INDIANAPOLIS – At 86, Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske looks healthy, rejuvenated, and ambitious as he prepares for the fourth Indy 500 since agreeing to purchase the track on Nov. 4, 2019.
Hard work, and lots of it, is what keeps Penske going.
“I get up every morning,” Penske told NBC Sports in an exclusive interview. “That’s a full-time job staying alive when you are my age.”
As the chairman of the Penske Corp. with a personal net worth of $3.1 billion according to Forbes, there are few, if any, days off for Penske. He has business worlds to conquer and races to win, including an attempt at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year with Porsche Penske Motorsport.
At 86, Penske’s pace puts 30- and 40-year-olds to shame.
“I’m very fortunate,” Penske said. “My wife is my biggest supporter. My 14 grandchildren and five children. We’ve got a great family. A lot going on.
“I think it motivates you because you have decisions to make every day. People are counting on your commitment. I like to lead, not from the top, but from the bottom. That keeps me as a person from a physical perspective in good shape.
“I’ve had my own (health) issues as you go along the way, but right now, I’m ready for another 500.”
And that is great news for the 325,000 fans that make the annual pilgrimage to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for what is by far, the biggest race on the planet. Many of those fans have been coming for 30, 40, 50 and even 60 or more years.
The Indianapolis 500 is more than a race, it’s a life-changing experience.
It changed Penske’s life back in 1951 when he was just a boy and joined his father, Jay, on a business trip to Indianapolis to see the big race.
“When I think about going back to 1951, when I came to the Speedway with my Dad when I was a young guy and had the chance to see the cars and be here at the race and see the spectacle, I guess I was bitten at that point,” Penske recalled. “I’ve been back every year since except when we had the IRL/CART debacle at that point.
“It certainly helped me build a brand within my company. Having a chance to race here and be successful has been amazing to me, my family, and my company.
“It was pretty special to see them in those days. They brought their cars in on trailers and put them together in the garage in the early days as I remember. For me, as a young boy who loved cars, it was a special time with my dad to bond with him at the race.
“From that point on, we never stopped coming here.”
At that time, young Roger was like most boys his age who had big dreams and ambitions. Conquering the business world was far off in his future.
“My dad got a couple of tickets,” Penske recalled of that 1951 Indianapolis 500. “Someone sponsored one of the lap prizes and gave him a couple of tickets. We got down here and were supposed to go to someone’s house for lunch. We got there late, but there was a show car there if you can believe it.
“I remember getting a chance to sit in that car before we went to the track. Our seats were coming off Turn 4 and weren’t the best in the house.
“I guess the seat I have now are better than every up in the Pagoda.”
Prior to closing officially on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar from the Hulman-George Family of Terre Haute, Indiana on Jan. 6, 2020, Penske already had earned acclaim as the winningest car owner in Indy 500 history with 18 wins.
Since that time, a Team Penske driver has not won the Indy 500. Penske, however, remains confident that he can reach 20 victories in the Indy 500 during his lifetime.
There are three star drivers in the Team Penske lineup for Sunday’s 107th Indy 500: 2018 Indy 500 winner Will Power starts ninth; two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden starts 17th; four-time winner Scott McLaughlin of New Zealand starts 14th.
Penske could pay himself as the winning team owner if one of those drivers is the first to the checkered flag.
“That would be a real honor to win the race as the owner of the track,” Penske said. “I used to stand on the box for seven or eight days and run the race, which I really miss. I have to stay away from it to have a Chinese wall between what is going on, on the track.
“The team is there. It is strong. There is some great competition. We’ve won two races already this year in the series, so we are competitive. Last year, we won nine races and won the championship but weren’t competitive at Indy.
“We have made a lot of headway. Other teams have made more. It’s close. McLaren is at the top and Ganassi. All of these teams are strong. Then you look at us and Andretti further back, but we know how to win races.
“Will Power starts near the front, has a pretty good car this year. Both McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden are very positive about their cars in race trim.
“Look, on Race Day, you’ll have to run here a perfect day. You’ll have to do everything right and to me, we know how to execute.”
