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Q&A: Roger Penske on his motorsport empire

Speedcafe.com

Friday 22nd January, 2016 - 1:32pm

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Team Penske patriarch Roger Penske

Team Penske patriarch Roger Penske

The Penske operation has been successful in a wide variety of categories, claiming North America’s greatest races and setting an unbridled level of excellence.

From a brief foray into Formula 1 in the 1970s to its fledgling project in V8 Supercars as DJR Team Penske, owner Roger Penske has created a leviathan motor racing enterprise.

Team Penske’s lavish 50th birthday bash held in Charlotte, North Carolina, this week saw a collection of more than 40 of its 85 drivers attend.

As part of the team’s 50th birthday celebrations, Penske gave a fascinating insight into the empire he has created in an all-encompassing Q&A as part of the annual Charlotte Media Tour.

QUESTION: What do you think about when looking at 50 years in motorsports?

ROGER PENSKE: I think about all the great people that have worked for the company and have driven these race cars.

We’ve had 85 drivers in our 430 wins and, to me, it’s all about those guys that have put their necks on the line and the crew chiefs.

I think tonight at our 50th anniversary we’ll have 3,200 years of service at Penske Racing represented, so that, to me, is low turnover and great results.

QUESTION: Is there a moment that is quintessential of Team Penske over those 50 years?

PENSKE: You have to think about the first time we won the Indy 500.

That’s pretty special when you think about 1972, but each one of those victories – the 16 that we’ve had – are something special, the Sprint Cup championship, the Sebring 12 Hour race, and just on and on and on.

The Daytona 500s. I don’t really have a favourite because each time we win that’s my favourite day because, as I said to someone else, that’s my fishing trip on the weekends when I go to the races.

Joey Logano won the 2015 Daytona 500 for Penske

Joey Logano won the 2015 Daytona 500 for Penske

QUESTION: How special is the Daytona 500 in your grand scheme of things?

Penske: When you think about Daytona my first entry as a car owner was back in the early sixties with a Corvette at Daytona for the 24 Hours and we won in class, if you can believe it.

I remember, I think the sponsorship was $2,500, so to think you were there in that class win with a Corvette and coming back and winning both with Ryan (Newman) and Joey (Logano) was something special because it means so much to see what Daytona means to NASCAR.

QUESTION: How did you identify Joey as a guy you wanted to drive for you?

PENSKE: We watched him at Joe Gibbs and he won a lot of races racing Kyle (Busch) in similar equipment.

He got into the Cup side and won a couple races and as we looked at someone we might be able to bring along with the team we needed to know who was available.

At that point, Gibbs didn’t have a full Cup ride for him, so in fact I talked to Joe and talked to J.D (Gibbs). about it.

They said, ‘Give me a week or so.’ So we waited a week to find out whether they had a slot for him.

When they didn’t, he was the perfect pick. Brad (Keselowski) was a big part of that, too, because he was friendly with Joey and I wanted to be sure that when we brought another driver on the team that Brad had a chance to weigh in on it.

He certainly voted in the right box. ‘Let’s get this guy, if we can.’

QUESTION: Your influence on people doesn’t just stop on the track, but it extends to life as well. Can you talk about that?

PENSKE: This is a team sport when it comes to a lot of things, not only on the race track, the guys over-the-wall or the engineers or the guys that build the car, but it’s also from my perspective I need to be sure that our drivers and the team understands what the business equation is.

I think that’s important because today without sponsors, without OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) relationships, we wouldn’t be sitting here to have the opportunity to compete in NASCAR.

To me it’s 360 degrees. You can’t just be a great driver. You’ve got to know the engineering side with the business side and certainly there’s no question the commercial value that these drivers bring to our team is important, so they have to be the type of individuals that would represent our brand on a worldwide basis.

Mark Donohue landed Penske's first Indy 500 win in 1972

Mark Donohue landed Penske’s first Indy 500 win in 1972

QUESTION: What did you look for as the best trait for a driver in the early days?

PENSKE: Back in the early days we didn’t understand how important the technology was and the interface between engineering.

We didn’t have engineers in those days. We didn’t understand aerodynamics. We didn’t really understand mechanical grip, but as that started to evolve we started to have people that would understand.

