Presented by Racemaker Press

"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Appreciating Roger Penske

by Gordon Kirby
Last Thursday evening Roger Penske was presented with the Cameron Argetsinger Award for Outstanding Contributions to Motorsports. The International Motor Racing Research Center's celebratory dinner was held at the Corning Museum of Glass twenty minutes south of Watkins Glen. Dr. Jerry Punch was the evening's master of ceremonies with Bobby Rahal presiding as chairman of the IMRRC's governing council.

This week, I've selected a series of remarks from the evening from some of Penske's longtime employees and one his sternest competitors. Punch started the evening by asking Penske what inspired him to achieve so much success in racing and business.

"I guess I loved cars," Penske replied. "As I've said many times before, in 1951 my dad took me to the Indianapolis 500 as a young man, just fourteen years old. Once you're there and you see the speed and you see the cars, I've never forgot that day. I'd say it started back in those days.

"My mom wanted me to go to dancing school and wear white gloves and she wasn't very happy on a Saturday to see me covered in grease when I was working on my engine. So I was not a very happy camper at home in those days. I worked on cars and I bought and sold cars when I was in school, but I always wanted to compete."

© Bob Tronolone ~ Penske in the Zerex Special
Penske launched his driving career when he was studying business at Lehigh University. He started by hill-climbing a fuel-injected Corvette in 1957 before going racing the following year. He got serious in 1959, trading up to a series of Porsche RS spyders, then a birdcage Maserati, a Cooper Monaco and his own famous Cooper-based Zerex Special. He also raced his own F1 cars in the 1961 and '62 United States GPs at Watkins Glen and drove Jim Hall's Chaparral to six USRRC wins in 1964.

In 1965 Penske managed Hall's ultra-successful Chaparral team in the USRRC and retired from driving to start his business career as a Chevrolet dealer in Philadelphia. Penske's personal racing record shows no fewer than 53 wins from 155 races over seven years between 1958-'64.

Before getting into some of the history of Penske Racing, master of ceremonies Punch asked Roger to tell the story of his famous bet with Augie Pabst in 1961 which resulted in Pabst driving his rental car into the pool at their hotel in Monterey.

"This was at Laguna Seca in the days before the Can-Am series," Penske grinned. "It was the San Francisco Examiner race for big-bore sports cars. Augie was driving at that point for Briggs Cunningham and he stalled at the start and got hit in the rear end and never made a lap.

"We came back to the Mark Thomas Inn in Monterey and they were having a big party down at the pool. I said Augie, you've really had a bad day, but I bet you $100 that you wouldn't drive your rental car into the swimming pool. Peter Ryan was there and Peter said he'd also give Augie $100 if he did it.

"So sure enough, Augie stripped down to his undershorts, turned on his Mustang rental car and drove right down between the diving board and into the pool. It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen!

"Walt Hansgen had his stuff in the trunk so he stripped down, dove in, got the keys out and opened the trunk, so all his stuff floated to the surface. The moral to that story is that next year we came back to check in to our rooms and they had a tire in the pool with a sign that said, 'No Parking'. You can't do that kind of stuff these days."

Through Penske Racing's first ten years from 1966-'75 Mark Donohue led the team as number one driver, chief engineer, truck driver and whatever else was required to get the job done. Punch asked Penske to comment on his relationship with Donohue.

© Racemaker
"Mark was the bedrock of the team," Penske responded. "He gave us our start and won many races and championships for us. I was at Lime Rock one day and Jay Signore said I should look at this guy driving an Elva Courier. I met Mark through Jay and when Mark came on the team he was like people talk about Rick (Mears) being quiet and getting the job done. That's the way Mark was.

"He was really underwhelming from the personality standpoint, but he was so committed. I remember at the shop in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania we had an office and up above was a little apartment. Mark would never go home. He would work almost all night and go up there and sleep and then he'd drive the truck to the races. That's the commitment he had.

"He was the one who really started to understand the technology around racing and what it meant. To win the '72 Indy 500 with him and the success we had with the Porsche 917/10 and 917/30 Can-Am cars were epic years for us and the team.

"Mark was a team player from start to finish. He didn't want any notoriety. Quite honestly, the less he was recognized, the happier he was. He was like a brother to me and he played a huge part in our success. When you look back at what he achieved, it's just amazing."

Punch asked Penske what the key components were in the success of Penske Racing and Penske Corporation.

