Nobody Laughs at 'College Boys' Now : Penske's 25 Years of Marrying Indy Cars and Technology Bring Unprecedented Success

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roger Penske came to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1969 with a college graduate driver, a bunch of crew-cut crewmen in clean uniforms and a promise to his oil company sponsor that he would win the Indianapolis 500 in three years.

The racing world laughed at what it called "the college boys," and when Penske's crew laid linoleum tile in the team's Gasoline Alley garage, the laughs turned to guffaws.

"The old-timers couldn't believe none of us smoked cigars and we swept up the floor every night," Penske reminisced while sitting in his team's lavish motor home. "Of all the changes I've seen in 25 years here, I think maybe the biggest is in the attitude.

"With Mark (Donohue), who was an engineer as much as a driver, we approached Indy as a technical exercise and as an opportunity to showcase our sponsors. Today, that hardly seems newsworthy, but back then it was revolutionary."

Penske, besides being a major force in changing the image of Indy car racing, has also been its most successful practitioner.

His drivers have won a record eight Indy 500s, sat on the Indy pole 10 times and won eight Indy car championships and 72 races. By comparison, the second-winningest team in Indy car history was the late Lou Moore's with 38.

And Penske kept his promise--Donohue won in 1972, three years after the college kids arrived.

"Our successes here rank among my most cherished moments," Penske said. "But the highest point in my racing career is that I'm still able to be involved in Indy car racing after 25 years. The reason I'm still here is because of the people I've been associated with: the drivers, crews, sponsors and friends who have supported me all these years.

"But remember, we're only as good as our next race."

That would be Sunday's 77th Indianapolis 500. Penske has a strong mix of experience and youth in his drivers:

--Emerson Fittipaldi, 46, a two-time Formula One champion from Brazil before he came out of retirement to drive Indy cars in 1984. He won the Indy 500 while driving for Pat Patrick in 1989, the year before he joined Penske.

--Paul Tracy, 24, a Canadian selected by Penske as a test driver and long-range replacement for Rick Mears who was thrust into service as a team driver when Mears unexpectedly retired last December. Tracy won his first race in 18 starts at the Long Beach Grand Prix.

"I was first attracted to Paul when he drove on the ARS (now Indy Lights) series and sat on the pole and won nine races," Penske said. "I've always said you have to look at three things. No. 1, you have to know how to win, which he obviously did. No. 2, you must have the capability of communicating technically what the car is doing so the crew can made the proper changes. And No. 3, which is something no one thought about 25 years ago, is that you must have the ability to communicate with the sponsors and be of some commercial value."

Penske was only 25--barely a year older than Tracy--when he gave up a promising career as a driver to become a businessman.

Before he hung up his goggles, Penske won the 1962 Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside and followed it with a victory a week later at Laguna Seca against such drivers as Dan Gurney, Lloyd Ruby, Bruce McLaren, Jack Brabham and Graham Hill. In 1964, he became the first driver to win all three Nassau sports car races in the Bahamas in the same year.

But Penske had never planned on being exclusively a driver.

"It wasn't too difficult for me to decide to leave racing," he said, "because all the time I was racing, I was working as a sales engineer and I realized there was a greater future in the business world--and that way I could keep my contacts in racing, too. Besides, I had a family, and if I was going to be a Chevrolet dealer, I couldn't get the franchise if I continued to drive, because they didn't want a guy who might not be able to come to work on Monday."

Penske's business career moved as quickly as his racing. In 1964, he became general manager of a dealership in Philadelphia, and a year later he bought the dealership, which became the cornerstone of the Penske Corp., which today has more than 10,000 employees at 400 facilities worldwide with annual revenues of nearly $3 billion.

Despite such a far-flung business empire, Penske spends every racing weekend with his team, directing it with the same fervor he displayed as a driver three decades ago.

"People continually ask me, 'How long are you going to be in racing?' and I say I'm going to be involved as long as I enjoy it and I'm competitive," he said. "When I'm not competitive and I don't enjoy it, then I'll get out. But at this particular time, I think we have a real competitive team, especially having someone like Rick (Mears) to work with the drivers.

"Rick was our greatest asset for years as a driver, and I think as long as he stays with us, we'll continue to listen to him."

In 15 years with Penske, Mears won four Indy 500s, six Indy poles, three Indy car championships and 29 races.

Said Mears: "I couldn't have hoped or dreamed of having a better career, and I have Roger to thank for that. His total commitment and his level of energy are the secrets to his success in Indy car racing and everything he does."

Getting to the top is one thing, but Penske says staying there may be even more difficult.

"It's getting so the more you win, the greater the expectations are from the sponsors," he said. "It's like Greg Norman or Raymond Floyd. Every time they tee it up, people expect them to shoot 66. That is difficult, but the more you do it, the more it's expected of you."

Although this is Penske's silver anniversary as a car owner here, he has been watching the 500 since 1951, when he came with his father and saw Lee Wallard win. Penske has not missed one since.

"You talk about changes, and one of the first things you think about is the speed," he said. "We've gone from qualifying at 136 m.p.h. in 1951, my first year here, to 170 m.p.h. in 1969, my first year as an owner, to 232 last year, but the changes made in measuring speed are almost as great.

"I go back to 1971 when Mark (Donohue) ran the first 180 in practice. All we had were stopwatches, and to find the speed, we had to use a conversion chart. Fifty seconds wasn't even on the chart. I think it stopped at 52, so we didn't know how fast Mark had run until somebody calculated it with a pencil and paper.

"Today, we have telemetry on the car that can tell you the speed any place on the race track at any time. On every lap, we can measure RPMs, speed, throttle position, steering angle, ride height of the car, shock movement, everything you can imagine. There are 21 different positions that we measure during a lap.

"So, based on that, from the day of the stopwatch and the conversion chart, we've come to the point where we can tell if the driver had his foot on the throttle wide open and what percentage of the time.

"A big plus is that all this information can serve to make the cars safer to drive. When a driver makes a mistake, we have the information as to the attitude of the car, the wings, the tires, everything, at that moment. It sounds ironic, but as speeds have gone up at Indy, so has safety."

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