Karl Kainhofer was Roger Penske’s first employee when ‘The Captain’ founded his team in 1966. Kainhofer had worked on Penske’s cars when Roger was a driver and was Penske Racing’s chief mechanic through its formative 10 years working with Mark Donohue on Can-Am, Indycars and Penske’s Formula 1 cars.
After Donohue was killed in Kainhofer’s native Austria in 1975, Kainhofer returned to America and for the next 20 years ran Penske’s engine shop in Pennsylvania, building Cosworth DFX turbo V8s, Ilmor/Chevrolets and Ilmor/Mercedes engines, including ‘The Beast’, winner of the 1994 Indy 500 with Al Unser Jr. Kainhofer retired at the end of 1997.
His record over the years with Penske as a chief mechanic and engine builder includes more than 100 wins in the United States Road Racing Championship, Can-Am and Indycars. Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Danny Sullivan, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr and Paul Tracy won more than 80 USAC and CART races, including nine Indy 500s, with Kainhofer-built motors.
Kainhofer was born in 1931 to a single mother who gave him up for adoption. He endured a tough childhood through WWII and began his working life in 1947 as an apprentice motorcycle mechanic. After spending nine years learning his trade Kainhofer joined Porsche in 1956 and was trained in Stuttgart as a factory mechanic.
He emigrated to America in 1958 and worked for a handful of Porsche dealers and SCCA racers, including Penske who hired Kainhofer on a freelance basis to take care of a variety of his cars, including the F1 Cooper and Lotus he raced in the United States GPs at Watkins Glen in 1961 and ’62.
When Penske started his racing team in 1966 he asked Kainhofer to join him as his first and only employee. Kainhofer prepared Mark Donohue’s Lola T70 Can-Am car in 1966 and ’67 and the combination made their mark. Donohue won the third Can-Am race ever run, at Mosport in ’66, and went on to win the 1967 United States Road Championship.
Kainhofer agreed to join Penske because he admired his understanding of motor racing as well as his ability to attract sponsorship. He also knew Penske shared his penchant for immaculate preparation and presentation.
“The reason I went with Roger and stayed with him for more than 30 years was because I appreciated his approach and he appreciated my spit and polish,” Kainhofer says. “I was the guy who cleaned and cleaned, and he enjoyed that. My cars were always cleaner underneath than most were on top.
“In 1960 I got a little trophy at an SCCA race in Pensacola, Florida, with Roger’s Porsche for ‘best overall appearance’. We had everything polished and shining, and most guys in those days didn’t pay that much attention to the polish. But we carried that kind of finish through the whole history of Penske Racing. That became a trademark and it’s still there today. A lot of Roger’s success has been based on that and it was created in the early days when I worked on his Porsche.”
Kainhofer also reflects on how much times have changed. “In the early years there were just two or three of us doing the whole thing. I lived with Donohue for 10 years. We were like brothers. We did a lot of things together. Today the corporate world has taken it over.
“By the eighties we were a big company with 40, 50, 60 people. The big corporations came in, and it changed. Now Roger’s got 500 people in North Carolina, so it’s a totally different world.”