e started out with one car, one
sponsor, one special driver and one
specific goal. “I told the Sun Oil Company
it would take us three years to win the
Indianapolis 500,” recalls Roger Penske,
breaking into a smile. “But we didn’t win
it until the fourth try.”
Since that victory for Mark Donohue in
the Sunoco McLaren-Offy in 1972, “The
Captain” has re-shaped how people go
Indy car racing, become the yardstick for
greatness, and made the Indianapolis Motor
Speedway his personal proving ground.
In the 42 times Penske has competed in
the Indy 500, his cars have racked up 16
wins – an astounding 38 percent hit rate.
He’s given unknowns like Rick Mears
and Helio Castroneves a chance to shine,
provided stars like Juan Pablo Montoya
with a second chance, and employed the
entire Unser family at various times.
From polishing the wheels on that first
Lola, to dressing his mechanics in identical
collared shirts, to cultivating longtime
sponsorships, to mixing business with the
pleasure of auto racing, Penske put in
place a formula for success at Indianapolis
HPenske’s baby Borg-Warner Trophies during 15 years driving for his team. “He
loves competing and he loves winning,
but Indy means everything to him.”
To think that a college kid who took out
a GMAC loan in order to race a Corvette
with SCCA would become the gold
standard at the rough, tough Brickyard
might seem like a bit of miscasting.
“First time I saw Indianapolis with my dad,
in ’ 51, it got in my blood and I set my sights
on it,” says Penske. “It was the Holy Grail.”
It didn’t take Roger’s road-racing
renegades long to figure out ovals, as
Donohue started fifth and finished second to
Al Unser in his sophomore IMS run in 1970.
Then, in only his 16th Indy car start (and
seventh on an oval), he won the ’ 71 Pocono
500. His learning curve was made easier
that year because Penske commissioned
an innovative McLaren that borrowed
heavily from Formula 1 thinking – his first
example of being out ahead of the pack.
In 1972, it was all about Gary
Bettenhausen, the second-generation
charger Penske had plucked out of USAC to
drive his second McLaren, who agonizingly
(ABOVE) Rick Mears
wins the 72nd
Race in 1988. It was
the third of four for
the driver; the eighth
of 16 (so far) for Team
Penske, and the third
of six in a car built by
debut Indy 500 came
in 1969 (LEFT), with
the first win in ’ 72.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway is to Penske what Monza is to Ferrari, defining and challenging the team and its legacy.
WORDS Robin Miller
IMAGES LAT & IMS archive
that has flourished for five decades.
And today, aged 79, Roger S. Penske
continues to monitor his billion-dollar
business empire with one eye on the race
track and his heart still in the driver’s seat.
“He told me once he’ll have a car at
Indianapolis until they drag him out of the
place, and I’ve not seen his desire waiver
one bit,” says Mears, who earned four of
“He told me he’ll have a car at Indianapolis
until they drag him out of the place, and
I’ve not seen his desire waiver one bit”