doing it today.”

The Birdcage carried a small ‘Telar’ decal and was entered as the ‘Telar Special’ as the ever-enterprising Penske reduced his racing expenses through sponsorship. In SCCA sports car racing in particular he was well ahead of the curve. “Sometimes in the SCCA we had to tape over the sponsor’s name because they didn’t allow you to have sponsors on the car,” he says. “Times have sure changed.”

Later in 1961 Penske bought a Cooper Monaco sports-racer in which he finished second to Dan Gurney’s Arciero Lotus 19 at Nassau at the end of the year. He also rented a Cooper T53 for that year’s United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen and a Lotus 24 for the following year’s race. The Cooper in ’61 was entered by John Wyatt III.

“He was a friend of Roger’s who Roger convinced to pay for it,” Kainhofer says. “I came down on my vacation. I was working for Tom Payne and took a couple of weeks off. The car was shipped over from England and LeeRoy Gane and I finished it and worked on it at Bryn Mawr.

“The Lotus in ’62 was a similar thing. LeeRoy didn’t work on that one. I prepared that car in Roger’s garage at his home in Gladwyn. We didn’t have to do a lot. It was a running car and I just made sure it was bolted together right and we painted it and put our colours on. We spent a couple of weeks on it then I went back to work for Tom again.”

Penske raced the Lotus in that year’s non-championship Mexican GP. “We had a station wagon and a two-wheel trailer. That’s how we got that car down there,” he says. “I was running behind Ricardo Rodriguez when he got killed in practice.”

*

Penske started the 1962 season in a Formula Junior race at Daytona in February aboard a Cooper-Austin owned by his friends Tim and Teddy Mayer. He raced the car half a dozen times near the end of 1961 and in early ’62. He also raced his Cooper Monaco in the Daytona 3 Hours and shared a Cooper-Maserati with Bruce McLaren at Sebring. The car was entered in the 12 Hours by Briggs Cunningham, and Penske and McLaren led for a while before finishing fifth.

Roger continued to race his Cooper Monaco in the spring and summer, winning a string of SCCA Nationals and finishing second in the Player’s 200 at Mosport behind Masten Gregory’s Lotus 19. He took the Cooper across the pond to the Guards Trophy race at Brands Hatch in August and finished fifth. After coming ninth in the United States GP aboard his rented Lotus 24, Penske had his first race in his fast and controversial Zerex Special at Riverside’s LA Times GP in October. He put the car on pole and won the race after Dan Gurney’s Lotus 19 broke down. A week later he won the Pacific GP at Laguna Seca on aggregate, beating Lloyd Ruby’s Lotus 19 and McLaren’s Cooper Monaco by finishing second in both 100-mile heats.

Penske’s Cooper Monaco was maintained by Roy Gane in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and it was Gane who turned the Zerex-Cooper into a central-seat sports car from an F1 car. “Gane’s shop was a little back-alley garage, nothing special,” says Kainhofer. “He was always working on a lot of people’s sports cars and was in the area, so it was convenient. The first time I worked at Roy’s shop was in 1960 on Roger’s Spyder. Updraft Enterprises was the name of his company. I worked with him on the Birdcage and the Cooper Monaco.”

The Zerex Special was Penske’s idea and he employed Gane to build the car. “I said we want to take an F1 car and put a body on it,” Penske explains. “There was a 2-litre Cooper Monaco which was running with a guy sat in the centre and I figured we should do the same thing. We had the benefit of this 2.8-litre Coventry-Climax engine that Brabham had in the car he ran at Indy. So we had a real package and we just put a body on it.”

Kainhofer worked part-time helping Gane and a sheet metal worker named Harry Ditmarsh build the Zerex. Ditmarsh built the body at Molin’s bodyshop in Wayne, Pennsylvania. “Harry came out of Indy and was a great metal-working guy,” says Roger. “He worked with LeeRoy to build that car.”

When the Zerex appeared at Riverside many of Penske’s competitors grumbled that the car was illegal. Bruce McLaren and Jim Hall were royally upset and both complained bitterly to the SCCA’s Tracy Bird. “The SCCA’s tech inspectors were measuring the seat and saying it wasn’t right,” says Roger. “I said, ‘Hey, look at this 2-litre car that was running in the same race at Laguna and the guy was sitting in the centre.’ I asked them what the difference was.”

Penske was allowed to race and win with the centre-seat Zerex, but the rules were changed for 1963, specifying two seats. Penske cracks a grin: “They always changed the rules on us when we won! They quickly outlawed the centre seat-type. So we changed it into a two-seater and I moved over to one side and still won races with it.”

In fact, the rules rewrite for international sports car racing created the Group 7 or unlimited Can-Am rules. The Zerex also set the standard for the ‘Unfair Advantage’ which would come to define Penske Racing in the late ’60s and early ’70s in company with Donohue.

Meanwhile, Penske started driving for Texas oil man John Mecom. He won the Puerto Rico San Juan Grand Prix in November ’62 aboard a Mecom Cooper Monaco, beating Tim Mayer’s Cooper and Dan Gurney’s Porsche, and in December he won the Governor’s Trophy GT race at Nassau in Mecom’s Ferrari GTO, beating Lorenzo Bandini and Innes Ireland in similar cars.

Roger began 1963 by taking Mecom’s GTO to second place behind Pedro Rodriguez’s similar car in the Daytona Continental, and then shared Mecom’s Ferrari with Augie Pabst to finish fourth at Sebring. On top of that Penske made his stock car debut, racing a Pontiac for Ray Nichels in a USAC race at Indianapolis Raceway Park in April and a 250-mile NASCAR race at Riverside in May. He led at IRP before the transmission broke, then came from a first-lap incident which dropped him to the back of the field to beat Darel Dieringer at Riverside.

