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Harris: The Captain Deserves Salute

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 15 2010
Roger Penske has set the standard for racing team owners. (File photo by HHP Images/Harold Hinson)

Roger Penske has set the standard for team owners. (File photo by HHP Images/Harold Hinson)

Roger Penske  has been a part of the auto racing scene for just over half a century, and I’ve known him for most of that time.

It was a huge honor  when I received a call a few weeks ago from longtime Penske emissary Walt Czarnecki  saying that Roger had requested that I present him when he is inducted into the National  Motorsports Press Association Hall of  Fame in Charlotte this weekend.

Unfortunately, I had to decline because of a previous commitment – attending the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters awards dinner in Indianapolis the same night. But the call got me thinking about what I would have said about the man known to friends and employees as The Captain.

Most everyone knows Penske these days as a car owner, a man whose Indy car team has won a stunning 15 Indianapolis 500s – nobody else has won more than six of the first 93 500s – and whose NASCAR team won the Daytona 500 in 2008.

The list of drivers who have worked for Penske is a virtual Who’s Who of racing.

But what many do not know is that Penske got his start in racing in 1958 as a sports car driver, and a very good one. He was named Sports Illustrated’s SCCA Driver of the Year in 1960.

Penske passed up a rookie test at Indy and decided to quit driving in 1965 to concentrate on his real business, selling cars. But the energetic Penske didn’t abandon the sport he had grown to love, forming Penske Racing that same year and taking Mark Donohue to the Indy 500 in 1969. His longtime friend won the race for Penske in 1972 and his and the team’s success have mushroomed from there.

His teams have won close to 200 races in just about every division of the sport – Formula One, Trans-Am, Can-Am, sports cars and, of course, Indy cars and NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup. While he has yet to take home a NASCAR championship trophy, Penske has plenty of hardware from numerous other series.

And, of course, the suave, silver-haired Penske has built a multi-billion-dollar, multi-national business empire that has made him, at the age of 72, one of the richest men in America.

And, yes, he is a family man, too, with five grown children.

But the thing I most respect Roger Penske for is his humanity. He cares about people and that shows up in the numbers of employees who stay with Penske’s companies far beyond the usual pattern of employment.

At one point not too many years ago, his race shop – then located in Reading, Pa. – employed just over 100 people. All but two had been with Penske Racing for 25 years or more. That has to be some kind of record.

One of the guys who used to go over the wall for the Indy car team told me, “Roger is one helluva boss. He cares about you as a person. If something happens to one of his people and somebody in their family, you know they’ll be taken care of.’’

Dan Luginbuhl, Penske’s longtime right-hand man and now retired to the good life in Colorado, loved to say that Roger likes to “run things lean.’’

What that means is that Penske likes to keep his workforce streamlined so he can be a hands-on boss. And I suppose that’s not so hard when you only sleep about three or four hours a night and have the energy of three men, as Penske has over all these years.

Penske likes to say that racing is his golf game, his way of relaxing and taking his mind off business. People in the sport, and fans of the sport, are the beneficiaries of his leisure-time activity. Hopefully, he’ll keep enjoying racetracks for many more years.

Congratulations, Roger.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 15 2010
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