Roger Penske is not known to be sentimental. He’s firmly focused on the future, rarely willing to use his precious time reflecting on the past, no matter how successful it may have been.
Penske is still running full throttle at age 85, presiding over a transportation services empire with 67,000 employees and $37 billion in annual revenue. He jokingly refers to his racing team as his golf game or fishing weekend, but Team Penske has always been serious business, a standard-setter for teams in every arena in which it competes. That currently holds true in IndyCar, NASCAR, and IMSA sports cars, where Porsche Penske Motorsport will field a pair of Porsche 963 hybrid prototypes in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s new GTP class in 2023. The Porsche Penske effort also includes a two-car attack in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
Porsche is one topic that tends to convince “The Captain” to walk down memory lane, as he did recently when asked for comment for an essay in a new book called Racing The Spyder that is expected to be published by Progresso 33 in early 2024.
Penske and Porsche have a remarkable 65-year history dating to 1958, when he bought a 550 RS from Bob Holbert, a Pennsylvania Porsche dealer and racer and father of future IMSA star (and Porsche stalwart) Al Holbert.
Between 1958 and ’64, Penske was one of America’s most promising upcoming racers; he won the SCCA President’s Cup in 1960, ’62, and ’63 and was named Driver of the Year by Sports Illustrated in 1961. He famously retired from driving following the 1964 season to focus on his business interests, turning down the opportunity to audition for the Dean Van Lines IndyCar seat that went to an unknown named Mario Andretti.
Much of Penske’s early success was achieved driving Porsches, especially after he teamed up with Karl Kainhofer, an Austrian immigrant who was a factory trained Porsche mechanic capable of servicing the rare Type 547 ‘Fuhrman’ engine. Kainhofer’s relentless ‘spit and polish’ philosophy was an ideal match for a perfectionist like Penske; he would become a founding member of Penske Racing in 1966, remaining with the team until his retirement in 1997.
“I was a Spyder mechanic from the outset — the drivetrain, the gearbox, the engine, everything,” said Kainhofer. “I think I was the only one on the East Coast who knew how to work on the Fuhrman engine. In a lot of ways, it was a bit ahead of everybody.
“Roger quickly realized I could help him. All he had was a station wagon, a trailer, and a racing car. I was the guy who cleaned and cleaned and cleaned, and he appreciated that. It became a trademark.”
Penske has fond recollections of those early days, when he would often ride with Kainhofer as they towed the race car to road racing venues around North America. Penske raced Porsches up to 1961, claiming major victories in the 550 RS, 718 RSK, RS60 and RS61 models.
“We had a great run during that time,” Penske said. “For me personally, I enjoyed driving Porsche race cars. The first Porsche I raced was the 550 RS and we competed with that car in 1958 and into ’59. Our first win with Porsche came at the Springtown Hill Climb in April of 1959. We liked what we could do from a performance standpoint and that gave us the confidence to continue to build with Porsche.
“I believe I had 28 race wins in my career behind the wheel of a Porsche, and it really marked the start of a strong partnership together.”
Penske’s next association with Porsche came in the early 1970s, when George Follmer and Mark Donohue won consecutive SCCA Can-Am championships in the fearsome 917-10 and 917-30. In the same era, Penske co-founded the International Race of Champions, with Donohue claiming the inaugural title in one of the identical Porsche 911 Carrera RSRs that he developed for the all-star series.
Fast forward three decades, and Team Penske was recruited by Porsche to run a pair of RS Spyders in American Le Mans Series competition. Built to LMP2 specifications, the nimble Porsche often gave the theoretically faster LMP1 competitors a solid run for their money, claiming overall victory in the 2008 12 Hours of Sebring and several other sprint races.
Now, 65 years after he first raced a 550 RS, Penske and Porsche are combining to tackle an even more ambitious feat, culminating in a four-car attack at the centennial celebration of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For all his success as a team owner, Le Mans is the one major racing event in which Penske has never captured overall victory.
Even as the newly minted owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s clear that the latest Porsche link-up is especially significant to Penske. He has attended several test sessions during the car’s development over the past six months.
“Sports cars are where I started personally, and the success we’ve had over the years with Porsche really started with me driving an RSK Spyder back in my early days,” Penske said. “That went on to create a relationship with Porsche that we are very proud of. I remember testing the 917 at Weissach with Mark Donohue when it was just the track and a barn… you go there today and it’s like a small city.
“Porsche has such great tradition and a special legacy in racing. Their commitment to winning has always aligned well with our goals and objectives. We have maintained a great relationship with the Porsche team in Germany, and here in the U.S. as well, even when we were not racing together on track. We are proud of how we have grown together off the track as well.
“When we were looking to return to full-time sports car competition and build a program under the new global formula, it made perfect sense to partner with Porsche on a new alliance for the future. It’s pretty special to renew the relationship, and we are certainly excited about our newest opportunity to work together.”