“The first stock car race I ran I qualified fourth or fifth,” says Penske. “There was [Paul] Goldsmith, Rodger Ward, Eddie Sachs and AJ Foyt. I remember I got whacked in the back by Foyt and in the first turn I got together with one of the Ford guys and put him off. I kept running all day and got the lead. Then eight laps from the finish the rear end blew and I dropped out.

“At Riverside I missed the first-round qualifying, so I had to qualify in the middle of the field. The Stroppe Mercurys were there with Parnelli and Darel Dieringer, and I won that race. I remember we celebrated and drove that car from Riverside down to Las Vegas!”

At Indianapolis the following week as a spectator for the 500, Penske found himself branded an inadmissible outlaw. “Because I had run a NASCAR race, USAC wouldn’t let me in the Speedway,” he says. “They wouldn’t give me a pass.”

Penske raced at Le Mans for the first and only time in 1963, co-driving a 4-litre Ferrari 330LM with Pedro Rodriguez: “I raced with Pedro in the car that Gendebien and Phil Hill won the race in the year before. I blew that baby up. I missed a shift going down into the Mulsanne turn at the end of the straight. I shoved the shifter into the wrong gear and blew it up. It was a mess.

“You know, that car was just sold in an auction at Maranello for about eight million euros. That would be a great car to own.”

Armed with a Ferrari 250GTO LMB in the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood in 1963, Penske finished eighth. “I ran a Ferrari for Ronnie Hoare who was then Maranello Concessionaires,” he says. “By the way, we just bought that business about four months ago.”

In August, a few weeks before the TT, Penske returned to Brands Hatch for his second attempt at winning the Guards Trophy. The Zerex was now a two-seater entered by Mecom, and Roger dominated the 50-lap race in style, leading all the way and winning by more than half a minute from a pair of Cooper Monacos driven by Roy Salvadori and Tim Mayer.

“In those days, that was one of the biggest races at Brands Hatch and the place was packed,” he says. “There were a lot of top guys in that race – Graham Hill, Roy Salvadori, Innes Ireland, Jack Sears – all those guys. I remember I ran rain tyres in the dry which everybody thought was crazy. But it turned out that was the new standard. You ran the softest tyres you could for that race.

“We blew them off there and then they tried to throw the car out in post-race inspection. They were trying to find something wrong with it and I remember Graham came over to save me and get the car through the inspection.”

Penske drove the Zerex for Mecom a few more times. He also raced a Chevy-powered Mecom sports-racer at the end of ’63 and a Chevy Cooper Monaco, while the Zerex was sold to McLaren.

Bruce shoe-horned an Oldsmobile V8 into the Zerex. The result was the first McLaren car as the great Anglo-American sports-racer or Can-Am hybrid era took off with lightweight, rear-engined English chassis and increasingly large American V8 engines.

At the end of the year and into 1964, Penske and Mecom helped Chevrolet develop and race the Corvette Grand Sport, an all-out racing car which he, Jim Hall and Dick Thompson ran at Nassau at the end of ’63. Hall and Penske also teamed up to race a Grand Sport at Sebring in ’64. They ran as high as fifth and finished 18th. Roger raced the Zerex for the last time in a United States Road Racing Championship event at Pensacola in April. After Hall broke his arm in an accident Penske switched to his Chaparral 2 for a series of USRRC races and the season-closing FIA races at Riverside, Laguna Seca and Nassau. He drove the car with both automatic and manual transmissions.

“The first Chaparral had one gear and the car I drove had two speeds in it,” he says. “I remember Carroll Shelby complained to the GM guys. He said, ‘How could Penske drive this car at Mosport with this fancy transmission?’ Shelby said GM must be doing all this stuff through their skunk works. But it was really Jim Hall and GM that were doing it. Of course, Jim was a friend, and when he got hurt that year I drove the car for a number of races.”

Penske finished both the year and his racing career with a flourish. Aboard the Chaparral he was second to Parnelli Jones’ King Cobra Cooper at Riverside, then won the two-heat Pacific GP at Laguna Seca, beating Dan Gurney’s Ford-powered Lotus 19 and Bob Bondurant’s King Cobra Cooper-Ford. In December he won both feature races at Nassau in the Chaparral, beating Foyt’s Hussein and Walt Hansgen’s Scarab in the Governors Trophy, and McLaren’s ex-Zerex McLaren-Oldsmobile and Pedro Rodriguez’s Ferrari 275LM in the Nassau Trophy race. He also won a preliminary race and the Tourist Trophy race at Nassau in a Corvette Grand Sport.

“That’s when I decided it was the end,” he says. “I won all the races at Nassau, three with the Chaparral and one with the lightweight Corvette. Then I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to become a businessman full-time.’”

*

In 1965 he opened his first Chevrolet dealership in Philadelphia and the following year formed Penske Racing. “I had the opportunity in the business world and Bunkie Knudsen and the guys at GM helped me make the decision,” he says. “They said, ‘Look, if you become a Chevrolet dealer we don’t want you to drive.’ Obviously, I needed to borrow money to get into that business and I needed insurance. In those days you couldn’t get insurance if you were a race driver. So a number of factors came together. The decision was easy and I never looked back.”

There wasn’t a hint of regret or wistfulness about putting his driving days behind him. Penske was only 27 and he had already demonstrated that he was as good as anyone in sports cars, including great drivers like Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, AJ Foyt and Parnelli Jones. He had beaten some of the best American and European racers of that era in a series of decisive victories, and the only thing that remained was for him to make his mark in Indycars or Formula 1. But just like today, at the age of 71, Penske was focused on taking advantage of the latest opportunities and executing a plan for the future.

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