Originally Published: May 25, 2018 6 a.m.
INDIANAPOLIS — Roger Penske spent three summers of his childhood at Culver Military Academy, where young boys gathered for eight weeks at a time to learn about leadership, teamwork, integrity and accountability.
Penske looks back at those summers in Indiana and knows they helped lay the groundwork for the empire he’s built.
“Ironically, not too far from Indianapolis” Penske said.
Penske heads into the biggest weekend of motorsports with four cars capable of winning the Indianapolis 500, and another three that should contend in NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600. It’s his favorite weekend of the year because it celebrates motorsports — Penske’s equivalent of fishing or golfing or hunting — and this year, he is a central part of the celebration.
Penske was one of five nominees selected this week for NASCAR’s Hall of Fame . NASCAR Chairman Brian France called Penske “a man of the highest integrity” and cited the standard of excellence “The Captain” sets in every aspect of his life — excellence found in every element of the Penske Corp.
In his first interview since he learned of his election, Penske pointed to his parents and the childhood they gave him for shaping his career. Yes, they sent him to Culver, but “I wasn’t a bad boy,” he insisted. They also sent him to YMCA camp in Canada, where he learned portaging, rode the rapids and lived in jungle hammocks.
“I had a very different upbringing, I think my parents gave me the opportunity to do many different things than just hang out,” Penske told The Associated Press. “I learned to lead, and when you’re a leader you have to set an example and I think that’s been something that we’ve tried to drive through our organization. You’ve got to be transparent, you have to have integrity, we all make mistakes and nobody has a perfect career. But on the other hand, the ability to look someone in the eye, and they know that you’re dealing with them with honesty, is so important.”
Penske has been in motorsports more than 52 years and his success is global. His motto “effort equals results” came from his father and is passed down to his employees. He expects the very best, and delivers it in turn. His executives are as important as his secretaries. The drivers aren’t any more special than the employees who arrive long before the race weekend to set everything up to Penske standards.
“It’s a very flat organization in racing, and once you forget that, you don’t win,” Penske said. “It’s the truck drivers, the guy polishing the wheels, setting the air pressure on the tires, pulling the tear-off during a pit stop — all these things are as important, and people forget that. The best teams are the ones that get into the very detail, not just the driver, not just the crew chief, but everybody else. Winning and trying to win on the weekends has made me a much better manager in my business.”
He figures Team Penske brought some “600 years’ experience” to Indianapolis this year “and that kind of experience you just can’t buy.”
That experience has led to a record 16 Indy 500 victories and a strong shot at another win on Sunday. Simon Pagenaud, the 2016 IndyCar champion, starts second. Will Power, winner of the Indianapolis Grand Prix two weeks ago and the 2014 series champion, starts third. Josef Newgarden, last year’s series champion, starts fourth.
The ace in the hole, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, starts eighth. Penske will be calling Castroneves’ race as the Brazilian attempts to tie the Indy record of four wins.
How the race ends will determine whether Penske hops on his plane and heads to North Carolina to watch Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano race in NASCAR’s longest event of the year Sunday night. He fields Chevrolets in IndyCar, and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway the brand has been the fastest all month. Penske is a Ford guy in NASCAR, and the blue oval group has dominated the first quarter of the NASCAR season.
Already a winner via his Hall of Fame induction, Penske has a realistic shot at celebrating two more times this weekend. His scope reaches beyond American motorsports, too. Team Penske competes in five different series that race in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
“All of this is evolutionary, you get one success and if you’re motivated, you want to go to the next,” he said. “I think we’ve done that in our automobile business. Our truck leasing business, we started out with 300 units in the late ‘60s and today we have 272,000 trucks running on the highways. We sold 500,000 cars in our dealerships in 2017. These are goals you don’t set, you just arrive at these and then you continue to push further.
“I think that’s what we’re doing in racing. Racing is a great platform for innovation and expertise and also effort. ... I can tell you teams that are winning are not just lucky, they’re putting in the effort to make the success they have around themselves. I think we’ve set the platform for this coming weekend, there’s no question, both in Charlotte and Indianapolis.”