Why Roger Penske is an American motorsport icon

David Malsher-Lopez
·23-min read

This story comes from our sister title Autosport's 196-page special magazine to celebrate its 70th birthday. All current print subscribers will receive a copy for free but to order your copy of the 196-page Autosport 70th Anniversary issue, please click here.

(Author’s note: So many people wanted to talk at length about their experiences working with and for Roger Penske that we were forced to create separate stories for their reminiscences. These will be published here on Motorsport.com in the days ahead. So for now, here is simply the result of our exclusive one-on-one with the man himself.)

Roger Penske runs the most iconic and diverse motorsport team in American history, and since last offseason he has also owned both IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Most remarkable, though, is that he remains a regular Joe human yet a G.I. Joe hero at the racetrack and in the boardroom.

Penske will consider a matter from all angles before making a decision but can form that 360-degree view swifter than most and his subsequent decision is usually the right one. He will get involved at all levels of his racing team and be conscientious and detail-oriented, yet also knows when to observe, listen and understand without micromanaging, because he’s already installed managers who emulate his style. He is an entrepreneur extraordinaire but rather than being cold-blooded, he demonstrates great loyalty and compassion. He’s single-minded when it comes to the pursuit of success but in this case ‘single-minded’ does not mean determination driven by blind optimism. Roger Penske is the ultimate realist.

As one prominent member (who better remain nameless) of a rival team (that better remain nameless) recently put it, “I can’t say I know Roger except to nod or shake his hand on pitlane if his team’s done well – or if his team has let us do well! So I’m basing my opinion purely off what I’ve heard about him, and what I’ve seen him do for the sport. But what I like about RP is that, being in his position, he must have 50 opportunities a day to be a bastard – and he just isn’t. That motto he has for the team, Effort equals results, is good, but I’d say another one for him would be, Give 100 percent, be successful, but never be a dick about it. The guy is a great leader and a great winner but not a sore loser. That, I think, deserves total respect.

“And let’s face it,” he concluded, “where would we be without him?”

That was a common refrain throughout the wretched coronavirus-plagued 2020. In November 2019, several rival team owners spoke without equivocation of the pleasure they took from seeing Penske, approaching his 83rd birthday, being able to take on his dream role as owner of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Then, as spring approached summer and their cars sat idle in race shops, in between worries over their own teams’ future, these same folk truly sympathized with him… while at the same time, being hugely grateful that it was The Captain who was steering the ship through this troubling, uncharted territory of a pandemic-ravaged schedule.

Mark Donohue and Roger Penske formed a fearsome and amazingly versatile combo for 10 years.

Mark Donohue and Roger Penske formed a fearsome and amazingly versatile combo for 10 years. <span class="copyright">Motorsport Images</span>
Mark Donohue and Roger Penske formed a fearsome and amazingly versatile combo for 10 years. Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

So how did Roger Searle Penske, from Shaker Heights, Ohio, reach the status of being held in such universal respect by the racing community? Well of course it has its roots in his team ownership and the swiftness with which he found success once he quit the cockpit. In terms of pure driving talent Penske had been the equivalent of say, Roy Salvadori – in other words, very good – and with the right opportunities and full focus on driving, he might even have been America’s next-gen equivalent of Belgium’s four-time Le Mans winning driver Olivier Gendebien.

But studying business at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania had left young Roger with more than one string to his bow. It may be difficult to imagine a proven race-winning driver with yet more to prove and being only 28 years of age summoning the self-restraint to give up the adrenaline rush of being in the cockpit, but here’s where we go back to his aforementioned attribute of being a realist.

Penske tells Motorsport.com: “I met a gentleman by the name of George McKean who was a Chevrolet dealer in West Philadelphia and after he lost his son tragically, he offered me a chance to come and work for him as a general manager. I said I would come on board but I wanted the opportunity to buy the business in two years, and when it got to the point where I was able to do that, I went to General Motors with a proposal. They said, ‘If you’re going to be a Chevy dealer, you can’t be a race driver’ – the same thing they said to [1960 Indy 500 winner] Jim Rathmann when he was looking to buy a dealership in South Florida. That was one reason for hanging up the helmet.

“Then I still needed $50,000 to buy this dealership, so I went to my Dad who was retired, and we drove to Pittsburgh so he could take the money from his savings. As we were driving home he said, ‘If you lose this, I’ll have to go back to work!’ So those were the real reasons I focused on the business: I wasn’t going to let my Dad down and I was married with a family and had to provide for them with this dealership.

