Roger Penske is renowned as one of America’s most successful businessmen.
But before that, Penske made his name as one of America’s most successful auto racing team owners. And long before that, he was a highly successful race car driver, a road racer good enough to earn recognition from Sports Illustrated as the magazine’s 1961 “Sports Car Driver of the Year.”
Penske’s passion for auto racing is directly responsible for his reputation and success as a businessman. In 1965, he made a calculated decision to focus on business and leave the driving to someone else; starting with a single Chevrolet dealership in Philadelphia and a six-man race team that fielded cars for the Mark Donohue across the entire spectrum of automobile racing, Penske has cultivated a corporate empire that manages businesses with revenues in excess of $16 billion, operating in nearly 2,900 locations and employing more than 36,000 people worldwide.
“I was a good race driver, but I don’t know that I was a great race driver,” Penske told Motor Trend in 2005. “I made the decision to become a businessman instead of a race driver when I became a Chevy dealer. Jim McGee had asked me to test at Indy, to drive Indianapolis in fact. I wasn’t able to do it, and Mario Andretti took the test in that car. Mario went on to be one of the greatest race drivers of all time. I took the business route.”
It proved to be a wise move for Penske. That lone Chevy dealership has blossomed into 336 retail franchises representing 42 different nameplates. And Penske Racing has grown too: The team now fields full-time entries in the IZOD IndyCar Series, and NASCAR’s Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series.
And the racing and business sides of Penske’s empire remain closely connected. He attends almost every race his cars compete in, sometimes multiple events on the same weekend. You could say that racing is his hobby, except he takes it far more seriously than that. At 75, he’s still an active participant, a team owner who leads by example. At IndyCar races, he calls Ryan Briscoe’s race strategy.
“The racing is obviously a great catalyst for everything we do,” Penske remarked. “It’s our marketing arm, though we don’t spend a lot of money, other than our automotive retail arm, where we have certain advertising campaigns. We built the truck-leasing brand because of the racing heritage over the last 25 years, and I think they’re interconnected, though there’s not a clear delineation where one starts and one stops. It’s something we use as customer entertainment, as employee entertainment.”
Still, after all of Mr. Penske’s achievements on and off the racetrack, he’s most famous for one thing: An unmatched record of 15 victories as a team owner in the Indianapolis 500.
Penske’s achievements at IMS will be celebrated on Saturday, May 26 during ‘Legends Day Honoring Roger Penske’ at the Speedway. It will mark the 40th anniversary of Penske’s first Indianapolis win, earned by Donohue in 1972.
Other featured events on Legends Day include the annual Public Drivers’ Meeting on pit road adjacent to the Tower Terrace grandstand, autograph sessions with the 2012 Indianapolis 500 starting field as well as former Indy 500 drivers, and a racing memorabilia show featuring vendors from the United States, Europe and Australia.?
Admission to IMS on Legends Day is $10 for adults, with children 12 and under free when accompanied by an adult.
Since entering Indy car competition in 1968, Team Penske has won 167 races and ten full-season championships. But it’s those 15 wins at Indianapolis that stir the memories, and even sixty years after attending his first race at the Speedway, the place remains special to Penske.
“I don’t think you can come to this race track and think it’s ho-hum,” Penske marveled. “This is the greatest race in the world, and I love coming here. I look forward to it every year. We spend a lot of time and effort planning. One of the things we say to our people is that we come here every year like it’s the first time. And when we leave here after the race, we’re already thinking about next year’s race. That’s the kind of preparation it takes to be successful at Indianapolis.”
Team Penske has won all four IndyCar Series races in 2012 and Verizon-sponsored driver Will Power leads the point standings. Power has three consecutive wins after his teammate Helio Castroneves, who is second in the points, won the season opener at St. Petersburg.
Castroneves is considered one of the strong favorites at this year’s Indy 500, and the Brazilian will be aiming to join Rick Mears, Al Unser and AJ Foyt on the prestigious list of four-time Indianapolis winners.