Over the decades Penske Racing has enjoyed many successful seasons. Team Penske’s record includes 15 Indy 500 wins, 13 Indycar championships and 173 race wins, plus another 13 American racing championships from Can-Am to NASCAR with a grand total of more than 400 wins and 450 poles.
Roger Penske started his team in 1966 after a successful driving career. He chose Mark Donohue to lead his new team and over the next 10 years Donohue and Penske made a legendary mark on the sport with a long line of fast, immaculately prepared cars competing in the Can-Am, United States Road Racing Championship, long-distance sports car racing, the Trans-Am, Indycars, Formula 5000, NASCAR and Formula 1.
Donohue won the USRRC title in 1967 and ’68, winning six of seven races in ’67 aboard a Lola T70 Mk3 and taking five of nine races the following year driving a McLaren M6A. He also won the Trans-Am championship in ’68, scoring nine wins from 15 starts aboard a Chevy Camaro and took the title again the next year winning six of a dozen races. Two years later Donohue won his third Trans-Am championship winning seven of 10 races with an AMC Javelin.
The Mark Donohue/Chuck Parsons Lola T70 in victory lane at Daytona, 1969
In 1972 Donohue scored Penske’s first Indy 500 win but was badly injured the next month while testing the team’s new turbo Porsche 917/10 Can-Am car. Penske brought in George Follmer to replace the injured Donohue and Follmer duly won the championship. Donohue returned to win a race before the end of the year and the following season he completely dominated Can-Am aboard Penske’s Porsche 917/30, winning six of eight races and sweeping all eight poles.
Donohue retired early in 1974 but at the end of the year he decided to race Penske’s new F1 car. He tackled the full F1 World Championship in ’75, driving Penske’s PC1 in the first 13 races before switching to a March 751 at the British GP. But Donohue was killed in August, following a tyre failure during practice for the Austrian GP, ending one of motor racing’s most remarkable relationships between a driver and team owner.
But Penske Racing’s story was only beginning. Tom Sneva won consecutive USAC Championships for Penske in 1977 and ’78 before Rick Mears scored Penske’s second Indy 500 win in 1979 and added a trio of CART championships to Penske’s growing collection in 1979, ’81 and ’82. Mears and team-mate Bobby Unser won 21 races between 1979 and ’81 and Mears added four more wins in ’82.
Mears won his second and Penske’s third Indy 500 in 1984 before badly breaking his legs and feet at Sanair in the fall of ’84. Rick came back the following season, winning the Pocono 500 less than a year after his accident and going on to win the Indy 500 again in 1988 and ’91. Certainly 1988 was won of Penske’s best years as Danny Sullivan won the CART championship with four wins and nine poles while Mears added four more wins and four poles to Penske’s tally.
During these years Nigel Bennett designed a series of beautiful, winning Indycars for Penske and it can be argued that Penske’s most successful season and Bennett’s best car was the PC23 from 1994. With a standard 2.65-litre Ilmor/Chevy turbo V8 the PC23 was the class of the field in CART in ’94 and blew everyone away at Indianapolis where it was powered by Mario Illien’s famous 3.4-litre single camshaft Mercedes-Benz turbo V8 known as ‘The Beast’.
Al Unser Jr won the Indy 500 with ‘The Beast’ and seven CART races with a conventional engine to take the championship while team-mate Paul Tracy added three more wins and Emerson Fittipaldi won one more race for a total of 12 wins from 16 races. They also finished 1-2-3 in no fewer than five races – Milwaukee, Portland, Mid-Ohio, New Hampshire and Nazareth. Between them they led 1584 of the year’s 2083 laps and finished 1-2-3 in the championship with Michael Andretti a distant fourth and ’93 champion Nigel Mansell an even more distant eighth in points.
Al Jr says it was a dream season. “In ‘94, and not just at Indy, at all the other races with the same car but a different engine, if I came in and had a push and wanted to stiffen the rear springs it would reduce the push and give it better traction on the rear,” Unser says. “Whatever we decided to do on the car in ’94, whether it was in design or engineering, it was the right thing to do. We just automatically made the car go faster. We did very, very well that year.”
Of course, ‘The Beast’ was effectively outlawed by USAC for 1995. Like most everyone else Penske’s cars ran with conventional CART four-cam 2.65-litre turbo engines in ’95 and famously failed to qualify for the 500. “We came back to Indy the next year and all of Penske Racing missed the show,” Al Jr recalls. “It was unbelievable!
“In ‘95, any little thing would go wrong. The communication with us and between the engineers was all messed up. They got so frustrated because no matter what we did, it was wrong. We did the wrong things all month and way over-reacted to everything. Nothing flowed like it had the year before.
“I won Long Beach in ‘95 and one or two other races later in the year, but no matter what we did, for some reason it was like a switch flipped. No matter what the engineers did, no matter what I did, no matter what Roger did, it was wrong.
“An example was Emerson qualifying at Indy in ’95. He had a fast enough time to qualify for the race and Roger waved the yellow! No matter what we did, it was wrong. I was in one of Rahal’s Lolas and was running fast enough to make the show and on the last lap coming down the backstretch the engine blew, and you didn’t lose engines back then. Things that were out of our control kept the whole Penske team out of the 1995 Indy 500.”
That was also the last time all the CART teams raced at Indianapolis. Penske was among those who didn’t compete in the 500 for the next six years and when he came back he had given up building his own cars. He won the 500 in 2001 and ’02 with Hélio Castroneves driving Dallaras and with Gil de Ferran driving a Panoz/G Force in ’03. Sam Hornish and Castroneves added two more Indy wins to Penske’s record in 2006 and ’09 while Will Power and Castroneves scored a 1-2 sweep of this year’s IndyCar championship, all aboard Dallaras.
Meanwhile, Roger himself is always looking forward to the next opportunity, the next business deal, the next race. This year his NASCAR drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are in the chase for the Sprint Cup championship with 2012 champ Keselowski looking like a very serious contender. If Keselowski can pull off a second NASCAR championship Penske will be able to tout both NASCAR and IndyCar titles in the same year. If it happens it will be a unique accomplishment, one that Roger might well choose as his most successful season.