Gordon Kirby

The remarkable Roger Penske

In March 1966 Roger Penske formed Penske Racing, which would quickly become America’s definitive racing team. Born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Penske went to Lehigh University in 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. 

In autumn 1958 Penske got serious about racing, buying a Porsche RS Spyder from Bob Holbert. Penske won eight races and a hillclimb with the Porsche before replacing it with an RSK late in ’59. He raced the RSK into 1960, before upgrading to a newer RS60. 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. 

Driving his rule-bending Zerex Special built and prepared by Leroy Gane, Penske famously won the Los Angeles Times GP at Riverside and the Pacific Coast GP at Laguna Seca in 1962, as well as the Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch in August ’63. He also won a NASCAR stock car race at Riverside in May ’63 and the following year took the Pacific GP at Laguna Seca and both Nassau feature races 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. 

By the end of 1964 Penske had started 130 races and won 51. He was offered a test drive by Clint Brawner in one of Al Dean’s USAC Indycars, but turned down the opportunity and retired from driving to begin his career as a car dealer, entrepreneur and team owner. 

Penske was only 27 at the time and had demonstrated that he was as good as anyone in sports cars, including greats such as 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 Penske’s mind was focused on taking advantage of the latest opportunities and executing a plan for the future. Being a widely acclaimed racing driver was one thing, but Roger had much bigger ambitions.

Penske started his business career in 1965 by becoming the primary owner of McKeen Chevrolet in Philadelphia. He started as a manager, quickly became a partner then borrowed the money to buy out McKeen. “I had the opportunity in the business world and the guys at GM helped me make the decision,” Roger 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.”

Penske went on to build a company that today employs 40,000 people, generates $17 billion in annual revenues and includes one of the most successful teams in US racing history. Mark Donohue scored Penske’s first win and went on to claim the USRRC title in 1967 and ’68 and three Trans-Am championships in 1968, ’69 and ’71 before scoring the team’s first Indy 500 victory in 1972 and taking the 1973 Can-Am title with Penske’s remarkable Porsche 917/30. 

Going into the team’s 51st season Penske’s record includes 16 Indy 500 wins, 12 Indycar championships, 424 race wins of all types plus 28 American national championships... and many more likely to come.