Mark Donohue was a perfect example. He brought that technology transfer over to us from the drawing board back into the race car and onto the race track.

To me, today I look at drivers that have of course won something. I don’t care at what level, but they have to know how to win.

I think they have to be able to communicate with our people, to be a team player, because if you have a team of three or four drivers only one wins, so they’re gonna have to know when they’re second or third or whatever they might be.

So they’ve got to be team players and on top of that I think the most important thing is they’ve got to be able to understand the technology of the cars.

Our drivers today can almost take those cars apart and understand each piece of them, and they have to.

They spend more time at the race shop than they have to. They have to be in condition and today they’re like athletes, they’re like stick-and-ball sports.

We have an athletic trainer. We make them better, better, better and I think that’s important.

And last, they have to be commercially savvy because our sponsors are so important and they expect people that represent their brands properly, so there are a number of things that we look at when we pick that next driver.

John Watson claimed Penske's only F1 victory in Austria in 1976

John Watson claimed Penske’s only F1 victory in Austria in 1976

QUESTION: Do you still see some unfinished business in Formula 1?

PENSKE: Formula 1 is a special series today and it always has been.

It’s the Indianapolis of every country. Unfortunately, unless you’re based in Europe and have a commitment in that sport, I don’t think you can compete on a day-to-day basis.

I think Gene Haas (Haas F1) has set up a completely separate team. He’s committed financially to make it happen and I think at this point it’s pretty much passed us.

We won a race in Formula 1 in Austria with (John) Watson, so I’d say we did get to the front, but at this point I’d say we’re gonna focus on the main efforts that we have today and that’s IndyCar, NASCAR and certainly XFINITY and our Australian pursuit (V8 Supercars) that we have today to try to be the best there.

QUESTION: Do you still have a goal to grow the team beyond two Sprint Cup entries?

PENSKE: I think the goal… now we have a technical relationship with the #21 (Wood Brothers Racing entry), so we’re integrated there quite deeply with some key people and working with Ryan Blaney,

Hopefully at some point can we take those folks with that experience and run a third car in the Sprint Cup Series, but we have to look at that for the future. Right now, I think our plate is full.

QUESTION: Do you ever consider how long your record at Indy might stand with 16 wins?

PENSKE: Having 16 wins at the Indy 500 is pretty special and it takes a lot of work and a lot of people and a lot of execution to get there.

We’re not stopping at 16. I hope that we can make it 17, 18, 19 and 20 here, but we’re gonna take it one year at a time and the 100th running of the race this year is gonna be very important to us to try to win that one.

We’ve got four great drivers and we’re going back with the same team.

Juan Montoya claims Penske's 16th Indy 500, edging out team-mate Will Power who won the 2014 IndyCar series for the great team

Juan Montoya claims Penske’s 16th Indy 500, edging out team-mate Will Power who won the 2014 IndyCar series for the great team

QUESTION: When you showed up at Indy in 1969 you changed the culture of what the garage are was like.

In looking at how teams back then operated and seeing how they all now operate ‘the Penske way’, how important is that to you, to see how you changed the culture?

PENSKE: We went to Indy and I remember they called us the crew-cut guys with the polished wheels, but we came with the air jacks and brought a lot of innovation.

Quite honestly, the competition has gotten better and better. In fact, it was so good in 1995 that we didn’t make the race.

I remember in ’94 we led every lap but two, so, to me, evolution is where we are. It’s in sports. It’s in life.

It’s certainly in technology and the speedway just gets better and better and tougher and tougher to win, and we’re just glad to be part of the history.

QUESTION: I believe you were offered a ride in 1964 and turned it down. Why?

PENSKE: I had a chance to go with Clint Brawner and Jim McGee to take a test, but I had a job at Alcoa and I couldn’t get the time off. At that point, they probably got a better guy when they got Mario Andretti.

QUESTION: Is it fair for you to pick out your favourite memory in 50 years?

PENSKE: There are so many times that you probably cried and you cried because you were happy and cried because you were not happy.

Probably I’ll just talk about a disappointment, which would be the most important thing, and that’s when we didn’t make the 1995 Indy 500.

