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At 71, Penske is still the ultimate wheeler and dealer

Bill Dwyre : INDIANAPOLIS 500 / Sunday at Indianapolis
Motor Speedway, 10 a.m., Channel 7

May 24, 2008|Bill Dwyre

INDIANAPOLIS -- Roger Penske would be on the short list of billionaires with whom you'd like to hang out. Despite having more money than God, Penske is remarkably normal, infectiously friendly and open.

Penske's companies sell cars and trucks, rent them, repair them, make parts for them and race them. They generate about $18 billion in annual revenue. Just one segment, Penske Automotive Group, announced first-quarter earnings that more than doubled over last year, from $14.9 million to $33.9 million.

People who have that much money tend to have little time for anything other than making more of it.

Not so the 71-year-old Penske.

"He's a people person much more than a money person," says Rick Mears, longtime friend, business partner, member of the Penske racing team and four-time winner of the passion of Penske's life.

That would be the Indianapolis 500, which will be run for the 92nd time here Sunday.

Penske will have two cars in the race, both near the front. Australian Ryan Briscoe will start on the outside of the first row and Brazilian Helio Castroneves on the inside of the second. But even before they drop the checkered flag, Penske's days leading up to that have been a blur of activity for a man who, if he isn't the most important figure in the sport, is certainly its godfather.

This morning, at the drivers' meeting, he will be given the Roger McCluskey Award of Excellence, named in honor of a former star driver. On Friday, he had the headset on for Briscoe and Castroneves for carburetion day, a fancy name for the last day of practice.

And the day before that, he had lunch with former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, in Kennebunkport, Me., before flying back here for a drastic drop in class and dinner with a bunch of sportswriters.

Somewhere along the way, he made sure that 87-year-old Jim Travers of Kanab, Utah, a chief mechanic for 1950s racing legend Bill Vukovich, got a chance to return to the Speedway after nearly 30 years. Penske sent his plane for Travers and picked up the tab for the entire weekend.

The call and invitation from Penske "just came out of the clear blue sky," Travers told the Indianapolis Star.

Penske, part Rockefeller and part Robin Hood, juggles all this while keeping enough concentration and energy toward that which matters most to him, outside of family and friends. That would be winning another Indy 500, which would be his 15th as an owner.

A win by Briscoe or Castroneves would also mark the 300th victory for Penske Racing, including Indy cars and the NASCAR and sports car circuits.

Penske, originally from Ohio but now from Birmingham, Mich., has been coming to the Indy 500 since 1951.

"My dad brought me," he says. "I haven't missed many years since."

He was a driver of note in the late 1950s and early '60s. He won consistently on the sport car tours, even drove on the Formula One circuit, and was headed for success as a driver. But he was also a Lehigh graduate with a mind for business, so when he reached a crossroads in 1965, the driver's seat lost out to a desk chair.

"I had a chance to buy a Cadillac dealership in Philadelphia," says Penske, who was then 28. "I had a bank loan, no insurance and driving race cars wasn't appropriate right then.

"I even had an invitation to take a rookie's driving test at Indy, but I turned it down. They gave my spot to some other guy. I think his name was Mario Andretti."

So Penske never drove in the Indy 500. But that has never lessened his desire to be an integral part of it. He has won the race with Mark Donohue, Bobby Unser, Al Unser Jr., Danny Sullivan, Emerson Fittipaldi, Sam Hornish Jr., Gil de Ferran, Castroneves and Mears.

His love of the sport wavered only once, when close friend Donohue died in 1975. Donohue, practicing for the Austrian Grand Prix, crashed and hit his head hard. He walked away from the wreck, even talked to track workers, before collapsing a short time later.

"We talked long and hard after that about getting out," says Penske, the married father of five. "It finally came down to realizing that, if Mark had been sitting in the room, he would tell us to keep going."

So Penske has blended business and racing into a big success. Mears tells the story of the day he went with Penske to meet his employees at a new business Penske had purchased, Detroit Diesel.

"He greeted every one of them, shaking their hands, listening to them," Mears recalls. "Near the end, an employee and his wife approached Roger and Roger shook their hands and thanked them for being part of the Penske team.

"The woman laughed and said it should be the other way around, that she should be thanking Roger. 'I used to have to haul his butt out of bed every day to get him to go to work. Now, he can't wait to get in here.' "

Penske smiles when the story is told to him.

"I remember we had 3,000 hourly workers and 3,000 grievances," he says. "In a month, we had that down to 3,000 hourly workers and 50 grievances."

In total, Penske employs more than 40,000 people.

"That's a pretty nice fan base when we race," Penske says. "Also, when Helio is on 'Dancing with the Stars.' "

Penske says he gets to about 30 races a year, either to work or to watch. "Racing is my weekend fishing and golf," he says.

He also says something else often, a phrase and philosophy he shares with another person who has become a measuring stick of extreme success in the sports world, John Wooden.

"Never look back," Penske says.

Even if you have billions.

--

Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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