Roger Penske has enjoyed success as a racing driver and a team owner in multiple series for over five decades. Currently, his Penske Racing organization has 498 victories, 573 pole positions, and 32 national championships to its credit, largely due to the drive and determination of its leader, known to most as “The Captain.” On Wednesday, October 31, The Captain, Roger Penske, will be presented with the 11th-annual Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum Spirit of Competition Award in a ceremony taking place at the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, museum.
As Jim Donnelly explained in a December 2012 story for Hemmings Muscle Machines, Penske was just 16 years old when he began buying used cars, fixing them up, and flipping them for profit. By the time he moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to attend Lehigh University, those cars included a Jaguar XK120, fixed and sold to fund a Jaguar XK120M, which in turn was flipped to purchase a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing coupe. The profit Penske realized from the sale of the Mercedes funded his first racing car, a modified Chevrolet Corvette.
Roger Penske drove the 2017 Chevrolet Camaro SS pace car at the 100th Indianapolis 500 in May 2016. Photo by Bret Kelley/IMS for Chevrolet.
Penske proved to be as adept at racing as he was at business, and in 1960 captured his first SCCA Championship, earning the SCCA President’s Cup in the process. He’d capture three more SCCA Championships, from 1961-’63, earning two more President’s Cups in the process (an achievement not since duplicated). Sports Illustrated named Penske its driver of the year in 1961, the same year he made his first start in Formula 1, at the U.S. Grand Prix. By 1963, he was racing in NASCAR, too, delivering a victory in a West Coast Late Model race for team owner Ray Nichels.
Despite his success as a driver, Penske maintained a day job, working for Alcoa as a sales engineer. When West Philadelphia Chevrolet dealership owner George McKean offered him a job – at nearly five times his Alcoa salary – Penske jumped at the opportunity, which also included a provision to purchase the dealership after two years of employment. He did just that, but Chevrolet soon forced him to choose between racing cars and selling its wares, just as he was extended an offer to drive in the 1965 Indianapolis 500. (His seat went instead to another rookie – Mario Andretti – who also demonstrated a knack for winning races.)
Penske took to running a racing team with the same enthusiasm he’d shown for driving cars, and Penske Racing made its competition debut at the 1966 24 Hours of Daytona. By the end of the decade, the team was running in the Can-Am series, the Trans-Am series, and the IndyCar series, and in 1972 Penske Racing added NASCAR’s Cup Series to its activity list as well. Later, from 1974-’76, Penske Racing even returned to Formula 1, where it initially struggled to construct a competitive car but ended the 1976 season with one win, two additional podium finishes, and a total of nine top-10s out of 16 races.
Today, Penske Racing competes in the IndyCar series, NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series, NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and, as of 2015, the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, where it’s partnered with Dick Johnson Racing. Regardless of the type of racing, the team is renowned for its top-flight equipment, impeccable preparation, buttoned-up appearance, and star drivers. Excellence – and with it, championships – is expected, and it’s delivered every day by its seemingly tireless leader, Roger Penske.
Past winners of the Simeone Spirit of Competition Award have included Derek Bell, Peter Brock, David Hobbs, Bobby Rahal, Hurley Haywood, Sam Posey, Craig Breedlove, John Cooper Fitch, Mario Andretti, and Janet Guthrie. This year’s ceremony, which will be hosted by Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance founder Bill Warner, begins at 6:00 p.m. Further details on the event, including ticket pricing and availability, will be forthcoming at SimeoneMuseum.org.