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CALIFORNIA SPEEDWAY | HEIR APPARENT

Driven to Succeed : Greg Penske's Newest Toy Is the $110-Million Speedway, Which He Says Is a Can't-Miss Investment

June 18, 1997|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His father started a multibillion--that's right, with a B--dollar automotive empire by leaving a successful sports car racing career when he was 28 to become a new car dealer.

Greg Penske decided to forgo the racing part and go directly to selling cars. That was 12 years ago, when he left Cornell with a degree in business and headed for Southern California.

In a mini-version of Roger Penske's $5-billion empire, son Greg heads his own burgeoning marketing operation, the Southern California-based Penske Automotive Group Inc., with 1,000 employees and $800 million in revenues last year.

The latest addition to his portfolio is the California Speedway, a $110-million investment in the future of motor racing in Southern California. Greg Penske, 35, is president of the new track, which will open this weekend with an International Race of Champions on Saturday and a NASCAR Winston Cup race on Sunday.

"We're fortunate to have Greg on hand to run California Speedway," Roger Penske said. "He's proven to be a tough taskmaster around our car companies. He and [Executive General Manager] Les Richter make a perfect combination at the speedway."

Since being named speedway president 18 months ago, the younger Penske estimates he has spent 85% of his time working with Richter, getting the project ready for opening day.

"I've been around motor sports all my life, so it seemed a natural extension of my other businesses," Greg said. "After all, we're all in the business of transportation. Some [cars] just go faster than others.

"I don't see how we can miss. This is the biggest auto market in the world. We've got 17 million people within 2 1/2 hours. Racing has always been a hot spot in California. Long Beach does real well [with a CART Indy car race on a street course], and to have an oval where the NASCAR stock cars and CART cars can run, we felt was a risk we wanted to take.

"Having the Automotive Group in place also gave me a solid base to draw from. It's like having a network of people on hand, all of whom have a relationship to automobile companies."

The Penske Automotive Group includes Longo Toyota in El Monte, the No. 1 Toyota dealership in the country for the last 30 years; Longo Lexus, also in El Monte, the No. 1 Lexus dealership on the West Coast; Longo Motorcars, a Mercedes-Benz dealership, and Penske Jaguar, both in West Covina; Penske Honda in Ontario, Penske Toyota in Downey and Penske Cadillac, Penske Lexus and Saturn, all in Bakersfield.

"When I was in college, I made up my mind that I would have my own car dealership before I was 25," Greg said. "I had worked for Bill Piercey in Pennsylvania while I was in school and after I graduated, he offered me a position with his Cadillac agency in Downey.

"While I was there, I learned of a dealership opening in Bakersfield. I cashed in all the money I had, took out a loan and bought my own agency."

He was 22.

"I love the challenge of business," he said. "Reading a financial statement for me is like reading a good book. I enjoy it."

Two years later, in 1987, he moved to the Longo agency in El Monte as general sales manager and in 1993 became president of the automotive group.

While conducting a tour of the El Monte dealership, young Penske seemed to know each of the 450-plus employees by first name, from sales representatives to secretaries to maintenance personnel.

"I've always enjoyed the auto business, and the people in it," he said. "It's a people business, and I enjoy people."

That doesn't mean he's a pushover. One of his idiosyncrasies is to have every car on the lot lined up as precisely as cadets in a West Point inspection.

"When the employees who bring the cars to the lot realize what's expected of them, it's no big deal," Penske said. "At first, maybe they thought it was unreasonable, but once they understand, it becomes second nature.

"Another thing you might notice is that every employee has a name badge, but there are no titles on anyone's, not mine, not the sales manager's, not anyone. That way, it puts everyone on the same plane, everyone working toward the same goal.

"Selling cars is no different from winning races--it takes a team effort to get to the finish line."

It must work. Penske dealerships sell more than 40,000 vehicles annually.

In 1994, Automotive News named Greg dealer of the year, and he is an 11-time winner of the Toyota President's Award.

Last week, he was elected president and chief executive officer of Penske Motorsports Inc., which includes, besides the California Speedway, the Michigan International Speedway, Nazareth (Pa.) Speedway and a controlling interest in North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, N.C. It also distributes and sells Goodyear tires in the Midwest and Southeast regions of the country.

He succeeded Richard J. Peters, who stepped down from his management responsibilities to establish a corporate finance advisory company.

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