Last Wednesday night, more than 40 former and current Team Penske racecar drivers celebrated the organization’s 50th anniversary.
Roger Penske, racer turned team owner, turns 79 next month, but as he acknowledged before last Wednesday evening’s activities, "I will be at races as long as I can stand up. I'm there for one reason – to win.”
Penske says he’s driven by competition. That’s clear by his accomplishments on and off the track. No other racing organization can claim 12 titles between USAC and IndyCar, 16 Indianapolis 500 wins, as well as championships in NASCAR’s top two divisions bolstered by 145 victories.
“I just like the integration with the people, to be part of a team,” Penske explains. “Racing is something where you can go and put it on the line every weekend. As I said, it’s your quarterly earnings every Sunday. To me, that makes a difference.
“We certainly want to be successful, but I like the tension. I like the ability to have the interaction with our people – to show the execution.
Penske also notes how at-track endeavors have fueled his billion-dollar transportation empire. As he observes, “It’s helped us build our brand, and we continue to build our brand in a very special way.”
Rick Mears – Penske to the core
Over the last five decades, Penske has also built the brands and careers of champions. Rick Mears says he owes “everything” in his career to The Captain. He piloted old Penske chassis owned by Art Sugai and Teddy Yip before he climbed into a racecar under the Team Penske roof in 1978.
“Getting hooked up with him early in my career made my career,” Mears insists. “To be hooked up with him as early as I was and get the opportunity I’ve had in my career was just fantastic. It’s one of those fairytale stories, it really is.”
Mears' relationship with Penske produced three championships and 29 wins, including a record-tying four in the Indianapolis 500. More important, Mears developed a friendship with the Captain that meant when he retired in 1992, he slipped straight into the driver advisory role that he holds to this day.
We know he’s going to give us all as equal a shot at winning as humanly possible
Rick has thus been a Penske employee for nearly four decades. He says the characteristic that ties all Penske drivers before, during and after his era, is their competitiveness – chosen, as they are, because of Roger’s relentless desire to win.
“Obviously, you wouldn't be with this team unless you were competitive,” Mears said. “Over the years when people have asked Roger, ‘Is there a number one, number two or number three on your team as far as drivers?’ And there never has been.
“I’ve heard him say it for years: 'If I have three horses in a race, why do I want only one good horse? If I’m going to take the time, the effort and the money and the knowledge to have two or three cars – or four – why am I going to have just one good one?'
“Besides that, he couldn’t get the caliber of driver he wants by saying, ‘You’re going to run number two.' We’re all there to win races, and we know he’s going to give us all as equal a shot at winning as humanly possible. He knows that’s what we all want and he wants his best shot at winning.”
Rusty Wallace – Rough diamond polished by Penske
As Mears helped carry the legacy of Mark Donohue, Tom Sneva and Bobby Unser and solidify Penske’s stronghold in open-wheel history, so Rusty Wallace picked up where Donohue, Donnie Allison and Bobby Allison had left off, by laying the foundation for the Captain’s current NASCAR success.
Although Wallace finished second in his first race for Penske in 1980, the car owner wasn't convinced that the brash 23-year-old racer was ready for prime time.
“Here was this kid from St. Louis coming in wrecking everything,” Wallace recounts. “So Roger sat me down and was really great to me and said, ‘You go back and get more experience, and down the road, we will look at getting you back in a car.’”
So while Wallace was disappointed, he used the setback to fuel his fight through a multitude of short track wins, an American Speed Association (ASA) title and an opportunity to return to Cup full-time in 1984 with Clif Stewart. After Wallace won NASCAR’s top title five years later with owner Raymond Beadle, he circled back to Penske.
“After I won the championship I thought maybe I had a shot to get back with Roger,” Wallace said. “Roger didn’t really know that though. I called him up and said, ‘RP, I just won the championship, how is that?’ and I told him I thought we could get Miller Brewing Company to be a sponsor too.
“He said, ‘Kid, you have enough experience, let’s get this thing going.’ So with that, 1991 we kicked it off and we were back in racing and it was a great time, right to the time I quit driving the car in 2005… I am forever grateful to Roger, no doubt about that.”