"I think your success is about your human capital," Penske observed. "It's about your people. In our organization of more than 50,000 people we try to run a very flat organization. We try not to have a hierarchy. We don't want it, but we might have it, unfortunately.

"We need to lead from the ground up, not from the top down. There's not a job that I would ask someone to do that I wouldn't do if I had to. If I had to drive the truck to the track tonight, I would, and that's what we try to do.

"I think it's respect I learned from my parents and certainly the partnerships we've built our company with have been partners who have put their name with our name.

"I think we have to be open to people and open to criticism. We don't have an organization where nobody fails. People do fail in our organization. We give you a chance, but if you don't make it and you're not getting the job done, then you move on.

"I think that's been part of our success. We want people that live and breath our Team Penske brand. We want them to grow within the company and move up. I would say that ninety percent of the people that run our businesses today have came up through the organization.

"One of our chief mechanics today started as a truck driver only seven or eight years ago and worked his way up to where he is today. That's the environment we want. If you're going to work hard, you're going to make it. If you're not, you're going to go.

© Penske Restoration/Dave Friedman
"When I go to the race track, and I know Bobby (Rahal) and Chip (Ganassi) are the same. They've got great people and great race teams who live and breath racing. I would say we're not in the racing business. We're racers. There's a big difference. Guys like Bobby and Chip and many others are racers. You've got to be ready to get on your knees and make it happen. I think that's the common thread that we try to develop through the company."

Punch asked Penske what drives him and keeps him going so strongly after all his years of hard work.

"I think it's the team around me," Penske commented. "It's the people that are expecting leadership and want success. We're going to be out there doing our best. I love to compete. I always say my fishing trip and golf game is going to the races. We'll drive all day and fly all night to get to the races and get home. It's the competitive spirit inside. It's effort equals results.

"My family and my dad pushed me from early on to try to be successful. To me, it's all about a family. We try to deliver more than what's expected. I think that's what we do in racing and that's why we've been successful."

Penske took a moment to reflect on the important contributions to American road racing's formative days by Watkins Glen founder Cameron Argetsinger and some of his key contemporaries.

"I think about Cameron Argetsinger, Bill Milliken, John Fitch and John Bishop," he mused. "I knew them personally and as friends. They're the ones that started road racing as a sport in America. Cameron brought road racing and ultimately Formula 1 to Watkins Glen and those guys were the key guys in the SCCA in those days and then John Bishop was IMSA for many years.

"They also made the sport safer over the years. When I started you just wore a T-shirt and some gloves and a helmet. Today, we've come a long way from that and those improvements came about because of people like Argetsinger, Milliken, Fitch and Bishop."

Walt Czarnecki has been a Penske vice-president for more than forty years. Czarnecki recalled a telling moment about Penske's character from his early years with the organization.

"Mark Donohue won the Indy 500 in 1972 and validated Penske Racing as a major player on the American racing scene," Czarnecki said. "I remember reveling in the moment and saying that to Roger a few days later. He looked at me and said, 'You know, we have a race at Milwaukee next weekend.' And that said it all. What's done is done. We must focus on the future."

Among his many responsibilities, Czarnecki oversees Penske's NASCAR team. He related how Penske reacted to a terrible pitlane accident at Talladega in 1974 that almost cost team manager Don Miller his life.

© Dennis Torres
"I remember Talladega in 1974 when a pit road accident critically injured two of our crewmen, Don Miller and John Woodard, and severely injured several other of our crew," Czarnecki said. "Roger's assertiveness in managing that scene as it happened in very dire circumstances was something to see. He directed the immediate medical attention to our injured crewmen and committed to their longterm rehabilitation, some of which lasted several years.

"I think his response to that accident showed he's a top shelf guy. He leads by example with practiced self control and an unwavering loyalty to the team."

Czarnecki added a comment about Penske's operating principles.

"Of course, the past fifty years have not been just about Penske Racing but also about building a global transportation services company," Czarnecki noted. "Penske Racing and Penske Corporation are synonymous. Racing is the one thing the 53,000 employees across the United States, Europe and around the world have in common. Racing is who we are as a company.

"The company was built using the very same operating principles that Roger has practiced and still practices every week at the race track. It's about preparing in detail, maintaining a sense of urgency and continually anticipating within the rules because victory on the racetrack, if not done honestly, is a charade.

"I think it's a very simple formula for success in racing and in life. Roger has done it with the highest integrity, true professionalism and an affection for the alliance with the men and women who comprise the team."

