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Roger Penske and His Race Teams Celebrate Milestone Anniversary

50 years of winning

Automobile StaffwriterIMS PhotophotographerLAT Photographicphotographer

The past 50 years span a period of nine U.S. presidents, the explosion of cable television, the rise and demise of the space shuttle program, and the introduction of the far-reaching technology we call the Internet.

They also span Roger Penske's history of owning race teams, a collection considered the gold standard of motorsports.

Old-timers might remember Penske debuting on the national scene as a sports-car driver in 1958, and he would go on to make a pair of Formula 1 starts (at Watkins Glen, 1961-'62). But that was as far as he got;
a Leigh (Pennsylvania) University degree helped him realize he would not make a fortune steering machines at breakneck speeds. No, he needed to own those cars, a concept already familiar to him through ownership of a Philadelphia Chevrolet dealership.

So 51 years ago this spring, Penske, now 79, started down a different road, one that would take him to the height of motor­sports. Aligned with Ford's young sports-car racing hotshot, Mark Donohue, Penske began to direct from outside the cockpit, Donohue from within it. Together they developed a level of professionalism not seen often in racing then but one that defines Team Penske today.

The pairing became one for the history books. Donohue won the U.S. Road Racing Championship in '67, the first of Team Penske's 28—and counting—national titles. The organization has been so successful it has been called the New York Yankees of motorsports, but even that might be an understatement.

Since the formation of Team Penske, the Yankees have won seven World Series. Meanwhile, Penske cars have won 13 championships in IndyCar competition alone, plus 16 Indianapolis 500 victories, with the combination of those feats accomplished by 13 different drivers, 11 of them winning Indy.

 

Left to right: George Follmer's Can-Am-winning Porsche in '72; with Donohue at the '71 Canadian GP; Penske chases Innes Ireland in the '62 USGP; with John Watson at the '76 Austrian GP.

Team Penske has given us IndyCar drivers such as Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan, Helio Castroneves, and Will Power, among others, and it helped three members of the famed Unser family—Bobby, Al, and Al Jr.—win Indy. Team Penske capped the remarkable career of two-time F1 champion Emerson Fittipaldi and gave Juan Pablo Montoya a second victory at Indy. Montoya will be the defending champion as the 500 celebrates its 100th running May 29.

In NASCAR, Team Penske assembled 16 consecutive winning seasons with Rusty Wallace at the wheel before the Hall of Fame driver gave way to Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, and it was Newman who delivered the team's first Daytona 500 win in 2008. Brad Keselowski has led the charge in recent years, winning Penske's first Sprint Cup Series title in 2012. This year, Keselowski is paired with Joey Logano, who won Daytona in '15, and team expansion is on the horizon.

But all of this is just part of what most know about Team Penske. It also won Trans-Am and Can-Am series titles in its early days and once held the world's closed-course speed record: In 1975, Donohue ran 221.16 mph at the Talladega speedway in a Porsche 917. Team Penske won its first F1 race in 1976 with John Watson at the Austrian Grand Prix, and Penske's Porsche RS Spyder was the overall winner of the 2008 12 Hours of Sebring as an LMP2-class entry against the higher-performance Audi prototypes.

It seems anything and everything Penske has touched—on and off the track—has turned to gold. No surprise there, as that's his standard, his compass. Forbes recently listed Penske's net worth at nearly $1.8 billion.

Known simply as "The Captain," Penske said racing has driven business and vice versa.

"When we were able to get in the Indy 500 and then win it, the visibility it gave the company and the relationship it started to generate with the OEMs—whether it was Ford or General Motors or whomever—was really key," Penske told AUTOMOBILE ahead of the 2016 racing season. "Because we've executed on the racetrack, we've [developed] some very good people and relationships, and that's given us the ability to do business on the car side."

Interviewing Penske in his trackside motor home—an office on wheels—is a fascinating experience. He always sits in an actual captain's chair, and he has televisions at eye level in order to keep tabs on his cars racing elsewhere. Even the drivers know to respect his space, though he frequently encourages them to enter the discussion.