“I was out of racing for a year, and then a customer named Elmer Bradley from Sun Oil Company [Sunoco] came into the dealership to buy a Corvette, and one night I asked him, ‘Why doesn’t Sunoco sponsor a car in the Daytona 24 Hour race?’ And lo and behold, after a couple of conversations we decided to enter a Corvette in Daytona in ’66. So that was the link between the dealership and racing, and from there, Sunoco became our sponsor for many years.”

It’s now a matter of legend that Penske’s racing exploits as an entrant saw him grow and diversify with stunning rapidity. With Mark Donohue driving, Penske’s Lola T70 and McLaren M6A won two USRRC titles, his Chevy Camaros dominated the Trans-Am championship in ’68 and ’69, and his Lola T70 Mk III won the 1969 Daytona 24 Hours with Donohue and Chuck Parsons at the wheel. In 1971, he ran the achingly gorgeous blue Ferrari 512M for Donohue and David Hobbs in four marquee sportscar races, but this was a rare instance when effort (and pace) failed to equal results.

The switch from Chevy to AMC to run Javelins in the ’70 Trans-Am series Penske describes as “a huge challenge”– but probably only because it took until ’71 for the team to dominate! Penske also started to dip a toe in NASCAR waters at this time, too. But most significant was that he had also been cherry-picking Indy car races from 1968 through ’70, first running an Eagle, then Lolas, the highlight being a runner-up finish in the 1970 Indy 500.

Yes, from a simple car-dealer-enters-racecar-in-big-race situation in January ’66, things became very complex at dizzying speed – or so it seems from the outside. Penske, of course, plays down such talk having thought everything through with his now customarily cool rationale, taking the right opportunities and making them successful.

“I knew the Chevy folks and the Camaro Trans-Am deal made sense from their perspective,” he says, “but at the same time I wanted to run in sportscars too, and I set up the Can-Am team in sort of partnership with Donohue. Then with the success we had, I was called up by the wife of Ferdinand Piech who said her husband would like to meet, and so I met up with him and his brother Michael in Stuttgart and we developed the strategy to run Porsches in Can-Am, at a time when the McLaren team were dominating. We ran the 917/10 in ’72 and the 917/30 in ’73 and they were super-successful.”

Speaking of awesome combos, Donohue in the 1100hp Porsche 917/30 redefined domination.

Speaking of awesome combos, Donohue in the 1100hp Porsche 917/30 redefined domination. <span class="copyright">Motorsport Images</span>
Speaking of awesome combos, Donohue in the 1100hp Porsche 917/30 redefined domination. Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

And that was the point. From looking like an astute opportunist who knew how to persuade the corporate gray suits that they should go racing, Penske had so swiftly established a reputation of trustworthiness and high quality that now the suits came looking for him – and saw their faith rewarded.

“Yes, being a Porsche dealer, Audi dealer, Chevy dealer… I had access, through the auto industry, to the folks who would sign off on racing programs, and by then we had a track record of success that was meaningful.”

Also by then, Penske and Donohue were winners of the Indy 500, the event that Roger had fallen in love with ever since his father first took him to the Speedway in 1951 and they’d sat in Turn 4 watching Lee Wallard drive to victory. Having switched to a McLaren chassis a couple of months into the 1971 season, RP saw Donohue dominate the first quarter of the 500 before retiring with transmission failure, but they bounced back in style to score their first two Indy car wins back to back at Pocono and Michigan. The following year, Indy was in the bag too.

Yet Penske’s ambition stretched wider still. Having entered Donohue as a one-off in the Canadian Grand Prix in 1971 (they had finished third on their F1 debut!), gradually a seed of an idea started germinating – owning a facility in the UK and entering Formula 1 full-time. So in 1973, the same year he moved his American raceshop from Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, 50 miles northwest to Reading, Penske also bought the Poole, Dorset, UK-based raceshop of Formula 5000 ace Graham McRae.

“I remember McRae slid open the doors to his shop and it had a wood fireplace in there to keep warm,” chuckles Penske. “But anyway, this facility seemed a worthwhile investment because in Reading, we were running not just IndyCar but also an IROC program, Can-Am, a little bit of NASCAR… it was almost too much.”

The fledgling UK arm of the burgeoning Penske team took shape, with Heinz Hofer installed as F1 team manager, Karl Kainhofer – who Penske had known since his Porsche racing days 15 years earlier – as ace engine builder/mechanic, and Geoff Ferris (“a very talented guy,” says Penske) as designer and engineer. Over the course of 1974, the team’s first ‘homebuild’ design, the Penske PC1, took shape and towards the end of season, made its debut.

