Part 11 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 which took place in 1969, welcomes two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr.
Little Al’s time with Roger Penske in the 1990s, including an unforgettable win at the 1994 Indy 500, marked the high point in a long and storied driving career.
“The Indy 500 is the crown jewel of American racing,” he says. “I mean, it was here long before stock cars were. And so, to actually change Indianapolis Motor Speedway is saying a lot. And so, when I think about what Roger did to actually change the 500, I think about the business model that is in our racing today. And when I say that, I talk about sponsors. And Roger, Roger is like the car owners of the ’30s and ’40s where they had a passion for racing. They loved racing, and that’s why the did it.
“Unfortunately, they couldn’t drive the car as well as a professional driver could, but they could own it. And when we start talking about the beginning of the Indy 500, it was all about the owner. It wasn’t about the driver. Like when Ray Haroun won the Indy 500, it was Marmon that was congratulated. The driver was like a jockey in today’s world. Where the jockey is the guy who rides the horse, and to be honest with you, I think the jockey should get more credit.
“And so, it wasn’t until Tony Hulman came along in the ’40s that he started honoring the race car driver. So, when I talk about Roger Penske as an owner, not a driver, at the Indy 500, what Roger brought was the business model of sponsorship. And he introduced that with Sunoco. And then it became a business model from that day forward. You had the Johnny Lightning Special with Vels Parnelli. And so on. And prior to that, it was STP with Andy Granatelli. But it was really Roger who took it the next steps. I would venture to say that that was the time that it really became a business model that we, in Indy car racing today, totally lived by.”