Penske almost exclusively wears a pressed white shirt and black slacks, and he seems to always know what questions are coming, though he excels at sounding as if he has given away something revealing when most often he has not. For fun, he enjoys stirring the pot.

Penske is also versed in jumping from topic to topic, a skill set honed from always being on the move. Team president Tim Cindric has been known to ride halfway around the globe on Penske's jet just to get time to talk to the boss. Yet, they're on the phone daily.

At racetracks, Penske rides the scooter bearing his initials through crowds as fast as the drivers he is paying.

"He has more energy than men half his age," Cindric said of just one trait that serves his boss well in business and competition.

An example of Penske's use of racing to promote business came in 2014 when Team Penske bought controlling interest of Australia's oldest race team—Dick Johnson Racing, the 2010 V8 Supercars series champion—to showcase Western Star Trucks Australia, which his company owns.

Yet every discussion with Penske eventually leads back to Indy, which is where his racing heart beats the strongest. NASCAR might be bigger business, but he wouldn't miss an IndyCar race for it. Besides, he is the strategist for Castroneves' car.

"We [finished] 1-2 at Daytona in '08," Penske said of stock-car racing's crown jewel. "Daytona is a mark you had to have in your book, but these Indy wins are more significant because of the impact it's had for us."

Team Penske made its Indy 500 debut in '69 with Donohue driving, and together they finished second in '70. Despite a vow to win the 500 by the team's third year, the ultimate prize didn't come until the fourth year. It seems like an eternity ago.

"So long ago you forget the impact it had," Penske said. "But it was the start of building our brand."

The on-track success that followed is almost indescribable.

Mears arrived at Team Penske in 1978 as an occasional stand-in for Mario Andretti, who frequently was off winning the last F1 driver's title claimed by an American. Mears won three of his 11 races that year—Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Brands Hatch—and shared Rookie-of-the-Year honors at Indy with Larry Rice. Mears was off and rolling. So was Team Penske.

Over the next 16 years, Penske joined an IndyCar driver in victory lane 79 times, with nine such trips coming at Indy. Remarkably, six different drivers won those nine 500s: Mears four times, Bobby Unser, Danny Sullivan, Al Unser, Fittipaldi, and Al Unser Jr. once each. Eight series championships followed.

Think about this: Penske cars have won 16 of the past 44 Indy 500s (36 percent), and it seems most key moments at IMS have involved a Penske driver: Mears' thrilling battle with Gordon Johncock in '82; Sullivan's spin and win in '85; Unser winning the '87 race with a car pulled off a showroom floor at the last minute; Mears and Michael Andretti going side by side through Turn 1 in '91; and of course, the
remarkable story of the Mercedes-Benz-backed pushrod engine in '94.

The United States Auto Club, an Indianapolis-based group sanctioning the 500 at the time, had long allowed pushrod engines, but only Buick had experimented with it, and it couldn't marry reliability with performance. Always up for a project, Penske decided to give it a go—in secret, no less, and without regard for expense.

After pitching the plan to Mercedes-Benz chairman Helmut Werner, Penske set the offseason program in motion, committing a separate building at the team's shop in Reading, Pennsylvania, and giving a hush-hush command to the chosen employees.

"We told them, whatever's going on down there, if you want to talk about it, it's like cutting your paycheck off," Penske said of the initial meeting. "So, people were quiet about it."

The engine, developed by Ilmor Engineering in the U.K., was tested at Nazareth (Pennsylvania) Speedway, which Penske owned. Snow was plowed from the short oval; Paul Tracy drove wearing a ski suit to keep warm. Somehow, no one took much notice, including the Andrettis, who lived just up the hill from the track.

In typical Penske fashion, he was all-in with the program, outfitting all three of his drivers with the same chassis-engine configuration. Unser Jr. and Fittipaldi qualified on the front row at Indy, and yet there was some sandbagging going on. The two combined to lead all but seven laps in the race, and they were on pace to finish 1-2 before Fittipaldi's car drifted into the wall as the leader 17 laps from the end.

Unser Jr. was one of only two drivers (along with Indy rookie Jacques Villeneuve) who finished on the lead lap, but what Penske likes most to talk about is the execution of the entire operation.

