Commentary

The drive behind Penske? Passion

Updated: May 23, 2009, 12:28 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Greg Penske remembers his first corporate board meeting in Manhattan. He was 12, learning the ropes from his father, Roger.

Greg wanted to wear jeans to the meeting.

"Dad said no," Greg recalls. "He told me there is a place to be casual and this isn't it. He always emphasized the right way to act and the right way to look and the right way do things."

Roger Penske has been doing things the right way for a long time, in racing, in business and in life.

On Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Penske's team again is one of the favorites to win the Indianapolis 500, an achievement his drivers have accomplished a record 14 times since 1972.

"In this paddock, no one is looked up to more and emulated more than Roger," said John Barnes, a fellow team owner in the IndyCar Series. "There are three motorsports teams in the world that set the bar: Ferrari in Formula One, Hendrick Motorsports in NASCAR and Penske Racing in IndyCar. It's hard for me to express how much I admire Roger Penske."

That type of adulation is the typical response when you ask people about this icon of racing. His team has won 139 open-wheel races and 12 Indy-car championships.

Penske also is one of the most successful businessmen in the country, with more than 300 car dealerships worldwide, a truck-leasing company and a net worth estimated at more than $2.5 billion.

How did he get there?

"Focus and determination," said Eddie Cheever, a former Indy 500 winner who has raced against Penske as a team owner. "Roger is a man who decided early in his life what he wanted to do and went on a very cold and methodical path to get there."

[+] EnlargeRoger Penske
AP Photo/Paul SancyaRoger Penske has made his adopted hometown, Detroit, a priority, helping land the Super Bowl among other ventures.

Penske is a Midwestern guy through and through, from the Cleveland neighborhood of Shaker Heights, where Penske was born, to his respected status as one of the community leaders in Detroit.

At age 71, he has no intention of calling it a career and resting on his long list of accomplishments. And he isn't getting off the pit box any time soon.

"This is my passion," Penske said. "I still enjoy the competition. I want to be involved in it as long as I can. There is still a lot that we want to accomplish as a team, and I plan to be around for that."

Like a racer determined to get to the front, Penske just keeps charging. That relentless pursuit of excellence is something people who know him well constantly bring up.

He was willing to do whatever it took to reach his goals. But for Penske, it had to fit a certain mold, a pattern of decorum and class that goes all the way down to the guy sweeping the floors in the race shop.

"Roger understands that image is everything in our business," Barnes said. "He always has represented racing in the best possible light."

Penske is the consummate businessman, known to his employees and people in racing as "The Captain." It's all very professional with Penske, a man who doesn't reveal a lot about his personal life.

"I've known Roger for over 25 years now," said Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway. "He's always been completely gracious, friendly and complimentary. But I don't feel like he's ever really let me in. There's always a little bit of distance."

Gossage was a public relations director for Miller beer's race team when he met Roger, and worked with Danny Sullivan when Sullivan won the 1985 Indy 500 for Penske.

"Roger's always had a bit of a stiff upper lip, and I don't mean that in a bad way," Gossage said. "It's just his nature. He's strictly business and I understand that. He's very driven and very hard-working. He hasn't changed one bit from the first day I met him."

Gossage said Penske would rank as one of the five most important people in auto racing. He compares Penske to Bruton Smith, the president of Speedway Motorsports Inc. and Gossage's boss. "Bruton also is a very successful auto dealer," Gossage said. "But Bruton is very engaging and likes to joke around. I can't imagine Roger telling a joke. I know I've never told him one. You don't clown around with Roger."

Members of Penske's race teams in IndyCar, NASCAR, sports cars, etc., follow a dress code (typically pressed slacks and button-down shirts) and maintain a proper corporate image.

You won't see Penske in jeans or a Hawaiian shirt.

"I don't know about a Hawaiian shirt, but I can verify that he does wear jeans sometimes," Greg Penske said. "He really does have his lighter moments. Away from work he really enjoys being with his grandkids."

