Saturn joins planet Penske

Indycar

I was going to write a lament about the loss of Montréal’s Canadian GP and the absence of Formula 1 from North America for the first time in 50 years. As we all know, massive crowds turned out year after year at le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and the city rocked with race fever all week. Please Bernie, can we at least have Montréal back next year?

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Before I could begin wailing about that though, an announcement came late last Friday that Penske Automotive has bought the Saturn division from the bankrupt General Motors. Roger Penske is America’s most successful racing team owner, of course, winning in Indycars, NASCAR and the American Le Mans Series, and historically in F1, Can-Am, long-distance sports car racing and Trans-Am. Penske cars have won more than 300 races, 20 national championships and a record 15 Indy 500s.

But from the start of his career as a successful sports car racer back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Roger was driven by much greater ambitions than being a mere driver or team owner. Over the past 45 years he’s built a powerhouse of a company employing more than 40,000 people and generating annual revenues of more than $15 billion.

1982 Indianapolis Indy 500

Penske Corporation includes a network of more than 100 car dealerships across the US and 310 worldwide, plus Penske Truck Leasing whose yellow trucks are ubiquitous across America. There’s also a private equity capitalisation business and a manufacturing group which includes factories in Germany and Italy building diesel engines and automotive components.

Penske’s personal wealth has taken a substantial hit over the past eight months but he remains one of motor racing’s richest, most motivated men, and buying an existing automobile manufacturer appears to be an entirely natural extension of his global company. Back in 1988 Penske bought the Detroit Diesel engine manufacturing business from General Motors and quickly turned it around. Seven years later he told me the methods he employed to make it successful and I’m sure he’ll apply the same techniques to Saturn.

“The strengths of Detroit Diesel were that they had good people and a manufacturing capability,” says Roger. “But they didn’t have the flexibility to operate in an entrepreneurial way, to get out there and go after business. We put the sales office back in the field. We put demonstration trucks out there. We brought customers to the plant. We leveraged the base of Penske Truck Leasing.

“From day one we reduced the salaried workforce by 25 per cent. Everyone became a salesman. We changed one-third of our distributors because they weren’t committed, or didn’t have the right facilities, or the capital employed, or the right people.”

At 72, Penske remains a remarkable dynamo of a man. He’s probably the most successful corporate mogul that motor racing has ever produced, not only in the Untied States but around the world too, and it will be intriguing to see what he’s able to do with Saturn.

2009 IRL Indy 500 Practice

“Saturn has a passionate customer base and an outstanding dealer network,” said Penske in a statement. “For nearly 20 years, Saturn has focused on treating the customer right. We share that philosophy, and we want to build on those strengths.”

Meanwhile Roger’s three race teams were in action last weekend at the Texas Motor Speedway (Indycar), Pocono in Pennsylvania (NASCAR Sprint Cup), and Watkins Glen in upstate New York (Grand-Am). Hélio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe scored a convincing Indycar one-two in Texas on Saturday night, with Briscoe leading the most laps and taking the points lead from Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. At the Glen on Saturday afternoon Tim Bernard/Romain Dumas drove Penske’s Riley-Porsche to second place behind Scott Pruett/Memo Rojas, and at Pocono on Sunday Penske’s trio of NASCAR drivers were led home by Sam Hornish, who finished 10th. Lead driver Kurt Busch lost 18 laps changing a fuel pump and finished 37th.

2009 NASCAR Pocono

And Roger flew from race to race, sitting atop his team’s scoring stands at the Glen and Texas on Saturday, and spotting for Busch from the top of Pocono’s grandstands on Sunday. After all these years he remains as hands-on a boss as ever.

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