Roger Penske defies all superlatives. His race team celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and has long been considered America’s definitive and most successful team. With a record of more than 400 wins and 450 poles across many categories, Penske Racing has 16 victories at the Indy 500 and a dozen IndyCar championships.
But there’s much more to the man than that. Without doubt ‘The Captain’ is the most highly motivated individual I’ve met in more than 40 years of covering motor racing. He’s one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs building a business empire which employs more than 50,000 people and generates $20 billion in annual revenues.
Among other things, Penske Corporation leases almost 500,000 trucks and sells more than 400,000 cars each year. “It’s a worldwide business,” Penske remarks. “We’re in Italy, Spain, Germany, the UK, Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and of course, the United States. These businesses are all related to transportation and to partnerships we’ve built in many cases through our racing relationships.”
Penske runs his business empire and race teams with the help of a fleet of seven corporate jets. He uses two of the planes on a regular basis. “I have one smaller plane that I use in the United States and then we have a Gulfstream 550 that we use for the overseas and international businesses. I do somewhere between 900 and 1,000 hours in the air each year.
“It’s a great place when you’re in the plane because you’ve got access to the internet. We’ve got Wi-Fi and the phone connection is like you’re sitting at your desk. You’ve got Bloomberg and other business news on the TV and internet. It also gives you some quiet time where you get a chance to think about a lot of things that you’re working on and try to develop some strategic thinking about where you’re going to go.”
Penske started his business career in 1965, buying McKeen Chevrolet in Philadelphia where he had worked as a salesman, then a partner. That was the beginning of what would develop into a worldwide chain of more than 400 automobile dealerships. Through the early years Penske’s Competition Tire division, run by Norman Ahn, sold and serviced racing tyres, initially for Firestone, then for Goodyear.
He quickly expanded his business interests beyond racing. Roger bought and rebranded Hertz’s failing truck leasing company as Penske Truck Leasing and rebuilt it into one of the world’s largest. He also bought the Detroit Diesel engine company from General Motors and successfully expanded its operations around the world.
Nor should we forget that he won 51 of the 130 races he started as a driver from 1957-1964. His first victories were in a ’57 Corvette and he later raced a series of Porsche RSs, a Birdcage Maserati, a Ferrari 250GTO, a Cooper Monaco, his famous Zerex Special, and a Chaparral in 1964, his last year as a driver. In 1965, Penske worked as the manager of Jim Hall’s Chaparral team, which dominated that year’s USRRC, winning nine of 10 races with Hall and Hap Sharp driving.
Penske Racing came to life 50 years ago in the spring of 1966 in a tiny, one-car garage in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. The only employees were Mark Donohue, who was the driver, team manager and engineer, and Karl Kainhofer, the chief mechanic. They were assisted on a part-time basis by Bill Scott, a master fabricator who worked for Sunoco, and a teenaged Al Holbert who occupied his summer vacation from college by working as Kainhofer’s gofer at the races.
Donohue won the team’s third race, a United States Road Racing Championship race at Seattle in July, 1966, and Penske Racing went on to accumulate two USRRC and three Trans-Am championships with him. There were also the 1972 and ‘73 Can-Am championships with George Follmer, Donohue and the amazing Porsche 917/10 and 917/30s.
Donohue scored Penske’s first Indy 500 win in 1972 followed by Rick Mears in 1979, ’84, ’88 and ’91, Bobby Unser in 1981, Danny Sullivan in 1985, Al Unser in 1987, Emerson Fittipaldi in 1993, Al Unser Jr. in 1994, Helio Castroneves in 2001, ’02 and ’09, Gil de Ferran in 2003, Sam Hornish in ’06, and Juan Pablo Montoya last year.
Today, Team Penske occupies 300 acres in Mooresville, North Carolina. More than 400 people work at the giant facility which fields four cars in the IndyCar series for Juan-Pablo Montoya, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves, two NASCAR Sprint Cup cars for Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, and a pair of NASCAR Xfinity series entries.
Keselowski won NASCAR’s championship in 2012 and he and Logano have been serious contenders in most races so far this year. Keselowski scored his first win of the year at Las Vegas a few weeks ago, and of course, Montoya won last year’s Indy 500 and also won IndyCar’s season-opener at St. Petersburg a few weeks ago where Penske’s cars swept the top four places in qualifying and finished one-two-four.
“I’ve been with some of the top teams in motor racing, but this is the only team I’ve been with where you actually help each other,” Montoya remarks. “You always help each other developing the car and making the car better, and you help each other in each corner with how and where you turn the car or use the brakes.
“If any of the drivers has a question, he can ask and we will answer it. It all comes from Roger and goes all the way through the team. We’re all team players. I love what I do and I love being with Team Penske. It’s a tremendous team and Roger is ‘The Man’, isn’t he? I’m just lucky to be part of this organisation.”
Roger Penske celebrated his 79th birthday last month and he remains as active as ever. He attends all the IndyCar races, calling the pit strategy for Castoneves, and he also makes most NASCAR races where he watches from the spotters’ stand high atop the grandstands. Few people in the history of motor racing, or the wider world, can equal his tremendous drive, energy and range of accomplishments.
The Hall of Fame voting is now closed, and the finalists will be announced soon.