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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    I was a bit amused to see all the fuss about the one-lap sprint to the finish of the Indy 500. In fact, virtually every close 500 has been that same sprint in disguise. If the Top Two are running close, usually nose to tail or close to that, it’s often the guy in second place who has the advantage due to the slingshot effect of drafting the lead car down the back straight and through Turns 3 and 4. That bit of momentum is often enough to allow a pass on the home straight and a close win. So, not like it’s never happened before. It’s racing.

    Yeah for sure. I think the main problem was how they didn’t do a full out lap before the green/white flag.

    I have met Roger and he is a class one guy. He is an example of why a person should hold not just others but themselves to a high standard and expectations. He expects results and high levels of performance from his people but he also has the same standards for himself.

    He still cares about people and is a very giving person.

    In racing winners are like this. Roger, Dan Gurney and Rick Hendrick are great examples of people that really matter.

    I have seen Roger do things for people that were amazing that never get reported. I had met and spent time trading e mails with Dan a few years back. And I met Rick at Mid Ohio one year with the Corvette GTP. He was there working and a kid asked him for an autograph. He took his trademark hat off his head signed it and gave it to the kid since he had nothing to be signed.

    All these guys are winners on and off the track. Too bad we can have more people like this today.

    Great article about a great man. Roger Penske has mentored me from afar over the decades as I watched his success and his approach to relationships, business, and philosophy. So wonderful to see his success at Indy and we will see what Le Mans brings. It will be interesting. Thank you. Now I think I will try the chair of opportunity concept with my four kids.

    Penske has always portrayed to be a class act as well as having employees that seem the same. He has done a lot for Detroit as well. Cannot understand why Tina Turner stayed so long with Ike, however, it shows that even the “famous” people suffer the same “issues” that us regular folks endure.

    Larry, This is one your most enjoyable articles lately. You covered a lot of ground with a lot of heart.

    Roger Penske has always been my favorite team owner. His cars, crews and drivers nearly always set the standards of excellence. Ganassi come close in many ways, but Team Penske will always get my vote as the top of the top.

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