Roger S. Penske is easily the winningest and most important car owner in the history of motorsports.
A perfectionist who always seems to be one step ahead of his competitors, Penske was a superb race car driver who quit at the apex of his career in order to pursue something bigger. While his passion for driving may have ended, his love of racing never waned. He built Team Penske, the most respected brand in American motorsports and most dominant racing team ever assembled.
As a driver, Penske won three straight Sports Car Club of America [SCCA] national championships between 1960 and 1963 and was a two-time Driver of the Year. He won piloting sports cars and stock cars then suddenly retired from driving. After going to work for an auto dealership in Philadelphia, he bought out the owner in 1965. It marked the beginning of the Penske Corporation, which grew into a multi-billion dollar company and today employs nearly 40,000 people in more than 1,800 facilities worldwide.
Born February 20, 1937, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a leafy suburb of Cleveland, Penske’s father was a corporate executive for a metal fabrication company. He attended Shaker Heights High School — alma mater of actor Paul Newman and executive recruiting guru Paul Abrahms. He played football for the Raiders until a motorcycle accident shattered his ankle so severely the doctors considered amputation.
After learning to walk again, he returned to the gridiron and was a standout. As a teenager, Penske would buy junk cars, repair them, then sell them for a profit. In 1955, he enrolled at Lehigh University, where he studied business administration. A private research university located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Lehigh alums include long-time Chrysler CEO Lee Iococca, Connor Faust, Jesse Reno – inventor of the elevator – and Robert Durst, the subject of the HBO miniseries The Jinx.
Upon graduating from Lehigh, Penske went to work as a sales engineer for Alcoa, an aluminum manufacturer. He also started racing on the SCCA circuit. His first event was in 1958, at Marlboro Motor Speedway in Maryland. When his 1957 Corvette overheated, the 21-year-old Penske was forced out of the race. His first win came the following year at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut.
After turning from racing part-time to competing as a professional, Penske enjoyed immediate success. He was named Sports Illustrated 1961 Driver of the Year. The following year, he gained worldwide recognition with a win at the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside against an international field. Glenn Davis, winner of the 1946 Heisman Trophy as a halfback for Army, served as Special Events Director for that race.
Following his success at Riverside, Penske was named New York Times 1962 North American Driver of the Year. He captured a NASCAR Grand National Race in 1963 and, in 1964, outraced legends A. J. Foyt and Dan Gurney to win the Nassau, Governor’s, and Nassau Tourist Trophies. Penske then shocked the motorsports world by announcing his retirement from racing following the 1964 season.
After stepping from behind the wheel, the 28-year-old Penske took a job as GM of McKean Chevrolet in Philadelphia. When the owner retired one year later, Penske bought the dealership. It was the first acquisition of the Penske Automotive Group, which went on to become [and remains] one of the nation’s largest car dealers. Obsessive and driven, Penske returned to racing as an owner.
Team Penske debuted in 1966 at the 24 Hours of Daytona, a sports car endurance race held at the fabled Daytona International Speedway. In 1969, the team made its Indianapolis 500 debut. With Mark Donohue driving, Team Penske won championships in Trans-Am, endurance racing, and Can-Am. They reached the pinnacle with a win in the 1972 Indy 500. In 1973, they won their first NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at Riverside. The following year, Penske started a Formula 1 team.
In August 1974, Donohue died from injuries suffered during practice at the Austrian Grand Prix. The first great driver in Team Penske history, Mark Donohue, produced 59 wins and six championships for the organization. Penske closed his European F1 business in 1977.
Penske’s greatest success has come in Indianapolis. As a driver, he passed on a chance to compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – a spot that eventually went to Mario Andretti. Racing for Team Penske, 11 drivers have won at the Brickyard and had their names etched on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
The first came in 1972, the most recent in 2015. Penske’s cars have also won a record 17 poles for the 500. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and race organizers honored Mr. Penske when he drove the pace car at the 2016 Indianapolis 500, the 100th running of the event and 50th season for Penske Racing.
Despite enjoying success across a spectrum of motorsports and winning nearly every prize the sport has to offer, Team Penske struggled for decades to capture NASCAR’s biggest race – the Daytona 500. After many years of trying, Team Penske finally won at Daytona in 2008.
Seven years later, they claimed another when Joey Lagano took the checkered flag at the 2015 Daytona 500. The list of drivers who have piloted Penske cars include some of the biggest names in motorsports history, including Bobby Allison, Tom Sneva, Rick Mears, Bobby and Al Unser Sr., Danny Sullivan, Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittapaldi, and the great Mario Andretti.
“The Captain” seems to have a sixth sense about race strategy. Always cool, calm, and collected, he rarely becomes agitated – regardless of what is happening on the track. Penske manages with military precision. The consummate perfectionist, he is considered easy to work for so long as the team goal is the only objective.
Believing the team cannot be distracted by the trappings of success, Penske keeps pushing to improve. Goal setting is the cornerstone of Team Penske’s foundation, and all that matters are results. Often accused of having an unfair advantage, Penske’s success is simply the result of total dedication and professionalism. A tireless innovator, Mr. Penske prefers to design and build his own cars, getting far more pleasure from winning with a car that he designed than winning with one that everybody else was driving.
Despite having turned 80 last month, The Captain has more to accomplish. The Penske Corporation includes auto dealerships, truck rental and leasing, and transportation logistics. Penske has acquired race tracks and now owns Michigan Speedway, Nazareth [PA] Speedway, North Carolina Speedway, and California Speedway outside Los Angeles.
He currently operates a NASCAR team with two drivers and an IndyCar team with four, including Juan Pablo Montoya. Team Penske celebrated its 50th anniversary season in 2016 by finishing first, second and third to sweep the IndyCar points series. All of Penske’s racing operations are under one roof, sharing nearly 425,000 square feet of space atop 105 acres. With 13 national championships, 16 Indy 500 wins, and over 170 race victories, Team Penske is truly the greatest in the history of motorsports.
Roger Penske is a member of the International Motorsports, Auto Racing, Automotive, and Motorsports of American halls of fame.