"The top people from Mercedes arrived in Indianapolis in suits and ties, and I remember they came in the garage, and we had these white shirts that said 'Penske Mercedes,' " Penske said. "Every one of them stripped down and put on their 'Penske Mercedes' shirt and then their 'Penske Mercedes' hat. They went up to the suite and that was a big day for them, and it was a big day for us too.

"That just cemented our relationship. "Leave it to Penske to have such business dealings. Over the years he has been able to navigate racing deals with several divisions of General Motors, plus Porsche, American Motors, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Ford, and Dodge. Today, his NASCAR and V8 Supercar teams are aligned with Ford, his IndyCar team with Chevrolet.

Penske's drivers joke about their boss' competitiveness, but Cindric said it somewhat sells Penske short.

"For Roger it's all about the project, whether it's business or a racing program," Cindric explained. "The more difficult the project is, when it's successful [is when] Roger gets the most out of it."

He's gotten 50 years' worth. And counting.

Penske's Mount Rushmore

Mark Donohue

"Quintessential." That's Penske describing Donohue, which made him the ideal driver to lead Team Penske's early years. Donohue could do everything: car prep, engineering, R&D, and, boy, could he drive. The New Jersey native won two United States Road Racing Championships, three Trans-Am titles, a Can-Am championship, and the first IROC season. He also won the 24 Hours of Daytona and claimed Penske's first Indianapolis 500 win, in 1972, before he had a fatal accident in practice for the 1975 Formula 1 Austrian Grand Prix.

Rick Mears

Mears became the third member of the Indianapolis 500's exclusive four-win club with a victory there in 1991, and he had yet to turn 40. The Bakersfield, California, driver won 29 IndyCar races and was particularly effective while running at open-wheel fans' beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he remains the record-holder for poles (six) and wins from the pole (three). Since retiring from competitive driving in 1992, Mears has excelled as a Team Penske adviser, contributing to another eight
500 wins.

Rusty Wallace

Roger Penske's NASCAR program debuted in 1972 with Donohue, but Wallace made two appearances in team cars in 1980 before bringing the famous and long-standing Miller beer sponsorship to Penske to begin an era of prolonged stock-car success. A co-owner with Penske and Don Miller, Wallace won races in 16 consecutive Cup Series seasons (third on the all-time list) and finished in the top 10 of the standings 12 times. Thirty-seven of Wallace's 55 Cup wins came with Penske.

Helio Castroneves

The Brazilian recently became the longest-tenured Penske IndyCar driver, surpassing Mears. Coincidentally, the two drivers have the same number of series wins (29), and Castroneves, with four Indianapolis 500 poles and three race wins, has the best chance of catching Mears in those categories. Castroneves has already led more 500s (10) than Mears, and he ranks fourth all-time in IndyCar poles with 45—and he's not finished. The one thing missing from
his resume is a series championship, but he has finished second in the title chase four times.

The Highs

Team Penske is celebrating its 50th anniversary in auto racing, which means there have been many moments to remember. In Roger Penske's words, a few stand out.

The Mears Era at Indy

People forget that Rick Mears joined the team to race when Mario Andretti had F1 conflicts. Mears ended up winning the 500 four times in 13 years, with six poles, including in three of his final four starts. Plus, he won three series titles and 29 races.

Penske: "Rick really got us rolling. It wasn't just that he won, it's how he won—with class."

The Mercedes Romp

Buick had tried to capitalize on the 500's pushrod engine allowance, but reliability issues dogged it. Team Penske made it work with Mercedes-Benz's help, along with Ilmor, in 1994. All preparations were done in secret, and officials went so far as to shovel snow off Nazareth Speedway to test. Penske drivers Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr., and Paul Tracy dominated the 500, leading 193 of 200 laps with Unser Jr. winning.

Penske: "One of the sport's great exercises."

Hornish's 2006 Indy Win

Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves gave Team Penske the top two qualifying positions, but the end of the race appeared to come down to Michael Andretti (who came out of retirement to run) and his 19-year-old son, Marco. They led Laps 197, 198, and 199, but Hornish stole the show with the event's first last-second pass for the win.

Penske: "What a great race and obviously a great finish."

