“You must exceed expectations if you are going to be a winner.”– Roger Penske
When Clint Brawner, the legendary mechanic who ran the Dean Van Lines Special out of a small garage in Phoenix, needed a driver for the 1965 Indianapolis 500, he didn’t look at those following the traditional route in sprint and midget cars on dirt tracks.
Instead, Brawner’s attention was on a Lehigh University-educated Alcoa Aluminum sales engineer who had been winning sports car road-course races since the late 1950s, beating the likes of A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney.
His name? Roger Penske.
But Penske declined Brawner’s invitation to take the Indy rookie test. Then 28, Penske had borrowed money to buy a Philadelphia Chevrolet dealership and couldn’t get insurance if he continued racing. So he stopped, despite winning three SCCA championships and more than 50 races.
It would not be the last time Penske stunned the automotive and motorsports industries with his bold, never-look-back, business-first decisions.
Today, Penske is chief executive of an international automotive and transportation services empire with about 50,000 employees, more than $25 billion in annual revenues and a personal net worth estimated by Forbes at $1.4 billion. Twenty-five of his 326 retail auto locations, representing 39 brands, are in Arizona. Penske Truck leasing operates more than 200,000 vehicles.
Penske is also America’s most successful racing team owner, with 424 victories – including a record 16 Indianapolis 500s – and 28 championships in nine series.
Team Penske’s 50th anniversary season rolls on next weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, site of 11 victories. Brad Keselowski, in the No. 2 Alliance Truck Parts Ford, and Joey Logano, in the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Fusion, are his drivers in Sunday’s Good Sam 500. Keselowski will be in the No. 22 Mustang sponsored by Scottsdale-based Discount Tire in Saturday’s Xfinity Series Axalta Faster. Tougher. Brighter. 200.
Meanwhile, Brawner turned to a young hotshot who was winning in every type of car he sat in.
His name? Mario Andretti.
"Mario did a better job than I could have done,” Penske said.
“I guess you could say it worked out OK for both of us,” said Andretti, who went on to become an Indy and Daytona 500 winner and national and world champion.
Penske quickly realized racing success could help sell products and enhance his image and those of his corporate partners. He believed a well-prepared and great looking car would win races, gain media attention and thus attract sponsors and customers drawn to Penske’s reputation for high quality and good service. The same applies today.
Penske Racing, originally housed in a one-bay garage in Newtown Square, Pa., debuted with a Chevy Corvette winning its class in the 1966 Daytona 24 hours. In 2007 the IndyCar team moved from Reading, Pa., to Mooresville, N.C., where all motorsports operations were combined in a 424,697 square foot factory, featuring Italian floor tile, on 105 acres.
In the early 1980s Penske turned down an offer to become Chrysler CEO. His multi-manufacturer relationships means Penske has raced different brands at the same time. In NASCAR, he campaigns Fords. In IndyCar, it’s Chevrolets.
“Roger cares about putting the right product on the road,” said Edsel B. Ford II, a company director. “It’s very much akin to Henry Ford, who wanted to create a Model T for the world. It’s the motivation and dedication to doing that, and that’s very much Roger.”
“Effort Equals Results,” has long been a Penske motto.
Not even the Super Bowl can distract from his seemingly relentless pursuit of perfection.
Jim McGee, Brawner’s protégé, managed Penske’s IndyCar team from 1975-80.
“We were testing at Phoenix (PIR) on the Sunday afternoon of the Super Bowl,” McGee said. “We had a little portable radio on the pit wall, kind of listening to the game.
“He (Penske) went, ‘Get that thing out of here. We’re here to do a job and I don’t want any distractions.’ He wanted everybody to focus. He wants everybody to feel this is the most important thing in their life. That’s his way to motivate people.”
Rusty Wallace, Penske’s longtime NASCAR driver, said Penske addresses mistakes head-on:
“He goes right to the person in charge and holds them accountable and says, 'Things have got to change,'” Wallace said. “He’s the type of guy who thinks everything is possible.
“He'll say, 'Let's learn from this. Let's not let it happen again.'”
Team President Tim Cindric said, “Roger is an eternal optimist. He’s a guy who keeps pushing and, for those who want to be a part of it, they enjoy being pushed.”
Nov. 20, 2010: NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Brad Keselowski (left) and team owner Roger Penske celebrate the 2010 championship following the Ford 300 at Homestead Miami Speedway.(Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Penske saw his first Indianapolis 500 in 1951, when his father brought him from their Shaker Heights, Ohio, home. Penske recalled in a TV interview they had “lousy seats” and that he “could hardly see the cars going by.”
