Of German descent (his grandfather came from Leipzig), Roger Penske was born in Philadelphia on 20 February 1937. His wealthy father was vice-president of a warehousing firm and taught Roger early to earn money. When Roger was nine, he and his father became regular attendees at the Akron Sportsman's Park, watching midget-car racing. He said, 'We went for years. It was built into my blood, and I knew I'd race some day.'
At the age of fourteen, he borrowed sufficient money to buy a Norton motor cycle, a machine used for Penske's newspaper round. After a serious accident, though, when a parked car pulled out in front of him and he spent twelve weeks in hospital, he bought an MG TD and began working for a foreign-car dealer when not at university. Soon, Penske became involved in buying and selling cars, and worked for Ben Moore, a Chevrolet
Dick Thompson and Fred Windridge
Moore encouraged Penske to take up racing himself and at the age of twenty he took to the tracks with a Jaguar XK 120
, also competing in hill-climbs. As soon as he was 21, he became eligible to compete in Sports Car Club of America events and he went to a racing drivers' school at Marlboro. His tutors were two well-known competitors, Dick Thompson and Fred Windridge, and in a weekend they shaped him into a capable driver.
At that time Penske used a Chevrolet Corvette
and by the end of the weekend, which included two trial races, it was becoming tired. However, it survived three further races in 1958 - including a victory at Berwick - before it was sold in September when Roger married Lissa Stouffer, a restaurant heiress. At the end of 1958, Penske traded in a gull wing Mercedes-Benz 300SL
to purchase his first pure racing machine, the ex-Bob Holbert Porsche RS. It provided Penske with some success, but when attending the Sebring 12-hours
early in 1959 he saw the latest works Porsches and decided the RS was too uncompetitive.
He bought a Porsche RSK and, co-driving with Harry Blanchard, won the Sundown 6-hours at Harewood, Ontario. Later, Penske teamed with Skip Callanan and won the 8-hour 'Little Le Mans' at Lime Rock in a Fiat-Abarth. In 1960, he battled with Bob Holbert for the Class F SCCA National Championship, among his successes being victory in all three heats of the Carling 300 at Harewood, ahead of Olivier Gendebien, Pete Ryan and Holbert. At the very end of the year, he purchased a Porsche RS60 from Jim Hall for the rich professional races at Riverside and Laguna Seca, but for once his luck turned sour. In 1961, teamed with Holbert, Penske finished fifth overall in the Sebring 12-hours and won the Index of Performance handicap section.
The Most Improved Driver of the Year Award
While at Sebring he spoke with Cooper works driver Bruce McLaren and decided to order a Cooper T57 Monaco-Climax sports car and a Formula One Cooper T55-Climax. Both were delivered in August and until then he raced a Maserati T61, the 'Birdcage' model, winning at Elkhart Lake, Lime Rock and Meadowvale. In October, he took part in the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen
against chiefly European opposition, finishing a good eighth in his Formula One Cooper. Penske concluded the year with fine performances at Laguna Seca, Riverside and in the Nassau Speed Week with the Cooper Monaco. He won the Class D SCCA National Championship plus the Most Improved Driver of the Year award.
Then came a new episode in the life of Penske. The BS degree in industrial management, gained at Lehigh University in 1959, had not been won for nothing. While at Nassau, Penske had noticed an advertisement on the side of a fellow competitor's Ferrari and promptly wrote a five-page letter to DuPont, who handled Telar and Zerex antifreeze, suggesting he could run under their name. The deal came off and Penske's cars became known as Telar or Zerex Specials.
The Zerex Special
Early in 1962, Penske visited Briggs Cunningham, for whom he was to drive a Maserati-engined Cooper Monaco in the Sebring 12-hours, and in a corner he spotted the wreckage of the Formula One Cooper T55-Climax crashed by Wait Hansgen in the previous October's United States Grand Prix. In exchange for some Maserati parts, Penske became the owner of the wreckage and, with the aid of Roy Gane, Penske's chief mechanic, he straightened the frame and rebuilt the car as a single-seater sports-racer. A very light machine, scaling just 1100 lb, it was powered by a 2.7-liter Coventry Climax FPF engine and clothed in an aluminum body, a contribution from Penske's post-college employer, Alcoa.