It was by no means an unmitigated success and in his first 11 races with the car, Donohue scored just two points, and so the team switched to a March 751 toward the end of ’74. Donohue scored fifth at Silverstone in his first race with the car, but a month later he died following a heavy shunt at the Osterreichring due to a suspected tire deflation.

Despite the loss of his close friend, business partner and team talisman, Penske continued in F1 for the 1976 season with John Watson as his driver and the team’s new PC4. This combination would win – ironically at the Osterreichring – and finish fifth in the championship, but F1’s appeal had waned.

John Watson heads to victory in the Penske PC4 Ford at the Austrian GP in 1976.

John Watson heads to victory in the Penske PC4 Ford at the Austrian GP in 1976. <span class="copyright">Ercole Colombo</span>
John Watson heads to victory in the Penske PC4 Ford at the Austrian GP in 1976. Ercole Colombo

Ercole Colombo

“I liked Formula 1, but when I started looking at it from a business perspective, it didn’t give us the leverage with the OEMs and the customer base here in the States,” says Penske. “At the same time, we were building our transportation business, and we had lost Mark in Austria which had a deep impact on us… Honestly, if he’d have still been with us, we may have continued [in F1] a little longer. But it was more of a business decision.

“On the positive side, we now had a facility in the UK where we could build our own Indy cars. We wanted to be independent, we didn’t want to just take a car off the shelf from McLaren or whoever. So we ran our own car [PC5] from part way through ’77 [having started the season with McLaren M24s] and it was fairly good, and then the ’78 car [PC6] I feel gave us a competitive advantage.”

Tom Sneva won the USAC Indy car drivers’ title both years – Penske Racing’s first titles in open-wheel racing – despite scoring zero race wins in the second! The other car, shared by Formula 1-focused Mario Andretti and new signing Rick Mears produced four wins. Suddenly, Penske was producing race-winning cars and had a new star in the cockpit. Mears (pictured with Penske in the lead picture) would go on to score three series championships and 29 wins including four Indy 500s.

And so from 1979 – the year of Mears’ first 500 win (Penske’s second) and first championship (Penske’s third consecutive), the team switched from becoming one of the best to becoming a true powerhouse in Indy car racing, as 16 championships and 18 Indy 500 wins will attest. Through the ’80s and ’90s the team would usually run cars of its own creation, be they from the pen of Ferris or the similarly brilliant Nigel Bennett, but should a car prove to be an irredeemable warthog, Penske was not averse to switching to a customer chassis, be it from March or Lola, and then Penske-fying it. In 2000, after a couple of winless seasons with its own cars, Team Penske switched to Reynard, customized the chassis so much that they were nicknamed ‘Renskes’ and lead driver Gil de Ferran duly delivered consecutive championships.

Switching to Reynard chassis from 2000 took Penske into a new and no less successful era.

Switching to Reynard chassis from 2000 took Penske into a new and no less successful era.<span class="copyright">Richard Sloop</span>
Switching to Reynard chassis from 2000 took Penske into a new and no less successful era.Richard Sloop

Richard Sloop

As IndyCar became increasingly spec over the next few years, Penske could no longer justify the expense of his Nick Goozee-managed facility in Poole, and closed it down in 2009. The days were long gone when looser series restrictions allowed for radical engineering smarts, or when Penske could find a loophole in the Indy 500 regs and emerge in May with a stock block Mercedes-powered ‘Beast’ to demolish the opposition, as in 1994.

Ask Penske if he misses that era in Indy car racing, and he ignores the emotional aspect of the question and Roger the realist emerges once more.

“It’s about economics,” he says, “because technology ran over all of us. Aerodynamic advances, mechanical advances, the simulation work – they’re all expensive, so for all teams to be able to compete for wins or podiums, they all need similar funding and there’s just not enough sponsorship out there any more. And you can no longer make up for a sponsorship shortfall with investment from OEMs. Manufacturers today look at what products are selling on the highway and then see if your sport can offer benefits in technical advancements.

“NASCAR is recognizing the hard economics of this, too, and are shifting priorities for the sake of the teams. They see that to engage fans, you need close competition like in IndyCar, but you can do that while also saving on costs. Some of the basic parts on the Gen. 2 car – pieces that don’t make a positive difference to the racing – will be common to all, so we can buy them at the lowest cost.

