Never Stop Driving #52: Penske’s sweep
With 16 laps to go the Indy 500 turned into a crash fest. Three different accidents, which thankfully didn’t result in injuries, prompted officials to stop the race each time so the competition wouldn’t end with drivers casually cruising behind the pace car. No one wants to see a 500-mile battle finish with a whimper, but the result was a controversial one-lap sprint where Josef Newgarden swept into the lead and won.
There’s plenty of handwringing over the ending that you can read about here. What I loved about the finish was watching 86-year-old Roger Penske jump for joy as Newgarden crossed the line in first place. In that simple spontaneous gesture Penske, the owner of Newgarden’s car, illustrated the deep passion so many of us feel for cars, motorsports, and driving. If I make it to 86, I hope to have the gumption to feel similar enthusiasm.
The following day another Penske-owned car won NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with Ryan Blaney behind the wheel. Talk about a perfect weekend.
I’ve met Penske several times and from the first handshake, there’s no mystery about his success. He’s charismatic, as you’d expect of such an accomplished leader, but kind, too, with a generous sense of humor. A friend of mine used to regularly meet with Penske. When he’d enter Penske’s motorhome at a race, Penske would gesture toward a seat and invite him to the “chair of opportunity” with a smirk. I now use that saying with my kids who naturally roll their eyes.
Penske’s affectionally known as “The Captain.” He demands—and receives—excellence via respect, praise, and encouragement rather than by being a dictator. Most of his top executives have been with him for decades. He’s got an intense drive to win yet winning without integrity is unacceptable. Perhaps Penske’s positive karma explains how a wheel, that flew over Indy’s protective fence after a scary crash, somehow missed the spectators and instead hit a parked car. The track, which Penske owns, is giving the owner a new vehicle. That’s class. The world needs more Roger Penskes.
From a single dealership purchased in 1965, Penske’s built an empire that includes more than 150 U.S. dealerships and Penske Truck Leasing (a colossus in that space). Racing, which is known to destroy fortunes and not create them, has always been a fixture of Penske’s life. A terrific peek into how he runs his race teams is available from a book published in 1975 called The Unfair Advantage by Mark Donohue.
In a few weeks, Penske will again attempt to fill a rare hole in his trophy case: A win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. We interviewed him about his plans to field a Porsche 963 last fall. This year’s race has the makings of an epic with not just Porsche but Ferrari, Cadillac, Peugeot, Toyota, and Glickenhaus all vying for the overall win. Yesterday, Hagerty Media’s first documentary, which chronicles Porsche’s record 19 Le Mans wins, premiered in New York City. Hagerty Drivers Club members got an early peek at the film, but it’s now available for free. Give it a watch and let me know what you think.
There’s been so much racing news lately, I haven’t covered the ongoing automotive transformation. Ford struck a deal to use Tesla’s supercharger EV charging network and will adopt the Tesla plug, which is known as the North American Charging Standard. This move is a tacit recognition that Tesla’s chargers are superior but also means that for the foreseeable future there will be two kinds of EV plugs, the Tesla one and the standard created by the Society of Automotive Engineers, SAE J1771. Adaptors are available but it’s feeling like VHS and Betamax all over again. Perhaps that’ll be worked out in time for this electrified Caterham sports car.
Uber, the ride hailing company that was developing its own autonomous vehicles until one killed a pedestrian in 2018, is now partnering with Google’s Waymo on robotaxis. This is surprising considering that years ago Waymo sued Uber for stealing proprietary technology and received a $245 million settlement. In other AV news, the Teamsters Union used a zoning appeal to halt Waymo’s expansion in San Francisco.
Finally, I was sorry to hear of Tina Turner’s passing. I was unaware, until we published this article, that she was a car enthusiast. “It may sound silly,” Turner wrote in her autobiography, “but one of my favorite escapes, and a secret pleasure, was driving my Jaguar. I loved it because it was something I could do by myself, one of the few times I could be alone and free.”
You spoke our language, Tina. Godspeed.
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