Known as the Zerex Special, it won three major races at Riverside, Laguna Seca and Puerto Rico, beating top American and European entries, but it caused controversy as its centrally placed seat contravened FIA Appendix C sports-car regulations. However, the United States Auto Club, which sanctioned the races, had previously declared it legal. Earlier in the year, Penske had campaigned his Cooper T57 Monaco-Climax successfully to win the East Coast SCCA Championship; he also ventured to Europe, to Brands Hatch on August Bank Holiday Monday, finishing fifth in the Guards Trophy to Mike Parkes
, Innes Ireland
, Jo Bonnier
and Carlo Mario Abate.
With his Formula One Cooper T55-Climax, now with a 2.7-liter engine, he was second in the Pipeline 200 to Dan Gurney and won the first heat of the Hoosier Grand Prix. For 1963, Penske modified the Zerex Special to two-seater specification and brought it to Brands Hatch for the Guards Trophy once more. This time he walked away with the race, conquering the best European sports cars. He also drove a 4-liter Ferrari 330 TR/LM with Pedro Rogriguez in the Le Mans 24-hours
, but retired, and in the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood he was a disappointed eighth in a special-bodied Ferrari 2S0 GTO.
Roger Penske being interviewed.
Roger Penske entered the world of Formula One as a constructor, with the above car designed by Briton Geoff Ferris. Driven by Mark Donohue, the car was known as the First National City Travelers Checks Penske PC1 Ford.
The team's efficiency is again on show as Penske's USAC driver Tom Sneva makes a pit stop at Indy in 1977. Although Sneva, who started from pole position, did not win at the Brickyard, he did come out on top of the USAC Championship table to extend the Penske team's incredible list of successes .
The Chaparral Team
Earlier in the year, he had co-driven a Ferrari 2S0 GTO with Augie Pabst in the Sebring 12-hours, finishing fourth overall and winning the GT section. At the end of 1963, Penske found the Zerex Special becoming uncompetitive, beaten by lightweight machines powered by V8 American engines. He switched to John Mecom's team, driving a Chevrolet-engined Cooper and a Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport V8 coupe. Early in 1964, Penske gave up his job at Alcoa to take over a General Motors agency in Philadelphia. He joined the General Motors-backed Chaparral team, taking second place at Riverside, winning at Laguna Seca and in two of the three major events in the Nassau Speed Week he won the third, too, in a Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport.
At the end of the year, having already signed up to drive for Chaparral again in 1965, Penske suddenly announced his retirement from race driving. He gave the pressures of his expanded business operations and family responsibilities as his reasons, but added, 'I hope to be able to sponsor a car one day, just to keep my hand in'. Just over a year later, in 1966, Penske was back. He entered a Chevrolet Corvette in the Daytona 24 hours which won the GT award, and he persuaded the Sun Oil Company to sponsor a Lola T70-Chevrolet sports car to be driven by Penske's protégé, a shy motor engineer aged 29, Mark Donohue. Donohue proved a wise choice, winning the Mosport round in the new Can-Am Challenge Cup series and taking an eventual second place on points to John Surtees
Soon, Donohue began to work full time for Penske, preparing the cars as well as driving them. Racing Penske's Lola T70-Chevrolet, Donohue won the 1967 US Road Racing Championship sports-car series. The programme escalated the following year: with an ex-works McLaren M6A-Chevrolet, Donohue won the US Road Racing Championship for the second year running and was third in the Can-Am Challenge Cup behind the works McLarens of Denny Hulme and Bruce McLaren. In the Trans-Am Championship, a manufacturers' series for 5-liter sedans, Penske renewed his acquaintance with General Motors' Engineering & Development Division by campaigning Chevrolet Camaros. Sure enough, with Donohue doing the lion's share of the driving, Chevrolet triumphed in Trans-Am in both 1968 and 1969, taking twenty victories from 27 starts.
The Trans-Am Series
In 1969, Penske withdrew from the Can-Am series to concentrate on winning the Trans-Am, plus a new venture: an entry in the Indianapolis 500. Donohue, at the wheel of the four-wheel-drive Lola T152 Offenhauser, qualified fourth fastest and finished seventh, also gaining the Rookie of the Year award. In February, Penske entered a Lola T70 Mk 3B-Chevrolet coupe in the Daytona 24-hours, Mark Donohue/Chuck Parsons steering it to victory despite several problems. This was to have been a prelude for a Penske-masterminded, General Motors-backed attack on the Le Mans 24-hours in June. Indeed, four works Lolas were entered for the race, but in April the project was cancelled.