Sebring 2008

Audi was expected to dominate the 12-hour race, but it was a Penske-entered Porsche that went to victory lane. The RS Spyder became only the third entry from a non-premier class to take the overall win and the first in 14 years.

Penske: "A private team winning against the Audis was
a pretty special race."

Helio's Indy Comeback

In October 2008, Helio Castroneves was charged with conspiracy and six counts of tax evasion related to an offshore account. The IRS claimed the Brazilian living in Miami owed $2.3 million in back taxes, and a guilty verdict likely would have ended his racing career. The case lasted six months, with Castroneves and two others acquitted of tax evasion. Just days before winning the 500, prosecutors dropped the conspiracy charge.

Penske: "After all he went through, that was quite a comeback."

The Lows

The Three-Year Plan

Penske had big plans for his then-new IndyCar program, telling Sunoco officials he would win the 500 within three years. That didn't happen due to a mechanical failure in the third year.

Penske: "We put new gears in for the race, and [the gears] went out while we were leading. That was such a blow."

Not Winning the '82 500

There was disappointment even at the start of the race when front-row-starting Kevin Cogan inexplicably crashed into A.J. Foyt and then Mario Andretti. The race ended with Rick Mears unable to pass Gordon Johncock even though Mears had the faster car.

Penske: "Herm Johnson held Rick up on the final pit stop [there was contact], and then we had the wrong gear in it. Johncock drove Rick right down to the grass [in Turn 1 of the last lap]. Our cars were fast every single day, and we should have won it."

Failing to Qualify in '95

A year after it embarrassed the 500 field with the since-outlawed pushrod engine, Team Penske had no answer for what happened this time around: Drivers Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr., who had won the previous three 500s, failed to earn a spot in the 33-car field with either a Penske or a
Lola chassis.

Penske: "We'd never faced a moment like that, and we had no one to blame but ourselves."

The Losses of '99

In September, Gonzalo Rodriguez was preparing for his second start with Team Penske when his Indy car's throttle stuck approaching Laguna Seca's famed Corkscrew corner. The car flipped and tumbled down the hill, killing the driver. A month later, at California Speedway, young star Greg Moore was killed in a crash in the season finale on Halloween, just days before he would become a Team Penske driver after signing a contract with The Captain for the 2000 season.

Penske: "Incredible losses."

The Uncompetitive Stretch

From 1996-'99, Team Penske won only three times in 72 races (all by Paul Tracy in '97) and didn't participate in Roger Penske's beloved Indianapolis 500 due to the CART-IRL split. That led to the overhaul that became the Gil de Ferran-Helio Castroneves pairing.

Penske: "That was a period where we weren't even challenging for the lead, and that's the thing that disappoints you."

Penske by the Numbers

IndyCar

Starts: 1,521

Poles: 235

Wins: 177

Championships: 13

Indy500

Starts: 100

Poles: 17

Wins: 16

Nascar Cup Series

Starts: 1,795

Poles: 115

Wins: 93

Championships: 1 (2012, Brad Keselowski, Dodge Charger)

Daytona 500

Starts: 31

Poles: 0

Wins: 2 (2008, Ryan Newman, Dodge Charger; 2015, Joey Logano, Ford Fusion)

Can-Am

Starts: 47

Poles: 16

Wins: 15

Championships: 2 (1972, George Follmer, Porsche 917/10; 1973, Mark Donohue, Porsche 917/30)

American Le-Mans Series

Starts: 35

Poles: 27

Wins: 24

Championships: 2 (2006, Lucas Luhr, Sascha Maassen, Porsche RS Spyder; 2007, Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas, Porsche RS Spyder)

Grand-Am

Starts: 13

Poles: 1

Wins: 0

Rolex 24 at Daytona

Starts: 8

Poles: 2

Wins: 2

Trans Am

Starts: 82

Poles: 23

Wins: 30

Championships:3 (1968, 1969, 1971, Mark Donohue)

12 Hours of Sebring

Starts: 13

Poles: 5

Wins: 3

Formula 1

Starts: 32

Poles: 0

Wins: 1 (1976 Austrian Grand Prix, John Watson)

Curt Cavin is an Indianapolis Star staffer.