During Penske’s ownership of the Indianapolis 500, one of his longtime drivers had a dramatic victory in 2021, but he wasn’t driving for Team Penske.
It was Helio Castroneves, who raced for Team Penske from 2000 to 2020 before leaving to join Meyer Shank Racing.
Castroneves had a magical day in 2021, winning the race for the fourth time in his career and joining AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 four times.
As the track owner, Penske greeted his former driver in the winner’s circle.
“It couldn’t have been a greater victory,” Penske said. “If we couldn’t win it ourselves, I kept telling Helio, ‘Remember those first three were with us, your old buddy.’ And of course, that fourth win with Michael Shank, a great team that is coming on very strong.
“Hey, he’s the best. You don’t win this thing four times when you think about Foyt, Unser, Mears and now Helio. The majority of those guys’ wins came in our cars. I feel a part of it in all cases other than Foyt.
“I wish he had driven for us at one point.”
Nearly every legendary driver since Penske Racing first arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a team in 1969 has driven for the famed team owner. The notable exceptions are AJ Foyt, Gordon Johncock, Michael Andretti, Scott Dixon, and Dario Franchitti.
When Penske Racing showed up in Gasoline Alley in 1969, Mark Donohue was the cornerstone of the team. He was one of the first engineers in racing and was a damn good race driver.
Penske described Donohue as his friend and partner. The two were from the same part of the country as Penske graduated from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Donohue attended Brown University.
“I really met him up at Lime Rock Park,” Penske recalled. “Jay Signore was a friend of mine, and we were up there racing. He said, take a look at this Mark Donohue. I got to see Mark, watch him drive, got to meet him, and talked to him about coming with us to be part of our team.
“One person recommended him to me, we got to together, we built Team Penske at that point and never turned around.”
Penske was already a regular on the grid at the Indianapolis 500, one of the individuals in a sportcoat and tie visiting with the drivers and teams. He was a tremendous racer himself in sports car racing and was offered a chance to drive the famed Bryant Heating and Cooling ride at the Indianapolis 500 in 1964.
“I got that opportunity here,” Penske explained. “Jim McGee and Clint Brawner called me to do my test here at Indy. I couldn’t do it because of my work and couldn’t get off.
“Mario Andretti took his test in that car. I guess it worked out for both of us.”
It was a different era than the world of today’s Indianapolis 500. Penske has served as the bridge between the two.
In fact, he is responsible for the tremendous change that has taken place in the last 55 years.
“Back in those days, we didn’t have the equipment or the people you have today,” Penske said. “The engineering today and the equipment is more sophisticated. Quite honestly, we all worked on the car. I remember driving the car to the track with a two-wheel trailer and a station wagon many times.
“It was different. But the competition was still there.
“You think about the days back when we were running the Trans Am with Mark Donohue and Parnelli Jones and Dan Gurney. We had the best guys in the business.
“It has changed. Different names and different faces today. The equipment is a lot more sophisticated. The competition is still the same.
“I remember coming here to Indianapolis and watching Foyt blow everybody off. He would wait until 5:30 each day and blow everybody off. He was an idol of mine.
“I wanted to see if I could come out and do that someday.”
Penske loves to put numbers on the board and there is no other team owner in auto racing history that has accomplished more than the man from Shaker Heights, Ohio, who now lives in Detroit.
But it was his time in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania and later Reading, Pennsylvania, that served as the path to success for Penske Racing when they were prepared to change the game at the Indianapolis 500 when they arrived in 1969.
“They called us the college boys with the crew haircuts and the polished wheels,” Penske said. “It was an image that we had.
“We had a sponsor with Sunoco, and we wanted to change it. Our goal was to win the race in the first three years. In 1969, 1970 and 1971, almost in 1971 when we were fast there, but had trouble with the gearbox. We won our first 500 with Mark Donohue at Pocono that year and then came back in 1972, ran strong, and Donohue won our first Indianapolis 500, which was a tremendous feat for our team.