Another link with General Motors was the testing of a stock-block Chevrolet-engined Lola at Indianapolis, but it proved uncompetitive. In October 1969 Penske dropped a bombshell on the racing world. He announced he would be running American Motors Javelins in the 1970 Trans-Am series. Penske had arranged a lucrative deal with American Motors and used his team's engineering expertise to transform the Javelins into race winners. In the 1970 series, they were second to Ford, but in 1971 the title was theirs.
Sears, Roebuck & Co
During 1970, Penske once more attempted Indianapolis, this time Donohue managing second in a Lola T153-Ford. A brief, end-of-season flirtation in Formula 5000 saw Donohue winning three races in the prototype Lola T190-Chevrolet. 1971, though, was a more ambitious year. Penske was prosperous and it showed in his business and motor-racing activities. By now he had Chevrolet dealerships in Allentown and Detroit as well as Philadelphia. He was involved in a major Hertz rental franchise, in insurance, a chain of Sunoco petrol stations and Goodyear tire dealerships.
He was an automotive consultant to Sears, Roebuck & Co, developing and endorsing a line of high-performance parts, accessories and equipment sold as Penske High Performance Products. He was elected a director of the United States Auto Club, was a director of the Ontario Motor Speedway and vice-chairman of the board of Atlantic City Raceway. On the racing front, however, apart from the Trans-Am series win, plans fell flat in 1971. With Kirk F. White, a Philadelphia foreign-car dealer, Penske entered a superbly prepared Ferrari 512M in the Daytona 24-hours, Sebring 12-hours
, Le Mans 24-hours
and Watkins Glen 6-hours
, but each time niggling problems let down drivers Mark Donohue and David Hobbs.
At Indianapolis, Donohue appeared in a McLaren M16-0ffenhauser
(Penske switched from Lola to McLaren, undertaking the Colnbrook company's pre-race development programme) and led the race until his gearbox failed. Later, another car smashed into the stranded McLaren, while Penske's second entry of the old Lola driven by David Hobbs was also written-off in an accident. As consolation, Donohue won the Pocono 500 in the rebuilt McLaren later in the year. Penske also tested the Formula One scene, hiring a works McLaren M19A-Ford for Donohue to drive in the Canadian and United States Grands Prix. The car was thoroughly tested prior to the races in the typical Penske tradition and Donohue was a superb third in Canada; he was unable to start in the home USA event owing to a postponed USAC event and Hobbs drove the car into 10th place.
In 1972, following visits to Italy, Japan and Germany to talk to Ferrari, Toyota and Porsche, Penske returned to Can-Am to compete with works-assisted, turbocharged Porsche 917-10Ks. Sponsorship came from L & M cigarettes, and the cars, raced by Donohue and George Follmer, proved almost unbeatable. Follmer won the series, while Donohue, after missing four rounds owing to a mid-season accident, was fourth. Donohue also won the Indianapolis 500 in a Penske-entered McLaren M16B-0ffenhauser
. An American Motors Matador was prepared for NASCAR racing, but with a 6-liter engine opposing the opposition's 7-liter equipment it was outclassed. Nevertheless, with an imminent change in the regulations it was good ground-work in this very different style of American motor racing.
Donohue annihilated the opposition in the 1973 Can-Am Challenge Cup series, this time driving Penske's Porsche 917-30K, one of the most powerful racing cars ever built, featuring a turbocharged 5.3-liter engine which could be made to develop over 1000 bhp. In effect, this total domination killed Can-Am. Donohue was not so lucky on the USAC trail, however, his Eagle Mg-0ffenhauser
suffering engine failure on every outing, while on the NASCAR front Donohue won the Western 500 in an AM Matador at Riverside. In Formula 5000, a special Lola T330 with an American Motors engine proved uncompetitive when matched against Chevrolet-powered machines, although Donohue managed two seconds in the series and AM reaped technical benefit.