You learn so much more from people who know what’s going on. Roger’s taught me so much on and off the track
Wallace never delivered another Cup title in 15 seasons at what was originally named Penske South. But he came close in 1993 when he won a career-best 10 times in 30 starts but lost the title to the late Dale Earnhardt. Still, the additional 37 victories, 26 poles, 143 top fives and 244 top 10 finishes behind the wheel of the iconic No. 2 Penske Cup car certainly bolstered Wallace’s Hall of Fame résumé.
“Roger not only transformed my career, he helped grow my career,” Wallace remarked. “We had all the right opportunities with him being the car owner and the guy who carried all the financial responsibility. When there were gaps that had to be filled, he always filled them. Because of what we did, we all got a piece of the action.
“I feel good about being one of the guys that helped get the team back in NASCAR and it’s still strong.”
The lessons Wallace learned from Penske set him up for business life, too, particularly as he established a thriving automotive dealership chain around the Southeast.
“You learn so much more from people who know what’s going on,” Wallace said. “He’s taught me so much on and off the track. I might listen to four or five people who have an opinion and I listen to his one opinion and I trust him a hell of a lot more than I trust those other guys.
“He’s mentored me and he’s not afraid to throttle back and say, ‘Let’s not go for everything. This is the right amount of pressure we need to put on this,’ or, ‘This is the right thing we need to be in.’ He’s able to see through things. He’s the ultimate mentor besides my father that I’ve ever had. Roger, I can always pick up the phone and ask him a question and when I hang up, I hang up with a lot of confidence. I don’t hang up with anxiety.”
Joey Logano - career saved by Penske
Despite Wallace’s tremendous contribution to Team Penske’s stock car effort, the organization has never enjoyed as strong a lineup as the current pairing of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. The chemistry between the two has allowed the team to flourish as the drivers push each other to be their best.
Keselowski urged Penske to recruit Logano, who was in his fourth and final contract-year with Joe Gibbs Racing. At 22, Logano had posted two wins but had failed to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“[Roger] took a big risk with me,” Logano said. “Let’s be honest, I was out. My option was full-time Xfinity. As you well know, if you take a step back it’s hard to take a step forward again. You’ve already had your shot and it’s hard to get a second chance."
While other organizations may have underestimated Logano's talent at the end of the 2012 season, Penske saw potential.
“We watched him at Joe Gibbs and he won a lot of races, racing Kyle [Busch] in similar equipment,” said Penske. “He got into the Cup side, won a couple of races and as we looked for someone we might be able to bring along with the team, we looked at who was available. At that point, Gibbs didn’t have a full Cup ride for him. I talked to Joe. I talked to J.D. (Gibbs) about it and he said, ‘Give me a week or so.’ So we waited to find whether they had a slot for him — and they didn’t.
“He was the perfect pick. Brad was a big part of that, too, because he was friendly with Joey. I wanted to be sure when we brought another driver on the team that Brad had a chance to weigh in on it. He certainly voted in the right box. ‘Let’s get this guy while we can.’”
I’m very fortunate to be able to drive for Roger. I was this close to being out. And three years later, we win the Daytona 500
Logano did not disappoint. In the last three seasons, his stats continue to improve – from one win and an average finish of 14.1 his first year with Penske to a series and career-high six victories and average finish of 9.2 last year. Logano also had the most poles (six) and tied Kevin Harvick with a remarkable 28 top-10 finishes in 36 starts.
Like Mears and Wallace before him, Logano appreciates the opportunity afforded him by Penske.
“I look at the opportunity that Roger gave me as a second chance," Logano said. "The way it all played out is like a storybook because I thought I was out. I was out of options. When everything went down in Daytona that day when Brad said, ‘You’ve got to call Roger,’ I didn’t even know what was going on…That was the moment for me. That doesn’t just happen. Obviously, a lot of things had to line up for me.
“So I’m very fortunate to be in this spot and to be able to drive for Roger. It’s pretty cool. I was this close to being out. And three years later, we win the Daytona 500. We win 12 races with him at the Sprint Cup level. Holy cow!
“When you talk about second chances and stuff, that’s making the most of your second shot. Saying to yourself, ‘You better grow up and make this work.’ I can’t put into words how thankful I am to both Brad and Roger for taking the risk and letting me show what I’m made of.”