Roger Penske (born 1937) became a rich man as the owner of Penske Corporation, a multi-billion dollar company involved in many things, including motor racing. Once a successful racecar driver himself, Penske seemed to have a sixth sense about race strategy. He became one of the most winning car owners of all time in the major forms of auto racing.
The pit crew always called Roger Penske "Captain" during a race. Penske managed his racing teams with military precision, just as his pit crew serviced the car whenever it stopped. Penske was always cool, calm and collected, rarely becoming upset or agitated regardless of what was happening on the track. Considered to be a perfectionist, Penske was still easy to work for. If, that is, you planned to work hard toward a goal. For he was driven to perfection in business, in sports, and in his personal life, and he expected those around him to give the same dedication regardless of how much time or effort the job demanded.
Roger Penske was born in Red Bank, New Jersey on February 20, 1937. When he was young, the family moved to Ohio, and Penske attended Shaker Heights High School in suburban Cleveland. He was a member of the football team until a motorcycle accident shattered his ankle. Doctors tors debated whether to amputate his foot, but finally decided to give the shattered bones time to recover.
After several months of rehabilitation, Penske taught himself to walk, then to run. He was finally well enough to return to football the next season. In his first game, he blocked two punts, falling on one for a touchdown, and Shaker Heights beat their rival, by a score of 23-14. Penske was the hero of the game.
Penske graduated from Lehigh University, with a degree in business administration. By then he had become very involved in automobile racing. He loved the sport with a passion. By checking into the university infirmary on Fridays to claim illness, he was excused so he could go to the track. Penske became a top Sports Car Club of America driver in his 1957 Corvette, but his father didn't like it.
"The worst thing that could happen to him would be to win a race," J.H. Penske told the Cleveland Plain Dealer sports editor, Hal Lebovitz, before Penske's amateur racing career really started. "Then," continued the father, "the worst thing happened."
Penske went on to win Sports Illustrated magazine's "Driver of the Year" award, and to be named by Frank Blunk, the late motor sports writer for the New York Times, as "North American Driver of the Year" in 1962. Penske's victory in three races during Nassau Speed Week capped a near-perfect season, in which he also won the Los Angeles Times' Grand Prix at Riverside Raceway in California, against an international field. He had suddenly achieved worldwide recognition as a racecar driver.
Penske was a racecar driver who always studied the rules carefully. Once at Riverside, he arrived with a slim car that had much less resistance to air than the others. The rules said the cars in that series had to have two seats, even if the second seat wasn't usable. So most of the cars were built with seats side by side. Not in Penske's car. The rules only said "two seats," they didn't say where the seats had to be. Penske put his smaller seat behind him in the driver's compartment, not beside him. His car was sleeker and faster, and he won the race. That was how Penske operated, and how his so-called "unfair advantage" reputation began. He always seemed to be one step ahead of his competitors.
Penske was racing the legends. Only a year after his Riverside win, he overcame a bad start in his first stock car race (he was bumped off the track by another car) to duel wheel-to-wheel with top driving stars, Joe Weatherly and Darel Dieringer. He defeated them and won his first and only NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) Grand National Race in the Riverside event. Soon after, he retired from driving. Penske had plans that would not allow racing. Typical of him, he gave up an activity he loved to begin one he felt would be just as successful.
Penske teamed with a young engineer by the name of Mark Donohue, a relationship that would bring Penske some of his highest and lowest moments. Together, the two dominated American road racing with a series of 1960s championships in Trans-Am, the US Road Racing Circuit, and SCCA endurance racing. This was the beginning of a racing team that won a Trans-Am title for American Motors and led to SCCA professional racing, the thundering Can-Am series, Indianapolis-style open wheel racing, and world class Formula One. With Donohue in the cockpit and Penske managing the team, the two won in every series in which they raced. The pinnacle was reached when the Penske-Donohue team won the famous Indianapolis 500 mile Speedway Race in 1972.
