Inside Dick Johnson’s year-long Penske talks
A handshake from Roger Penske after a burger at the local McDonald’s convinced Dick Johnson that his race team is set for a bright future.
The joint-venture between American giant Team Penske and V8 Supercars stalwarts Dick Johnson Racing announced this week has re-energised the ailing squad and its 69-year-old, now minority owner.
Announcements of the DJR Team Penske partnership have come almost 11 months after a Penske lieutenant first reached out to Johnson’s squad.
Initial contact came at last October’s Gold Coast 600, where a member of Penske’s then recently purchased Western Star Trucks business gave a friendly warning to DJR team manager Richard Swan of an impending phone call from Roger Penske.
Early the following month, DJR’s three co-owners Johnson, Ryan Story and Steve Brabeck, and then sporting director Campbell Little, were headed to Charlotte, North Carolina, in Roger Penske’s private jet.
“Those sort of things are always a bit surreal because you never know what to expect when you get there,” Johnson told Speedcafe.com this week of his trip to Penske’s expansive facilities.
“For them it was a bit of a mission to have a bit of a meet and greet to say ‘are these guys for real or are they kidding themselves?’”
According to Johnson, it was immediately apparent that both parties were indeed serious, with Penske keen to build his growing Australian business interests through racing.
Penske president Tim Cindric, a 14-year veteran of the Penske empire, initially needed a little convincing, but was dispatched by Penske to December’s Sydney 500 alongside Ford Racing boss Jamie Allison.
Not one to do things half-hearted, Cindric already knew the V8 Supercars rule book “inside out and back to front” by the time he first met with Johnson and his co-owners.
“They knew damn well where they wanted to be from day one,” said Johnson of Penske and Cindric.
“It was just a matter of making all the dots line-up and, thankfully for my point of view, they did.”
But while Penske and his men worked on the economics of a 2015 V8 Supercars assault from the USA over the following months, Johnson and DJR were left to continue their cash-strapped grind through the current season in relative darkness.
Backing from Ford, which some had assumed as a fait accompli, didn’t prove forthcoming, while much of Penske’s Australian focus remained on building his trucking empire.
Reports that Penske was negotiating with Marcos Ambrose to head-up a V8 Supercars effort were encouraging, but even Johnson himself was at the time unsure of their validity.
Penske missed multiple deadlines with DJR to confirm its commitment, leaving the Australian outfit’s future hanging in the balance.
A week-long visit from Cindric in mid-June, however, saw plans kick into high gear as he methodically interviewed every staff member and plotted potential improvements to the team’s structure.
Penske was also in Australia scoping out other business opportunities and joined Cindric, Johnson, Story and Brabeck at DJR’s Stapylton, Queensland, headquarters for a meeting that would last a full day.
The only break in proceedings came at lunch time where, at the suggestion of Penske, the powerful quintet humbly dined at a McDonald’s attached to a service station down the road from the workshop.
The surreal scene was complete when an enthusiastic fan brushed aside 15-time Indianapolis 500 winning car owner and $US1.4 billion businessman Penske in order to get Johnson’s autograph.
“It was a Saturday so I thought we’d be half alright,” laughed Johnson of the chance that the enormity of the moment would be recognised by a fan or mechanics from nearby race teams Erebus Motorsport and Tekno Autosports.
“But obviously there are eyes everywhere these days and with social media around it doesn’t take long to get everything happening!
“That was a big day,” he added after pausing for reflection.
“Tim had been here all week and Roger turned up that morning and was with us until sundown.
“From that point on we felt as though we had a chance of coming to an arrangement that’d get it all over the line.
“Thankfully we’re in a situation now where we can breathe easy and just hopefully head in the right direction, which I know damn well we will.
“There’s all the makings there now of a team that can get back to the front of the competition again.”
While a furore over plans to send a test car to the United States threatened to derail the Penske/DJR alliance the following month, confirmation of Ambrose’s desire to return to V8 Supercars eventually helped the deal back on track.
Johnson, whose most recent face-to-face meeting with Penske remains that memorable day in mid-June, says he couldn’t be happier with his new partner.
“The thing that I appreciate more than anything with Roger is that what he says, he does,” said Johnson.
“That’s the way we’ve always been too.”
CLICK HERE for more in this week’s Cafe Chat with Dick Johnson and Speedcafe.com’s Stefan Bartholomaeus