But, tellingly, another memory endured the passage of years and laps: “It was something about speed . . ."
The Penske Way was quickly noticed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1969, when he first entered a car for Mark Donohue. Gasoline Alley, as the garage area is known, had never seen anything quite like the crisp clean shirts and pressed slacks worn by Penske crew members and the tile floor he had put down in their assigned garage. In 1994 Al Unser Jr. won when Penske capitalized on a rules loophole and partnered with Mercedes-Benz to build a pushrod engine with a significant horsepower advantage.
Shockingly, the following year, neither of Penske’s entries qualified for the 33-car field.
Eighty-five drivers have raced for Penske, 44 winning at least once. The two most closely connected to him are Donohue and Rick Mears.
The moon-faced Donohue, with a crew-cut and a mechanical engineering degree from Brown, was regularly winning sports car races when he joined Penske in 1966.
Donohue, Team Penske’s all-time leader with 59 wins, used his engineering knowledge to develop the cars Penske entered in the SCCA Can-Am and Trans-Am road racing series plus NASCAR and IndyCar. Their technical innovations, meticulous preparation – and sometimes pushing the limits of the rules – came to be known as “The Unfair Advantage.”
May 24, 2015: Team owner Roger Penske (left) hugs IndyCar Series driver Juan Pablo Montoya as they celebrate in victory circle after winning the 2015 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Donohue and Penske won in their fourth try at Indy, in 1972, with a record average speed just under 163 mph that stood for 12 years until eclipsed by Mears. A few weeks later, however, Donohue suffered serious leg injuries when bodywork flew off the powerful Porsche Can-Am car he was testing. He made a successful return then decided to retire and become team president.
That lasted seven months until Donohue attempted a comeback to drive Penske’s new Formula One car and seek a world championship.
“Half of my friends tell me I am doing the right thing and half tell me not to do it,” Donohue said. “But Formula One is the ultimate challenge, it’s something I’ve always wanted. I know what I am doing . . . and I know what can happen.”
It did happen during practice for the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix. A tire puncture launched his car into a barrier. A blood clot was surgically removed from his brain, but Donohue never regained consciousness, and died at age 38. Penske was at his bedside and served as a pallbearer.
(The only other Penske driver to die in competition was IndyCar rookie Gonzalo Rodriguez of Uruguay, 27, in a 1999 crash at Laguna Seca Raceway.)
Mears – who wore a cowboy hat, long hair and mustache – seemed an unlikely Penske driver when they spoke during a Colorado motorcycle ride. Mears quickly cleaned-up his appearance and gave Penske his second Indy win in 1979. Victories in 1984, 1988 and 1991 tied Mears with A.J. Foyt and Al Unser as Indy’s only four-time winners.
Mears suffered severe leg injuries in a 1984 crash.
“The first thing Roger said to me,” Mears said, “‘Take your time. Do what the doctors tell you. Don’t rush it.’ That made all the difference. He put me at ease right away so I could focus on getting better. People didn’t know if I was going to walk again or not. He said, ‘It’s (car) here when you’re ready.’”
Mears retired after the 1992 season and remains a team consultant.
As a driver, Penske won a NASCAR race, in 1963 on the Riverside, Calif., road course. In 1973 Donohue scored Penske’s first Cup win as an owner there in an AMC Matador.
It wasn’t until 1991, when Wallace and partner Don Miller came to him with Miller beer sponsorship, that Penske seriously began his pursuit of a NASCAR championship. Wallace won 10 races in 1993 but lost the title to Dale Earnhardt.
Ryan Newman won Penske’s first Daytona 500 in 2008. Penske hired Keselowski in 2010 and they won Penske’s first NASCAR championship in the second-tier Xfinity Series. Two years later Keselowski won five times and finally got his boss a Cup title. They did it in a Dodge even though Penske had announced a switch to Ford for 2013.
Keselowski lobbied Penske to hire Joey Logano as his teammate and Logano won “The Captain’s” second Daytona 500 in 2015.
“Penske to me was like being at the roulette table and watching it over and over again and not hitting the number that you feel it should hit,” Keselowski said. “You just know the odds are in your favor. It was just a matter of time.”
Penske shows no signs of slowing down even though he recently turned 79 and had a kidney removed several years ago.
Among many other ventures, he organizes an IndyCar event on Detroit’s Belle Isle, has his racing museum in Phoenix and a V8 Supercar team in Australia to promote his truck business there.
Mears concedes it’s hard to keep up.
“I always say, if you want to feel like a bum, follow Roger around for a week.”