Al Unser jr won the 1994 Indy 500 for Penske but a year later he and team-mate Emerson Fittipaldi famously failed to qualify for the race

Al Unser jr won the 1994 Indy 500 for Penske but a year later he and team-mate Emerson Fittipaldi famously failed to qualify for the race

Al Unser and Emerson Fittipaldi and I walked side-by-side back to that garage area having missed the race after dominating it in 1994.

But so many other victories we’ve had that it’s hard to say because each one of them was special.

QUESTION: Anything else on your list you’d like to check off?

PENSKE: We’d like to be able to win at Le Mans if we can. We’ve raced there, but have never had the success that we wanted.

Maybe at some point here we could put something together, but we’ve got a full plate right now and I think with the NASCAR Series and what takes place in ’16 and IndyCar with four cars and what we’re trying to do out in Australia, we’ve got a real full plate.

We’ve got great people. I’ve spent the last couple of days looking at our budgets and looking at the people and the great thing is the depth that we have with the drivers like with Blaney coming up, and certainly the youngsters – you put Brad and Joey together and we’ve got some real runway for those two guys.

On the IndyCar side, we’ve got Helio (Castroneves) and Juan (Montoya) and then we have the young guys, so it’s interesting when you put all of that together. We’ve got some real opportunity.

QUESTION: When you have to personally leave this sport in maybe 25-30 years (laughter), are you confident the team can continue on?

PENSKE: I don’t know when I’m gonna leave the sport. It will probably be very abrupt when I do, but, anyhow, I’m counting on this legacy will continue on.

My sons and our family love this sport. It’s the backbone, a common thread through the company, so there’s no reason not to be involved.

I think if we can sustain the sponsorship and the key people stay with us and will continue to help us, we can go on forever and I don’t see any reason we can’t do that.

Penske and Team Penske president Tim Cindric

Penske and Team Penske president Tim Cindric

QUESTION: How important was Tim Cindric when you hired him?

PENSKE: Leadership is very important in all aspects of sports, whether it’s the coach, whether it’s the driver, the quarterback.

Tim came on board and I had a lot of confidence in him as an individual. He understood it.

He had been on a race team. He knew how to win. He knew how it was to lose and I think the fact that we partnered and I had full trust and gave him the opportunity to make the changes and supported those.

We had some tough days, but, on the other hand, I think he’s been a real asset to me personally and to the family and to the company.

I think he’s got a lot of respect in the garage area, both in NASCAR and also in IndyCar and I think that’s what it takes long-term.

QUESTION: Why diversity in all these different series and not just concentrate on one?

PENSKE: Indy was where I got my feet wet, but I was a sports car racer and liked long distance racing, so I never gave that up.

But I think that race with Rusty back in Atlanta in NASCAR was pretty key and the opportunity then to come back and once you’re in NASCAR and it bites you, you can’t let it go and I think it takes the driver, it takes that team, and I think he brought something – his own personal commitment.

He’d work on the cars. He’d drive the truck if he had to, and once you’re in how do you get out?

QUESTION: Why did you pull away from NASCAR the first time?

PENSKE: I don’t know that I pulled away. That’s when we were with Rusty early on.

We ran that one race, I think it was in ’81, and our plate was full.

We were doing IROC. We were doing Can-Am. We were doing IndyCar racing and some sports car stuff.

To me, I think it was at that point we thought we had too much on our plate and the costs were escalating.

If we didn’t have the sponsorship, we couldn’t keep up.

But then as we were able to settle down and have more success we put our marketing department together.

We were able to have the opportunity to access some of the sponsorships with some of the key people that wanted to be teamed with our company.

Roger Penske cheering on his V8 Supercars team in Adelaide

Roger Penske cheering on his V8 Supercars team in Adelaide

QUESTION: What keeps driving you to do this?

PENSKE: I just like the integration with people, to be part of the team.

It’s something every weekend when you can go and you put it on the line every weekend.

As I say, it’s your quarterly earnings every Sunday and, to me, that makes a difference.

We certainly want to be successful, but I like the tension.

I like the ability to have the interaction with our people, to show the execution, and another things that’s very important that has helped up build our brand and we continue to build our brand in a very special way.

QUESTION: How did ‘the Penske way’ evolve?

PENSKE: I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I went to military school.

I had to start at the back of the platoon before I got up front.

Once I got up there, I didn’t want to go to the back.

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