Roger Penske at 81: Still Going Strong, Still Dominate in Racing
He is one of the most recognized people in racing. And at 81, Roger Penske has no plans to slow down any time soon.
Making a name for himself as a racer in the 1950s and 60s, Penske made his fortune as owner of Penske Truck Leasing, Penske Automotive Group, Inc. and Team Penske. With 32 championships and 475 race victories across IndyCar, NASCAR, sports car and super car racing, Team Penske dominates the sport.
Before the start of the 2018 IndyCar season, which begins Sunday at the Firestone Grand Prix in St. Petersburg, IndyCar introduced a new body kit and universal aero kit. SI.com sat down with “The Captain” to look ahead at this year’s changes and reflect on his journey in racing.
Sports Illustrated: With the new aero kits coming out this season, do you have any ideas on how that’s going to impact racing?
Roger Penske: Well I think it’s putting the driver back in the car because there was so much downforce that it made it easier to drive. And now the cars are a little more unstable. They don’t have the downforce. With downforce you could brake deeper into the corner. You can’t do that today, so the car is a little tougher to drive. I think the cream is going to come to the top from that standpoint of who can drive the cars. The best news I have is number one they’ve looked at safety is position one. Position two would be the relevance of the IndyCar look. Back to the traditional look I think is number two. And certainly number three is cost. What we’ve been able to do is make this transition to the older style car, look, and feel and drive to the new without adding a lot of tremendous costs to these.
SI: What’s your favorite part of the IndyCar design that’s new yet a throwback to the classic [look]?
RP: Well I would say it’s a traditional look. I think the fact that we’ve taken the downforce off…it’s like an airplane wing upside down. The bigger the wing, you follow me, the faster they can fly. We’ve turned them the other way. And I think taking this downforce out, which will reduce the corner speeds, it’s safer and also will make it more tougher for the drivers to be able to drive the cars, which will also make it more competitive. The better drivers will come to the top. I look at that as a real asset of this year.
SI: You have some of the big names in IndyCar on your team, including some of the younger guys like [defending champion] Josef Newgarden, but who else do you see as sort of the future face of IndyCar?
RP: I’m pretty confident that the team we have has the experience of being champions but also the underlying will to win, which is important. They’re not on their victory lap, you know. They have a lot to prove in the series, and I think we’re very fortunate to have the team of drivers that we have. You know you look at other teams, but I’m not here to rate other drivers. I think there’s a lot of good competitors and a lot of good teams. Andretti’s team, Ganassi’s team, Rahal’s team. You know just to name a few. [Sam] Schmidt. There’s a lot of them out there. [Ed] Carpenter. You got Danica [Patrick] coming to drive for Carpenter, which I think is great for the series. She’ll come back having been in NASCAR for four or five years. She’s going to come back a much tougher driver in what she had to compete against in NASCAR. She can bring some of that to Indy this year, which I think will be pretty exciting. When I came in Indianapolis in the late 60s, I just wanted a chance to be a competitor, and you can see over time how that’s paid off for us.
SI: Out of all that time what’s your favorite memory?
RP: The favorite memory as far as IndyCar would be winning my first Indy race in 1972. But before that was when my dad took me to Indianapolis in 1951, and I decided that I wanted to race there. But when I had a chance to race there I had a job with Alcoa and I couldn’t get the time off to take my drivers test and Mario Andretti took the test in the car that I was supposed to take. So I went off in the business world and he became a Formula One champion and Indy 500 [winner_, so it’s all worked out.
SI: It was your birthday recently. (He turned 81 on February 20) Did you do anything to celebrate?
RP: I stopped counting. Well no listen, I guess good health is the most important thing to celebrate at my age, right?
SI: After all these years, what do you attribute to still staying on top and staying innovative?
RP: You know motor racing is a brand builder for us. It builds a brand outside because we’re in the retail business. So we’re in the business where brand makes a huge difference in where we are. This continuation of our mission of being competitive, having high visibility, integrity, the way we run our business, racing fits in to that mission statement so well. I want to continue to have this be part of our secret sauce. We don’t have to advertise a lot when you can be leading the Indy 500 for 50 or 70 laps. It’s like having a spot on the Super Bowl in many cases. I see it as a common thread throughout our company.
SI: How was the decision for you to move Helio Castroneves over from IndyCar racing to sports car racing? Was it hard?
RP: It was a decision where I’m looking at the field. I’m looking at where we have to go. I think that Helio had done an outstanding job. He was with us almost his whole career. You know Rick Mears said to me one day ‘I just don’t have it in my belly anymore. It’s time for you to put someone in the car.’ Most people won’t say that. They’ll just go down in their capability, but Helio, you know, he and I talked about this probably 12-18 months ago. We talked about getting him into a business. He’s a partner of ours in an automobile dealership outside of Philadelphia. He wants to win another Indy 500 another time obviously. So my recommendation to him was ‘Look, I want you to be the lead in the sports car area.’ I’m trying to help him do his long-term thinking. A lot of people wouldn’t do that. He’s one of my best friends. On the other hand, I’m not afraid to tell him it’s time. We’re going to make this transition.
SI: Outside of racing, what’s your favorite sport?
RP: I would say golf and skiing. I would say the most fun I’ve had outside of racing is going to see my grandkids play hockey. If I could spend a Saturday doing anything, I would watch them play hockey. I’ve got two grandsons that are playing, and I’ve got two granddaughters that are playing. I tell you it’s terrific to see where they started and where they are today. That would be my most fun thing to do. I’d rather do that than play golf or go fishing I guess.