Roger Penske was 80 recently. He is an extraordinary businessman. Starting out with a single car lot in Pennsylvania, Penske has built an amazing empire, including the publicly-traded Penske Automotive Group, one of the world’s biggest car dealers, a truck rental and leasing business and transportation logistics firms. Today he is reckoned to be worth about $1.5 billion and his empire employs around 47,000 people, with annual revenues of tens of billions. He has sat on many corporate boards, including General Electric, the Home Depot and Delphi Automotive. He has invested huge amounts in trying to revive the city of Detroit, including being the chairman of Super Bowl XL.
But Penske is a racer at heart and each weekend his racing teams are in action in IndyCar and NASCAR. Penske Racing has won the Indy 500 no fewer than 16 times between 1972 and 2017, in addition to winning 14 IndyCar titles, including a dominant season in 2016. The team won the Daytona 500 in 2008 with Ryan Newmam and added a second win in 2015 with Joey Logano. In 2010 Brad Keselowski took Penske to the title in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and two years later won the Sprint Cup.
What few people remember is that Roger Penske was not only a Formula 1 team owner – with a team that won a race, but he was also an F1 driver as well.
Penske was always mad about cars and went to see his first Indianapolis 500 with his dad in 1951. He was 14. Born in Shaker Heights, Ohio – a nice part of Cleveland – he started out riding motorcycles. After smashing himself up at 16 he started working in a gas station, buying, rebuilding and selling sports cars, beginning with an MG. He raced the cars when he could, did hillclimbs and then some midget races at Sportsman Park, Cleveland, before heading off to study business administration at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He started racing a Chevrolet in SCCA events, went to a racing school at the Marlboro Speedway near Washington and then dropped out of school and become an aluminium salesman for Alcoa. He got married, settled down and quit racing – and then went back to it again.
He won his first national title with the SCCA in 1961 and that year raced a customer Cooper-Climax in the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, finishing eighth. The following year he won the USAC road racing championship and driving a Zerex Special won the Riverside, Monterey and Puerto Rico GPs, the Nassau TT and his class in the Sebring 12 Hours. He competed in the US GP a second time, driving a Lotus-Climax to ninth place.
In 1963 he tried his hand at NASCAR, won the Riverside 250 and led the Yankee 300 before deciding that it was time to retire and concentrate on business. He was 27. He quit Alcoa and took a job with McKean Chevrolet in Philadelphia. A year later he bought his first dealership and started to acquire more and more of them. He was soon making enough to start Penske Racing in 1966, in league with engineer-driver Mark Donohue. The team won its first CanAm race at Mosport Park with a Lola that year and in 1967 Donohue won the US Road Racing Championship and in 1968 dominated TransAm in a Penske Camaro.
The success just kept coming with title after title and victory in the Daytona 24 Hours, not to mention to Rookie of the Year at Indianapolis, finishing seventh in the team’s first visit. Success followed success and the team’s high point was in 1972 when 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 at the end of 1974 Penske decided to enter a team in Formula 1. Penske the salesman talked the First National City bank into sponsoring the operation and a factory was opened in Poole, Dorset. The first car – the Penske PC1 – appeared at the Canadian Grand Prix in 1974 where Donohue finished 12th. In 1975 the team switched to a March chassis but then in Austria Donohue suffered a tyre failure and crashed in the warm-up. It seemed that he was not badly hurt, but he died three days later from brain injuries.
Penske decided to go on and ran John Watson later in the year. The following season Wattie drove a new PC4 to victory in Austria, a year after Donohue’s death. But Penske realised that F1 was not really sustainable for his team and sold the operation at the end of 1976. The factory in Poole began building Indycars. The PC5 appeared in the summer of 1977 and Tom Sneva used one of the cars to win the USAC title in 1977 and followed up with a second championship in the PC6 in 1978. In 1979 Rick Mears gave Penske its third consecutive title… and it went from there.