Master of ceremonies Punch then asked Chip Ganassi for some brief remarks about Penske.

"At Le Mans a few weeks ago the first guy to send me an email of congratulations was Roger," Ganassi pointed out. "That meant a lot to me and our team and I appreciate it. But I can tell you that come the next IndyCar race at Elkhart Lake last weekend he wanted to rip my eyeballs out and I wanted to rip his out. But when the big wins or championships come along the way he's always the first to congratulate me and I appreciate that.

"When Roger was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the sixties, I was still a student in kindergarten. When I was about 23 years old I got to be on the phone with Roger and it was one of the biggest days of my career. It goes without saying that Roger paved the way for people like me to come along.

"Some people say there's a bitter rivalry between Roger and I," Chip added. "But I've never seen it that way. We've had a great rivalry."

Punch invited Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves to the podium to offer some personal vignettes about Penske.

© Dan Boyd
"I remember in the early days of Detroit Diesel," Mears recalled. "Roger had bought one of their plants in Ohio and he had reorganized it and cleaned it up in the Penske way and one day there was a grand opening for all the employees and their families.

"We showed up and said hi to everybody. Then we sat down at a table and were signing some autographs. Every employee who came up, Roger would say, 'How are you doing? Is everything OK? Is there anything you need?' We would chat a little bit and then the next guy and his family would come up.

"After a while a guy and his wife came up and Roger asked him the same questions and the guy's wife just burst out laughing. Roger said, 'What's so funny?' And she said, 'I used to have to kick him out of bed to go to work every day. Now he's up and gone before I even realize it.'

"To me, that put it in a nutshell. Roger inspires people to feel a part of the company and be there for the company. Over all the time I've been with Roger it's always been about taking care of the people because they're the ones who make it happen."

Castroneves has won three Indy 500s for Penske but has yet to win a championship. This year, he's running second in points between teammates Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. As the team's senior driver, Castroneves enjoys the benefit of having RP on his radio calling pit strategy.

"The boss is always right," Helio grinned. "But it's comforting. The experience Roger has in racing is more than any computer that anyone has. It's just so awesome because anything that happens you've got to make the decisions in a split second. Roger is the man who makes the decisions and when he does there's no second-guessing him. He's been in racing his entire life and I feel he's the key to me winning my first championship.

"Every time he comes up with a strategy call that gets you to the front you ask, 'How does he know that?' He's done it not once, but many times. So it's a privilege to have him calling my strategy.

"It's an honor to drive for Roger. But for me, every time I go into the race car I have one thing and that's to win for my team and for Roger. When you accomplish that, the reward from seeing Roger happy is priceless.

"Team Penske for me is the best organization in motor sports history in the world," Castroneves added. "But it's also a phenomenal family. We all work together as a family. We fight together as a family and treat each other as a family. I can only thank you Roger for letting me be part of this great team."

© Bob Tronolone
Master of ceremonies Punch asked Mears to comment on Penske's relationship with his drivers.

"I think he has a very close relationship with his drivers," Rick said. "A lot of people don't realize how well he drove a race car and how good he was in a race car. From a driver's standpoint, that was a dream car owner because he understood what it took.

"A lot of times you could be struggling and having a bad day and your owner might say, 'Why don't you stand on the gas a little harder?' Well, a lot of times you can't because the car won't let you and Roger would never say that to you.

"He would ask what the car was doing and he understood immediately what I was talking about. He'd say, 'You can't drive it like that. We've got to fix it.' And that took a lot of pressure off me as a driver.

"He understands what's going on with the car. He's been there and done that. So that was a huge plus for me as a driver and I know all his drivers see the same thing in him. On behalf of myself and the countless other lives and people that you've been able to help mould I can only say thank you very much from the bottom of my heart."

In closing, Punch asked Penske which of his many accomplishments he's most proud of.

"I'm most proud of my family and my fourteen grandchildren and my wife of 44 years," he reflected. "In today's world, that's definitely the thing I'm most proud of.

"I'm humbled and almost embarrassed with all the great comments tonight. But to me, what drives me every day is to try to be better. My dad taught me a long time ago a phrase that effort equals results. People that work hard and get results are not lucky. I think that's a very simple slogan that I've gone by for a long time and we continue to do that. I don't have a rear view mirror, I just look out the windshield."

On Independence Day, it's a pleasure to celebrate the true spirit of America embodied wholeheartedly by Roger Penske.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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