Part two of the 15-part feature series ‘How Roger Penske changed the Indy 500,’ which celebrates the most successful entrant at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the 50th anniversary of his first in 1969, features RACER’s Robin Miller.
Miller’s first Indy 500 as a cub reporter for the Indianapolis Star came the same year as Penske’s debut, giving the veteran journalist and TV commentator an inside look at the team and its influence since their shared debut at the Speedway.
Below are a few excerpts from the interview:
HE CHANGED THE FACE OF OPEN-WHEEL RACING
“He didn’t just change the face of the Indianapolis 500, he changed the face of open-wheel racing. His imprint is all over it. And when he came here, I knew who Roger Penske was. URRC Driver of the Year. Sports Illustrated cover once. We knew who Mark Donahue was because he was a hell of a road racer, [original Penske Racing PR man] Dan Luginbuhl walked into the old media center, shook everybody’s hand, and passed out his card. He had a tie and a coat on. We’re like, ‘What? You know, there were no PR people…’”
“Mario [Andretti] said it best. Mario said he just looked like class when he walked. And Mario’s like, ‘I expected big things out of this guy because I knew what he had done in sports cars.’ But I don’t know that anybody expected they would roll the car out every night and they would polish the garage floor and then, they were constantly polishing the wheels and making sure the car was clean and USAC guys are laughing at them like, ‘What the F… what are you people doing? We’re here for three weeks, get serious.’
“That regimented system, that’s just the way they operated and nobody was mean to them or rude to them or anything. They weren’t treated poorly at all. It’s just that it was such a culture shock because [Indy was] a bunch of fly-by-night, seat-of-the-pants racers for the most part.”
BIG EAGLE BLESSING
“I remember Dan Gurney saying, ‘These guys will be serious players,’ because him and Roger raced and him and Parnelli raced and they both had high regard for Roger as a driver and obviously then as an owner and a manufacturer. [In] ’71 when he came with the McLaren [chassis], if you weren’t paying attention, you started then. Dan was paying attention.”
THIS IS WHAT HE LIVES FOR
“I can’t think of anybody that’s had the impact he’s had and the success, and he still gets as big a kick out of coming here in May as he did 50 years ago. This is what he lives for.”