An aluminum salesman, Roger Penske began racing in the late 1950s and enjoyed considerable success as a sports car driver in the United States. He did the occasional single-seater race, including a couple of United States Grands Prix before he turned his hand to NASCAR. He retired from the sport in 1964 to concentrate on building up a network of car dealerships and as these began to flourish he established Team Penske in 1966 with Mark Donohue as the driver/engineer. The team enjoyed rapid success in CanAm and TransAm and won the classic Daytona 24 Hours in 1969, Donohue becoming Rookie of the Year at Indianapolis on the team’s first appearance at the 500. Successes followed in Championship racing, TransAm and Formula 5000. The 1972 season marked a high point for the operation as Donohue won the Indianapolis 500 and the team won the CanAm title with George Follmer driving a Porsche 917. Further successes were added in NASCAR and USAC and at the end of 1974 Roger Penske decided to enter a team in Formula 1.
The team was sponsored by First National City and a factory was established in Poole, England. The first car – the Penske PC1 – appeared at the Canadian Grand Prix in 1974 where Mark Donohue finished 12th. The following year Donohue persevered with the car but it was not very competitive and at midseason Penske decided to switch to the March 751. Three races later Donohue died after a practice accident at the Osterreichring. The team regrouped and ran John Watson in the final race of the season at Watkins Glen. The following year Watson was signed up to drive a new Penske PC3 but this was not as good as had been hoped and in the midseason Penske produced a new PC4. This was much better and at the Austrian GP, a year after Donohue’s death, Watson gave the team its first victory.
At the end of the year Penske announced that the team would not be continuing in 1977. The cars were sold to Gunther Schmid’s ATS team and the Penske factory in Poole began producing Indycar chassis.
The first Penske-built Indycar – the PC5 – appeared in the summer of 1977 and was a replica of the McLarenM24. Driving a McLaren (with which he won at Texas and Pocono) and then the PC5, Tom Sneva won the USAC title in 1977 and in 1978 followed up with another title in the Penske PC6. In 1979 Rick Mears gave the team its third consecutive title.
In the 1980s Penske remained the force to be reckoned with in CART while also expanding into NASCAR and into track ownership but he never returned to F1 – despite regular rumors that he was planning to do so.