“I applaud that philosophy because the people in the stands don’t care if you’re spending $20m or $5m on your car: they’re looking to cheer on the driver and the team and they just want great racing. So adopt reliable common components at low cost, then the rest is up to the teams to come up with the best car, best setups and best drivers. Even with tight restrictions, you still see the cream rise to the top.”

This appreciation of what’s necessary to keep the less well-funded teams in the hunt is why in-fighting between IndyCar team owners has morphed into solidarity, recognition that a rising tide floats all boats. It started with Jay Frye becoming competitions director in 2015 (he’s now IndyCar president), and has continued under Penske’s stewardship.

“In business, if you think as an individual, it’s bad for the company,” he says. “I’ve always run the business not by exclusion but by inclusion. In racing, it’s the same thing: having a broader perspective is vital, and that’s manifesting itself now in IndyCar. I want to see everyone included. When it’s time to go racing, I want to win, but only if everyone’s on equal footing, working to the same rules. The integrity of the sport is the responsibility of everyone and I feel IndyCar team owners understand that, just as they understand about working together for the health of the sport.”

More in 2020 than ever before?

“Yes, as you know, it’s been very tough to execute 14 races during this pandemic. I was not expecting, on January 6th when we closed the purchase [on the series and IMS], that we wouldn’t have 300,000 people at the Speedway in May. This is an unprecedented time. But being in this business for over 50 years, I’ve had other big disappointments. Indy qualifying in 1995, walking down pitlane after not making the show – that was tough medicine to swallow.

“This is a big bump in the road, it hits a little more in the pocket book, but to your point, yes, it’s helped bring the teams even closer together. I think our investment in the series and the Speedway has given owners confidence that we’re in it for the long haul. Hopefully it also gives companies outside IndyCar some confidence in our stability, so we can get a third manufacturer and more big sponsors.”

Power's Penske-Chevrolet leads at the start of the 2020 finale. Roger Penske's first year in charge of the series was a year quite unlike any other, due to the pandemic.

Power's Penske-Chevrolet leads at the start of the 2020 finale. Roger Penske's first year in charge of the series was a year quite unlike any other, due to the pandemic. <span class="copyright">Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images</span>
Power's Penske-Chevrolet leads at the start of the 2020 finale. Roger Penske's first year in charge of the series was a year quite unlike any other, due to the pandemic. Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

What outside observers of the series will have very rarely seen in 2020 is Penske himself hanging out at his IndyCar team’s pits. A rare exception was when he chose to watch his Supercars ‘import’ Scott McLaughlin taking his first laps of St. Petersburg ahead of his IndyCar debut. Aside from that, he’s deliberately left the team very much in the hands of its president, Tim Cindric. Although not one of Roger’s rivals has yet suggested a conflict of interest in having one of the two most successful team owners also running the series and its crown jewel event, the man himself felt it was important to not leave cause for doubt. It’s a perception thing.

“That’s been one of the toughest things – deciding where I go for each session, because obviously I don’t want to miss any of the action!” says Penske who remains a true racing enthusiast. “Do I go sit in the motorhome? Fortunately at Indy I could go up top and I’ve got a screen and I’ve got the timing and scoring, but that’s been a little bit hard to take – watching the game instead of playing in it.”

This interview has focused very much on IndyCar because RP is now an even bigger figure within U.S. open-wheel racing than he was 15 months ago. Also, it is simply impossible to adequately cover everything he has achieved such as his six-year involvement with Dick Johnson Racing in Supercars, which has now ended after huge success (three championships) with McLaughlin as the spearhead. In IMSA, Penske dominated LMP2 with the wonderful Porsche RS Spyder in 2006 through ’08, and more recently ran the Acura ARX-05s to championship glory in 2019 and ’20, although that partnership has now also been dissolved. But Penske isn’t done with European sportscars: he wants to return to Le Mans once the LMDh/Hypercar rules are clarified, “because long distance racing is part of our heritage.”

But there are a couple of vital topics that must be discussed as one senses they have a greater degree of permanence in the Penske portfolio. One is race organization/track ownership; the other, his NASCAR squad.

Rusty Wallace (left) delivered Penske 37 wins in NASCAR, but it was Ryan Newman (right) who landed the team's first Daytona 500 victory, in 2008.