The International Race of Champions Series
During the winter of 1973 - 1974, Penske promoted a series of races, the International Race of Champions series, for top drivers in all spheres of motor sport. The winner was ... Mark Donohue following a hectic series of events in Porsche 911 Carreras. In 1973 news leaked that Penske was to build his own Formula One contender. The car combined the ideas of ex-Brabham designer Geoff Ferris, Don Cox (Penske's director of engineering), Donohue and, of course, Penske himself. It was built in a newly acquired factory in Dorset, England, a European base being considered essential for Grand Prix racing, and made its debut at the 1974 Canadian Grand Prix. PC1 was a conventional, Cosworth-engined machine and was sponsored by First National City Travelers Checks.
Mark Donohue emerged from eight months of 'retirement', as President of Penske Racing Inc., to drive the new car. It was not one of Penske's successes; Mark scored only two points with it, for fifth place in Sweden, before the team - in desperation - acquired a March for comparison tests. Donohue took fifth place with the March in the British Grand Prix but then in Austria tragedy struck. In unofficial practice on the morning of the race Donohue had a huge accident; although it seemed initially that he had had a miraculous escape he died a few days later from a brain haemorrhage. It was a tremendous blow to the team and to Roger Penske personally but by the US Grand Prix Penske had enlisted the services of John Watson who finished ninth in that race and encouraged Penske to give Formula One another try in 1976.
The Classic Southern 500
A new car, the PC4, replaced the interim 'March replica' PC3 after the Swedish Grand Prix and in Austria - just a year after Donohue's death - Watson scored Penske's first Grand Prix win. Thereafter the team met declining fortunes and at the end of the season the Formula One operation was put up for sale eventually going to form the basis of the German ATS team. Penske's form here in the USA was much better. The International Race of Champions series, now using Chevy Camaros, continued to be enormously popular.
The USAC Championship
In 1974, Bobby Allison capped the team's NASCAR season by winning the Times 500 at Ontario, following up with three wins in the 1975 championship - including the classic Southern 500 - and second place in the Daytona 500, driving the team's AMC Matador. Also in 1975 Penske's USAC operation revealed a new star in Tom Sneva, who survived a massive accident at Indy and came back to win at Michigan. After a very low-key 1976 season it was Sneva who put Penske back on top by scooping the USAC Championship in 1977 with the McLaren-DFX. Roger Penske's serious and analytical approach to racing has made his team one of the most successful in the world. Whatever form of racing his cars are entered for the final aim has always been the same-winning.
Penske Racing now operates a NASCAR team comprising Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski They also operate an Indy Racing League team composed of Hélio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe, and Will Power. Previously, they ran cars in the CART series that included some of the best drivers of the time, including Gary Bettenhausen, Tom Sneva, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Al Unser, Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi, Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan, Paul Tracy and Gil de Ferran. After many years of trying his team won the Daytona 500 in 2008 with Ryan Newman driving.
In 2005, Porsche set the stage to make a comeback in sports car racing in the United States and chose Penske Racing to run in the LMP2 class of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). The Penske Porsches took center stage in 2006 winning immediately, including victories at Mid-Ohio finishing 1-2 ahead of Audi (competing in a higher classification) and the annual Petit Le Mans, a 10-hour showcase event held at Road Atlanta. His team scored an overall victory in the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2008.
Penske also ran a Pontiac Riley Daytona Prototype in the 2008 Rolex 24 at Daytona, with Kurt Busch, Ryan Briscoe, and Hélio Castroneves driving. The car was run in conjunction with Wayne Taylor's SunTrust Racing. They finished 3rd overall. For 2009, Penske has suspended his participation in the American Le Mans Series, switching to Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series for the full season. They are using a Porsche-powered Riley with Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas driving. Penske recently purchased the old Matsushita air conditioning plant in Mooresville, NC and reconditioned it to consolidate his racing empire.
Now, all of Penske's racing operations are under one massive roof with his IndyCar, NASCAR, and American Le Mans Series (through 2009) teams sharing over 424,000 square feet (39,400 m2) of space encompassing 105 acres (42 ha). The shop includes all the necessary pieces to compete on the highest level in all of his racing endeavors, including a state of the art, in-house, wind tunnel. To complete the facilities, Penske imported over one million tons (250,000 pieces) of Italian marble. Roger Penske is also an avid car collector, and owns many rare American and European automobiles, including a Ferrari FXX, of which only 30 were made.