While building his reputation as a meticulous and tireless racing team manager, Penske was also creating a dynamic, fast growing company known as the Penske Corporation. He started his business career after college by joining the Alcoa Company as a sales engineer. In 1964, he left that position to become general manager of McKean Chevrolet in Philadelphia, and then bought out the owner when he retired in 1965. This was the beginning of Penske's business empire, which grew to include many auto dealerships and other, much larger companies. The Penske Corporation became a multi-billion dollar industry, employed more than 28,000 people, and had more than 1,800 facilities throughout the world.
Penske and Donohue took on Formula One racing in Europe. This is said by racing experts to be the type of racing that demands the most skill and dedication. They were doing well, and Donohue was becoming known as a world champion driver, when a 1975 practice accident before the Austrian Grand Prix ended the adventure. Donohue flipped off the track due to a deflating tire. His bouncing car killed one course marshal and injured another in the violent crash, but Donohue seemed to have escaped unharmed. Two days later he collapsed. The young driver died during brain surgery. Penske was devastated.
However, Penske's racing involvement continued. Working over the next few years in various racing series with top drivers, his cars won many races. His drivers included Gary Bettenhausen, Bobby Allison, Tom Sneva, John Watson, Rick Mears, Bobby and Al Unser, Sr., Danny Sullivan, Al Unser, Jr., Paul Tracy, and World Driving Champions Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi. Penske's cars won in NASCAR and in Formula One races. In the 25 Indianapolis 500 races that Penske entered, his cars won an amazing ten times. He set records for winning that will probably never be equaled. In Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) racing, an organization Penske created and managed with a cooperative board of directors, his cars won almost 100 races. His cars won nine National Championships, and more than 30 races on the NASCAR circuit. Penske was far and away the most winning car owner of all.
Penske always insisted upon designing and building his own cars for each series, especially the open-wheel "Indy-type" racing cars. He often said he got far more pleasure out of winning with a car that he had designed than winning with cars everybody else was driving. This sometimes held his teams back, as they sorted out the problems in new designs and innovative construction. But eventually the Penske cars would begin winning. When others began imitating Penske, he would design new ones, with even more innovative features. Once he re-designed a Mercedes engine with very short push rods for the Indianapolis race, and his car dominated the event. The next year he came back with yet another design and, to the surprise of racing fans everywhere, Penske's cars didn't even qualify for the race considered to be one of the most important in the world.
As he continued to build his business empire, Penske acquired racetracks. He became the owner of Michigan Speedway, Nazareth (Pennsylvania) Speedway, North Carolina Motor Speedway and, in 1997, he built the state-of the-art California Speedway, a few miles from Los Angeles. The holdings of the Penske Corporation came to include Detroit Diesel Corporation, Diesel Technology Company, Penske Truck Leasing Company, Penske Automotive Group, Penske Auto Centers (the automotive service centers in K-Mart stores throughout the United States) and Penske Motorsports, handling the motor racing activities. Penske also became the co-owner of cars belonging to other racing teams that he thought were innovative, or could win.
Penske always exuded a "star quality," standing calm and self-assured in his racing pits, but he tended to avoid crowds and publicity. He was recruited to succeed Lee Iacocca at Chrysler Corporation, a job he did not take. He sat on the board of directors of General Electric and Philip Morris. Unlike most other chief executive officers of billion dollar corporations, Penske continued to don a fire suit so that he could personally manage the racing teams he loved.
Penske settled in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, with his wife. His two oldest sons from a previous marriage became executives in his corporation. Penske also had two daughters with his second wife, Kathryn. He continued to travel extensively in order to manage his many enterprises, but enjoyed returning home to relax. Penske has been consistently listed as one of the top "power players" in the world of motor sports, and is recognized throughout the world for his businesses and business connections.
Olney, Ross R., Drama on the Speedway, Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1978
Olney, Ross R., Modern Auto Racing Superstars, Dodd Mead, 1978
Olney, Ross R., Super Champions of Auto Racing, Clarion Books, 1984