Business F1 Top 20 Petrolheads: Roger Penske, Absolute Dedication

  • 06 April 2024
  • 4 min read
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Business F1 Top 20 Petrolheads: Roger Penske, Absolute Dedication image

Photo credit: Business F1, Porsche

Roger Penske dominates American racing like no one else before him. He does not only run successful racing teams, but also owns the IndyCar series and the legendary Indianapolis circuit. He manages a giant group of companies with annual sales of nearly $40 billion, from truck rentals to car dealerships. Despite the big company business, he is fully committed to racing and can be seen almost every weekend at a racetrack supervising his many teams and drivers: Representing the very image of passion for motorsports. Like Bernie Ecclestone, the man who made Formula One big, Penske started out by trading used cars and has experienced it all: From driver, team owner to the Formula Indy, the world's oldest racetrack in Indianapolis, and everything in between.

Ecclestone and Penske have made fortunes of comparable size, worth several billions of dollars of value. They both own jets and yachts and yet they are equally unaffected by their wealth. They can be easily approached in racing paddocks around the world. Ecclestone, being seven years older, has already retired, but Penske probably never will: He loves the game too much. While Penske built a huge automotive conglomerate, Ecclestone focused solely on racing and made his money doing business.

Business F1 Top 20 Petrolheads: Roger Penske, Absolute Dedication - 1 Mark Donohue at Indianapolis 1969. Roger Penske fields a car for the event for the first time.

Roger Penske was born in Ohio two years before World War II. His father Jay was a successful businessman, encouraging his son to put his entrepreneurial spirit into action. Penske started out with a pre-owned car business as a teenager. This made him passionate about cars and led him to automobile racing, where he proved to be a talented driver. So much so that in 1961 he entered the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in a Cooper-Climax. He qualified 16th and finished 8th and eventually won a Nascar race in 1963. His heart, however, was not in racing, even perceiving racing as a risk to the development of his lucrative business. Instead, he retired and in 1965 at the age of 28 he continued to compete by running Chevrolets from his Philadelphia dealership.

Penske joined Mark Donohue in 1967 by positioning himself as the team manager of the talented driver. They were both 30 years old and it turned out to be a great match. From then on, Donohue would only drive for Penske teams and nobody else. He also handled the day-to-day management of Team Penske as an engineer and made sure his cars were always perfectly prepared. Rival teams often did not have the same care and attention, which gave the Penske-Donohue combination a real advantage. For the next eight years, they dominated most of the championships in which they participated. The only exception was Formula 1, where the directly involved manufacturers and British teams were difficult to defeat.

Penske and Donohue's palmares began in 1967, when Donohue drove Penske's Lola-Chevrolet T70 in the U.S. Road Racing Championship (USRRC), winning six out of seven races. In 1968, Donohue dominated the series again in a McLaren-Chevrolet M6A. The pair also participated in the Trans-Am series in 1967, winning three out of 12 races in a Chevrolet Camaro. In 1968, they won 10 out of 13 races and completely dominated this very competitive series. In 1969, the two made a big move by participating in IndyCar races and the Indianapolis 500 for the first time. The handling of their car threw everyone off: They qualified on the second row at Indianapolis and finished seventh in an Offenhauser-powered Lola, beating the legendary AJ Foyt. The following year they placed second with a Ford-powered Lola, eventually finishing on the same lap as the winner Al Unser.

Business F1 Top 20 Petrolheads: Roger Penske, Absolute Dedication - 2 Roger Penske with his collection of racing cars of his own teams over the years.

In 1971 Roger Penske came into possession of a state-of-the-art McLaren-Offenhauser M16, causing him and Donohue to astonish the McLaren team with the high standard of preparation of their dark blue Sunoco-sponsored car. The following year, they were the winners and it was Team Penske's first win in a string of victories that would prove to be numerous. Meanwhile, they entered the World Sport-Prototype Championship, turning the uncompetitive Ferrari 512S into a winning car. Unfortunately, it clashed with the fast and reliable new Porsche 917. The Ferrari was fast, but its unreliability undermined its results.

Penske did not hesitate: He switched to Porsche and Donohue broke McLaren's dominance in Can-Am with the Porsche in 1973. In 1971 he entered Formula One with a leased and poorly competitive McLaren-Ford M19:The intention was to gain experience for a serious attack with a car built by Penske operating from a factory in southern England.

Building their own car proved to be a mistake and the team was not competitive in 1975. It was Penske and Donohue's first real setback in nine seasons of racing together. Penske then decided to abandon the self-built car and purchase a March 751 chassis. In the third race, tragedy struck at the Austrian Grand Prix held at the Österreichring circuit. A tire failure in the fastest corner hurled the car off the road and ultimately cost the lives of a steward and the driver himself.

Penske had known virtually no racing other than those he had competed in with Donohue and was dealt a severe blow. But he did not give up: He hired John Watson who would score the team's only Formula One victory the following year with a Penske-built chassis, Ironically, at the Austrian Grand Prix. At the end of 1976 Penske gave up Formula One and focused entirely on his American series teams with Team Penske becoming the most successful stable in Indianapolis 500 history with 19 victories.

Business F1 Top 20 Petrolheads: Roger Penske, Absolute Dedication - 3 Roger Penske with the Borg Warner Trophy. He has won 19 times with his team at Indianapolis.

Penske established a routine that persists to this day: Racing on weekends and running his businesses during the week. The business is called Penske Automotive Group Inc, a NYSE-listed company based in Michigan and valued at $10 billion on the stock market. It owns the world's largest auto dealership chain, which is described as a "diversified international transportation services company" and operates car and truck dealerships in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan, Australia and New Zealand. He also owns 28.9 percent of Penske Transportation Solutions, which operates a fleet of 431,000 trucks for lease, rental and maintenance.

Roger Penske owns 100 percent of the Penske Corporation, which also contains the rest of his business interests outside the public company. These include his racing stables, the Indianapolis circuit, the IndyCar series and Ilmor Engineering in addition to the Indianapolis Museum, which complements his personal collection of cars. Among his ambitions is to bring Formula One back to Indianapolis. No one is gambling that he won't succeed.

Business F1 Top 20 Petrolheads: Roger Penske, Absolute Dedication - 4 The collaboration between Team Penske and Porsche run the 963 LMDh in both the WEC and IMSA endurance championships.