MILLER: How Roger Penske reinvented American racing

Mark Donohue, Penske, Chris Economaki. Image by Gene Crucean

MILLER: How Roger Penske reinvented American racing

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MILLER: How Roger Penske reinvented American racing

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It was 50 years ago when a fraternity house on wheels moved into venerable Gasoline Alley. The crew had collared shirts that said ‘Sunoco’, they polished the wheels of their Lola incessantly, and they scrubbed the floor of the tiny garage each night. A well-spoken young man with a coat and tie came into the media center and introduced himself as Dan Luginbuhl, the press officer for this Ivy League operation.

Well, not only was Indianapolis void of PR people back then, it had never seen anything like these sporty car racers with their baby-faced driver, sharply dressed owner, and spit-polished crew.

USAC’s old guard really didn’t know how to take them.

“I think it was more curiosity, like, ‘Who are these guys and why are they here?’” recalled Luginbuhl, who spent 40 years working full-time for Roger Penske and still adds his PR expertise on occasion. “Mark [Donohue] had run Riverside and one other IndyCar race before coming to the Speedway, and a few people knew about his success in sports cars.

“The USAC guys were very courteous and professional, and I think everyone was glad to have a new team coming in. There was no animosity; just curiosity.”

Of course, what nobody at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway could foresee in May 1969 was the impact Penske would have on Indianapolis and American racing in general. Just a few years after the rear-engine revolution changed the face of Indy, R.P.’s regimented style, attention to detail and sponsor presentation gave IndyCar racing a total makeover.

Penske singlehandedly gave IndyCar an upgrade – whether it wanted one or not. Towed race cars on open trailers was replaced by semi-trailers; teams began dressing in sponsor colors; crew chiefs suddenly started sharing space with guys called engineers; pit stops became an exercise in precision; and an element of professionalism soon permeated a paddock that had always been seat-of-the-pants racing.

Mario Andretti won his lone Indy 500 that year and recalls his first impression of The Captain:

“He made his mark very visible in sports cars, and he just had the look of somebody who would be successful,” said Andretti, who would race for Team Penske in 1976-’78. “He always did things first class, and he brought a whole new level of professionalism.

“I remember I thought it was welcome to have somebody with class coming into the series.”

At that time, people said that Penske would either be the best thing or worst thing to happen to IndyCar racing because his M.O. would drive up the price of racing. When he showed up with a McLaren for Donohue in 1971, the ante went up – just like the quality of teams and competition.

Penske with AJ Foyt in the early 1960s. Image by Gene Crucean

And when Donohue captured the 1972 Indy 500, it started a dynasty that continues today. Team Penske has won Indianapolis a staggering 17 times, with its own cars, customer models, standard engines, trick motors, fast pit stops and good strategy.

“Roger had a three-year program with Sunoco, and our plan was to be able to win the race by the third year,” continued Luginbuhl. “Mark was long gone [out in front] in ’71 before he had a gearbox problem, so it took us a fourth year before finally winning.”

From Donohue to Bettenhausen to Sneva to Andretti to Mears to Sullivan to Tracy to Castroneves to de Ferran to Montoya to Power to Newgarden to Pagenaud to all three Unsers, The Captain always went after the best available drivers and put the finest equipment under them.

The Captain joined Dan Gurney, Bob Riley and Captain Geometry (Antares), and began building his own cars sporting his name. And by the end of that decade, we had Lightnings, Parnellis, Wildcats, Fleagles, Vollstedts and a Kingfish as innovation was booming. Just like sponsorships and big events as Cleveland, Toronto, Vancouver, Portland, Road America and Mid-Ohio packed ’em in, and MIS, Milwaukee and Phoenix were pulling record oval crowds.

Penske asserted himself in every facet of open-wheel racing and it drew first-class teams owned by Jim Hall, Pat Patrick, Bob Fletcher, Jerry O’Connell, Bobby Hillin, Rick Galles and McLaren, which all joined All-American Racers in raising the level of competition to new heights. Backup cars became the rule rather than the exception, and road racing (which USAC had dabbled with in the ‘60s and ‘70s) and street circuits came to the fore when the USAC/CART war broke out in 1979.

“I think it sent a message to everybody, from Foyt on down, that presentation really counts, “ said Luginbuhl, referring to the 1980s. “You want your car to be competitive and fast, and it wasn’t long after that that most teams started looking the part. I think it helped everyone up and down the line sell sponsorship.”

Penske and Patrick spent their own money in launching CART, and there was no denying The Captain’s passion. He got PPG Industries to be CART’s title sponsor, and bought or built tracks to speed IndyCar’s growth.

There is no doubt that if R.P. had sold his team and focused solely on CART (see Bernie Ecclestone, Brabham, and Formula 1), it would have flourished way beyond what it eventually became in the early ’90s.

A time-honored part of Penske’s approach has been to outclass the opposition in every department, including drivers. Image by IMS

But as we prepare for the 103rd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the undeniable fact is that Roger Penske still covets an Indy win as much as he did back in 1969. Sure, his team has 204 victories and 15 championships, but it’s all those Baby Borgs that he cherishes.

His dad brought him to IMS in 1952, and he visited in the early ’60s as he was mapping out his career plans. An accomplished sports car racer who had some great duels with Parnelli and Gurney, R.P. had a chance to test an Indy car for Al Dean and Clint Brawner but turned it down to focus on starting his car business.

A fella named Andretti wound up with that ride.

All these years later, The Captain’s footprints are all over IndyCar racing, from appearance to accountability to hospitality. He’s the rabbit that Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti are chasing and the yardstick for Ed Carpenter, Sam Schmidt, Dale Coyne, Trevor Carlin, Mike Shank, George Steinbrenner, Mike Harding, Ricardo Juncos and Dennis Reinbold.

He’s the smartest man I’ve ever met, and his business has grown from 55 employees in the late ’60s to over 60,000 today. He’s a billionaire and a hands-on boss that still jets all over the globe to manage the Penske Corporation.

He champions the unfair advantage because he knows how to play the game.

At 82, he still loves standing on his pit box and calling the race, but he lives for the month of May. Indianapolis was his goal before it became his calling card. And 50 years later it’s still the most important thing in his world.

Happy anniversary, R.P.

Image by Levitt/LAT

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