[+] EnlargeRoger Penske
AP PhotoRoger Penske was a successful racer -- here celebrating his win in a 100-mile race at Road America in 1961 -- before turning his attention to the business side of the sport.

Greg, 46, is the president of Penske Auto Group. He is the former president of Michigan International Speedway and sits on the board of directors for International Speedway Corp.

Greg is one of five Penske children: four sons and a daughter.

"Growing up, he taught us you have to go the extra mile to be successful," Greg said. "It's about work ethic. You can't cut corners.

"I wouldn't call him a disciplinarian, but if you got off-track, he made sure you knew what you did wrong and what you needed to do to change it."

Penske has the same approach for his race teams. Al Unser Jr. won the 1994 Indy 500 and the CART championship while racing for Penske. Unser said many people forget that Penske started as a driver, even competing in Formula One in the early 1960s. Unser believes that experience helped Penske understand what it took to win consistently.

"Roger gives his people everything they need to succeed," Unser said. "He doesn't limit them in any way. He hires the best people, gives them all the tools and he lets them do their thing. He isn't afraid to let them try new ideas. That's the approach to all his businesses."

Unser said Penske isn't afraid to fail, and he has had his share of failures. After Unser's 1994 win at Indy, the team failed to qualify for the race in 1995. It was one of the biggest surprises in the long history of the event.

"But I learned something about Roger because of that," Unser said. "Roger doesn't dwell on things. He's always looking at what's in front of him, not what's behind him. That's probably the best thing I learned from him."

Greg Penske sees that trait of looking past disappointments as the key to his father's success.

"He is better able to do that than anyone I've ever seen," Greg said. "He moves on, and he believes in his team. Two things that stand out about my dad are integrity and loyalty."

The loyalty part was obvious this year regarding driver Helio Castroneves. The two-time Indy 500 winner stood trial for tax-evasion charges.

The day after he was acquitted, Penske put Castroneves back in a race car. He starts on the pole for Sunday's race.

"Our team stood behind him because we know what kind of person he is," Penske said. "The outcome was great for us because we were able to bring back one of the best drivers we have ever had. All of us were so happy for Helio and his family after everything they went through." Castroneves is one of the favorites this weekend, as is teammate Ryan Briscoe, who starts next to Castroneves in the middle of the front row.

"The legacy of our teams at Indianapolis means a great deal," Penske said. "This is still the biggest race in the world."

Four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt agrees. He's one of the few people who was there when Penske started at the Brickyard in 1969.

[+] EnlargeHelio Castroneves
AP Photo/Tom StricklandDriver Helio Castroneves had owner Roger Penske behind him while Castroneves dealt with a tax evasion trial in Miami earlier this year. Castroneves was back in a Penske race car the day after his acquittal.

"We go way back, long before he was winning lots of races," Foyt said. "But we've always respected each other."

The two Indy legends went separate ways when open-wheel racing split into two leagues in 1995. Foyt moved to the new Indy Racing League and Penske stayed with CART, which boycotted the Indy 500 and kept Penske out of the event for five years.

"It was tough to be away, but we knew we would be back at Indy eventually," Penske said. "This place and this race are just too important and so much a part of what our organization is about."

Foyt said he knew Penske would return because his sponsors would want the team to race at Indy.

"The big thing that Roger's had through the years is great sponsors," Foyt said. "That's always given him the dollars to hire the best people."

Penske has a knack for building long-term relationships with major sponsors. Miller, Marlboro and Mobil are three that have been involved with his race teams for many years.

"The biggest thing he does with his business partners is ingrain his organization into their program," Barnes said. "Roger makes it where they feel like they need Penske Racing to market their products."

Marlboro has continued to support Penske Racing, even though federal regulations now prohibit cigarette companies from putting their names on the race cars.

But being associated with Penske is a winning proposition that brings an expectation of excellence.

"My dad's philosophy is you can't take your foot off the gas for an instant," Greg Penske said. "He never has. He understands that winning is an everyday process."

Even when it comes to telling a young boy how to dress for success.

"He has been a great mentor in my life," Greg said. "I feel like I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world to be his son."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter