The 500 was love at first sight for Roger Penske 

A chat with the legend

click to enlarge Roger Penske (left) and Danny Ongais, IMS, late '80s. - PHOTO BY PAUL WILLIS
  • Roger Penske (left) and Danny Ongais, IMS, late '80s.
  • Photo by Paul Willis
The Indianapolis 500 is not the only entity in racing hitting a major milestone this year.

At the age of 79, Roger Penske is celebrating 50 years in motorsports. “The Captain” has seen success in nearly every automotive venture he’s been a part of. It was visits to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that would fuel Penske’s love of auto racing, and prove to be the beginning of the juggernaut known as Team Penske.

“I've said it before, my dad worked for a company that … sponsored a couple laps here. In those days you had lap sponsors, and he had gotten a couple tickets, you know, and asked if I wanted to go to the race. Of course, I used to listen to it on the radio. Sid Collins I think in those days probably was the guy,” recalls Penske.

Penske remembers those early days fondly. For Roger Penske — as it is with many fans of the 500 — it was love at first sight.

“I remember coming here; we drove here from Cleveland and got here late and were supposed to go to someone's home for lunch," he says. "We went there anyhow, and everybody was gone but there was a car there. Ironically we had a show car back in '51, if these guys can believe it. They had a car there. I got my picture taken with a Cromwell helmet on.

"I came every single year until we left when we had the split. I think the speed here, the sensation of the track … if you love cars like I did in those days, it was a place you wanted to be part of."

RELATED: 500 facts about the Indy 500 

Penske became a successful driver in his own right, winning the SCCA Driver of the Year in 1961. He eventually earned a driver’s test for the Indianapolis 500 in 1963. He turned it down — he already had a job. He did not want to leave the Chevrolet dealership he ran in Philadelphia.

His focus on his businesses led to Mario Andretti’s first run in the Indianapolis 500. Andretti took Penske’s slot and would go on to win Rookie of the Year in the 1963 Indianapolis 500. "Mario Andretti took his test and became one of the greatest race car drivers of all time," said Penske in an interview for Automotive News. "So he ended up on his feet, and I ended up on mine."

Penske returned to racing as a team owner in 1966 at the 24 Hours of Daytona. With his team of Corvettes, his crew went on to win that endurance race, as well as 24 hours at Sebring. It’s also in 1966 that Penske found his first superstar driver in “Captain Nice,” Mark Donohue. The two began their professional career after talking at the funeral of mutual friend, driver Walt Hansgen. Captain Nice ran his first race for Team Penske at Watkins Glenn in June 1966. His start with Penske would not be very successful. Despite qualifying well, Donohue only completed 18 laps before crashing his Lola T70 Mk.2 Chevrolet.

1967 saw better times for Donohue and Penske as Donohue drove in the United States Road Racing Championship, winning six of the first seven races he was in, and finishing third in the seventh run.

In 1969 Roger Penske and Mark Donohue would compete in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time, finishing seventh, with Donohue taking Rookie of the Year Honors. After finishing second and 25th in ’70 and ’71, Penske won the first of his team’s 16 Indy 500 championships when Mark Donohue took home the Borg Warner trophy in 1972 with a speed of 162.962 mph — an Indy 500 record that stood for 12 years.
In 1977 Team Penske began a period of domination with former math teacher Tom Sneva. With Sneva, Penske won team championships in USAC in 1977 and ‘78, and completed a three-peat with Rick Mears in 1979. In an 11 year span from 1977 through 1988, Team Penske won eight championships with Sneva (two), Mears (three), Al Unser (two), and one with Danny Sullivan.

RELATED: So much more 500 coverage 

In that same span, Penske won six Indy 500s with driver Rick Mears (three of Mears’ four victories came in this time frame), Bobby Unser(’81), Danny Sullivan (’85), Al Unser (87). Penske nearly matched that level of success again in the 2000s, winning five with Hélio Castroneves (’01-‘02,’09), Gil de Ferran (’03) and Sam Hornish Jr. (‘06).
In 1994 Roger Penske enjoyed what is arguably the most dominant team performance in open wheel history: With drivers Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy and Al Unser, Jr., Penske’s team won 12 of 16 races including 10 pole wins and 26 top 3 finishes among the team. Following that successful campaign, Penske failed to field a car in the 1995 Indianapolis 500.

His most recent Indy 500 success came in 2015 with Juan Pablo Montoya. Open wheel racing isn’t the only style where Penske has seen success as an owner.
Penske Racing entered NASCAR in 1972 again with Mark Donahue, this time running in a 1972 AMC Matador dubbed “the flying brick” due to its squarish frame. The car suffered rear end problems and finished 39th at Riverside International Raceway.

Penske spent the next four years running cars part time with notable drivers Donahue and the Allison brothers (Bobbie and Donnie). Penske Racing finally went full time in NASCAR in 1976 with driver Bobby Allison, finishing fourth in points. With all the series that Team Penske were involved in, costs were starting to escalate and the team had to step back. Penske later sold his machinery to Bill Elliot, exiting NASCAR altogether with the exception of two races in 1980 with Rusty Wallace.

11 years would go by before Penske Racing rejoined NASCAR with Rusty Wallace bringing his Miller Beer sponsorship with him to Penske in the 1991 season.
In 2008 driver Ryan Neuman gave Penske Racing their first restrictor-plate race victory by completing a one-two finish with teammate Kurt Busch. It took four more years for Brad Keselowski to bring Roger Penske his first Sprint Cup championship, winning it in a Dodge in 2012. Dodge left NASCAR after the 2012 season.

Overall, Team Penske have more than 420 major race wins, over 480 pole positions and 28 National Championships across open-wheel, stock car and sports car racing. Penske has 16 Indianapolis 500 victories, two Daytona 500 Championships, overall victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring and a Formula 1 win. Over 80 drivers have raced for Team Penske in its history.

RELATED: Looking back at the 1977 race 

When asked about how he has achieved so much success, Roger Penske can sum it up on one simple word: “people.”  

"It's the people. I've said it so many times," he says. "When you look at the group up here, and you could go back and each year the people we've had that supported us, it's the continuity. I've said it before. We have over 600 years of experience that will be at the track this year. We have 3500 at the shop, if you can believe it, back in Charlotte. So it's all about the people."

It’s often understated just how much of a team sport auto racing is. Although it’s generally drivers that get the glory, there’s much more that goes behind the scenes that the casual fans might now know about. This includes the sponsors whose names we see on the side of the cars on race weekends.

Says Penske:

"I think it's also the partnerships we've been able to develop through racing helped me open the doors to many of the top automotive companies around the world. It's amazing how motorsports, when you talk about that within those organizations, you really get someone to listen to you and maybe what you want to do together. Those partnerships have helped me build the company. So I think it's a common thread through our business. We have 50,000 people now in our company on a worldwide basis. We run a flat organization. If I got to drive the truck to Cleveland tonight, I'll drive the truck to Cleveland. I think that's everybody — the drivers would do that tonight if they have to. We have that kind of a can-do attitude." 

With 50 years in racing, it appears there is no end in sight for the legendary Roger Penske. During a press event in Charlotte Penske was asked if he knew when the end would come. All Penske could say was “I will be at the races as long as I can stand up," he said. "We're there for one reason and that's to win."

Team Penske had three drivers in the fast nine this past weekend in qualifying for the Indy 500. Juan Pablo Montoya, who had struggles during qualifying, starts 17th. If there is one thing we do know about Team Penske, it’s that you can never count them out in Indianapolis. Winning the 100th Indianapolis 500 in his 50th year of racing would just be another amazing chapter in the storied career of Roger Penske.

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