Rusty Wallace (left) delivered Penske 37 wins in NASCAR, but it was Ryan Newman (right) who landed the team's first Daytona 500 victory, in 2008. <span class="copyright">Getty Images</span>
Rusty Wallace (left) delivered Penske 37 wins in NASCAR, but it was Ryan Newman (right) who landed the team's first Daytona 500 victory, in 2008. Getty Images

Getty Images

After first entering the stock car fray in 1972, Penske Racing achieved its first win thanks to Donohue (yes, the man could win in pretty much anything) driving an AMC Matador to glory at Riverside, and Bobby Allison would score four more wins for the team over the next couple of years. Penske’s NASCAR efforts came to a halt in 1980, but 11 years later were revived when Penske Racing South was formed around Rusty Wallace.

“Initially it wasn’t going to be fulltime,” reveals The Captain. “Then Don Miller [of Miller Brewing Company] said he could put a deal together. Miller was already a sponsor of ours on the Indy car side and so we decided with the great team we’d put together, to build a small shop down there in Mooresville, North Carolina, and we went on to have great success.”

Indeed: the brilliant Arnould, Missouri-born Rusty Wallace would produce 37 wins for the team which initially ran Pontiacs, then switched to Ford and then Dodge. And that Mooresville facility kept growing and growing until the entire Penske race operation had moved there in 2007.

“To have Penske Racing, North and South, wasn’t going to make any sense long term, so bringing it under one roof was the best solution. We have all the engineering talent, all the equipment, the engine shop is there, and the windtunnel is close by. And I honestly think it’s paid off.”

Penske finally won the Daytona 500 in 2008 with Ryan Newman, the Xfinity [then Nationwide] Series championship with Brad Keselowski in 2010 and then the Cup title with Keselowski in 2012. Dodge pulled out of NASCAR at the end of that season, since when Penske has run Fords, with Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano winning the Daytona 500 in 2015 and the series title in 2018. Austin Cindric – son of team president Tim Cindric – added the Xfinity title this past season.

In regard to tracks, Penske’s ownership of Michigan Speedway, North Carolina Speedway and construction and ownership of California Speedway (generally referred to as ‘Fontana’) are now just sepia-tinged pages in motorsport’s history books, but his involvement in the Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle is here to stay because Penske loves Motown.

Penske is committed to keeping IndyCar racing in his 'backyard', Detroit.

Penske is committed to keeping IndyCar racing in his 'backyard', Detroit. <span class="copyright">Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images</span>
Penske is committed to keeping IndyCar racing in his 'backyard', Detroit. Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

“I came here when we bought Detroit Diesel back in 1988,” he explains, “and I think I had my first Chevy dealership here back in ’68 or ’69. It’s the home of the Big Three [GM, Ford, Fiat Chrysler] and I’ve had high connections with all of them. My wife Cathy and I like the Midwest, my kids grew up here, the headquarters of Penske Corporation is here – and logistically, being in the middle of the country and having a plane, I can go anywhere pretty quickly. This is a perfect place to live.

“I helped run the Superbowl here in 2006, and after that a sort of renaissance took place, and people were asking me what else we could do. I said, ‘Let’s re-do the Belle Isle Grand Prix’ [which had run from 1992 to 2001], and because we had partnerships in other areas, we had the opportunity to get those partners onboard. Since then, it’s brought $35-$40m economic benefit each year to the area and showcased the city on television, and I feel it is a keystone in our schedule.”

Penske’s has been a remarkable journey that doubtless still has highlights to come. But perhaps the power of his brand is best illustrated by how readily automotive manufacturers set aside their rivalries in order to be involved. His isn’t the only team to have this allure – see Ganassi and Andretti – but Penske was the first to do so with global reach. This past year, for example, Penske-Chevrolets in IndyCar ran against Honda/HPD, while in IMSA, Penske-run Acura/HPD cars ran against GM (Cadillac), and in NASCAR and Supercars, Penske Fords competed against GM… Yet Penske says these aren’t anomalies.

“I don’t look at that as doing anything special,” he says, brushing aside anything approaching a compliment. “Usually, the companies seek us out because they want to be with a proven winning organization, even though we can’t guarantee anything. It’s like successful auto dealers being able to run different brands at different dealerships. We have multiple brands, for instance: I can be the Chevy dealer in one town and the Ford dealer in the next town.

“So once an OEM understands our circumstances and accepts them, they come to us and we look at each program and judge them on their own merits.”

That’s the point; the manufacturers come to him, and he was the one who set the template for doing that on a large scale in racing by being so successful so rapidly, diversely and comprehensively. Roger Penske is a game changer because he helped change the game into a sustainable professional business while never losing his passion for competition nor his appreciation of the word ‘sport’ within ‘motorsport’. There is truly no one like him.

<span class="copyright">Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images</span>
Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images