“We had that as a goal. In life, you set goals for yourself, individually, your family and your business. That was one that we set, to win this race.
“We said three years. It took us four.”
Donohue delivered Penske its first Indianapolis 500 victory in 1972. But it would take another seven years before another Team Penske driver won the Indy 500.
It was a quiet Californian from Bakersfield who gained fame as a desert off-road racer before becoming one of the greatest drivers in IndyCar history.
It was Rick Mears, the “Rocket Man.”
“It was way back at the Ontario Motor Speedway, and I was standing in line to get my credentials,” Penske said. “Frankie DelRoy, who ultimately died in that plane crash with the USAC guys, said, ‘Hey, take a look at this kid who just got his credentials. Somebody should watch.’
“I watched Mears at Ontario. Then we came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and remember he and his dad, they had a pink Eagle, and they were pushing the car up Turn 4 to get fuel in it back and forth.
“Then, I went on a motorcycle ride that Wally Dallenbach put together. I had a chance to meet Rick and thought, why don’t we get together.
“Mario Andretti was running for the Formula One championship, and we would have to do something to take his spot because Formula One was priority one for him. I called Mears and said let’s get together at Michigan. He was knocking on the door at 6 in the morning and said he would love to talk to me.
“We put something together back then. We didn’t have a full-time ride at that point, but he jumped in, and never turned back.
“Four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, he is still a friend, a partner and a guy who has tremendous credibility here at the Speedway.”
Mears’ 1979 Indianapolis 500 win was the team’s second Indy 500 victory and that began a succession of Penske Racing dominance.
Indy win No. 3 came in 1981 with Bobby Unser. Mears won again in 1984, then Danny Sullivan in 1985, then Al Unser won his fourth Indy 500 as a Team Penske driver in 1987. Mears got his third Indy 500 win in 1988 and his fourth in 1991.
From Emerson Fittipaldi to Al Unser, Jr. to Helio Castroneves, Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske has epitomized success at the Indianapolis 500.
Mears’ success helped launch Team Penske to another level.
“I look at Mears being a partner, a teammate, setting a standard,” Penske said. “Bringing in Bobby Unser, a veteran, was very important to the team. We started to do our own cars in 1979 with Geoff Farris and then in the 1980s with Nigel Bennett designing our cars and building them in the UK. That gave us a real advantage for a long time.
“Then, we went back and forth with March over different times, and now we are sitting here with Dallaras.
“It was a series of successes, a series of failures but overall, we pulled this team together. The credibility we have as a team is the fact, we have people with us for a long, long time that makes a big difference.
“Today, we operate our race shop out of Mooresville, North Carolina with almost 450 people and that covers our IndyCar program, our NASCAR program, and our Sports Car program.”
Penske already had a legendary legacy long before Tony George approached him on the starting grid in the season’s final race of 2019 at Laguna Seca, California.
George, whose family had owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since Tony Hulman saved it by purchasing IMS from Eddie Rickenbacker in November 1945, wanted Penske to continue the tradition of “stewardship” of one of the world’s greatest sporting events.
“It was a real opportunity to take this place to the next level,” Penske said. “It had the bones. It had some very, very good people. What we were able to do was add our shoulder, our emphasis, and our capital to take it to the next level.
“I’m so proud to be able to drive around here. I drove around this morning. They are putting up the stage for the Snake Pit a week from now. It’s amazing. We are trying to make it better.
“I call it the guest experience. We want people to come here with their kids, have a good time. It’s a reasonable priced event when you think of other sporting events around the world from a motorsport’s perspective.
“It’s a business. We want to run it like a business.
“Without the Indianapolis 500, we wouldn’t have IndyCar. Without IndyCar, we wouldn’t have the Indianapolis 500. That was Tony Hulman’s mission, and his formula and we are trying to continue that today.
Penske gets it. He understands that he is trying to create a series that is the best at what it is and has no interest in pursuing a path that it isn’t.
“We are not NASCAR,” Penske said. “We are not Formula One. We are IndyCar and we have to remember what hat we wear.”