Auto racing icon Roger Penske not ready to slow down even at age 86
He watched on his cellphone as Ryan Blaney won the Coca-Cola 600 on a Monday, streaming the rain-delayed NASCAR race during the Indy 500 banquet. As any avid race fan would do.
Blaney’s victory gave Penske a resume builder that somehow had evaded his illustrious career: Team Penske swept the two Memorial Day weekend races in the U.S. in the same year.
There was zero time to bask in his press clippings. Penske was in Detroit by Tuesday to oversee the return of downtown street racing for the first time in 32 years — a three-day festival for a reenergized city as Penske’s gift to his adopted hometown.
The whirlwind week closed with a sold-out Sunday race in which Team Penske driver Will Power finished second, but Penske’s engine is still running at full throttle. He leads the American return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is due to arrive in France today with a three-car effort chasing a victory that has eluded him.
“We want to win Le Mans, that’s what we’d like to do,” Penske told The Associated Press. “We’ve got three good cars and it’s going to be competitive. But just to go there and compete, this first year with Porsche, that’s something we wanted to do for a long time with a quality brand.
“We can build on this. But we are going to win.”
He is 86 years old, yet Penske still moves at the same pace he did during his early days dabbling as a race car driver. And in this same year when he swept Indy and the Coca-Cola 600 — a year he has reigning series champions Joey Logano in NASCAR and Power in IndyCar under contract — he also wants to add the only race Penske has never won.
Penske himself once entered the legendary French endurance race in 1963, driving a Ferrari for the North American Racing Team. The car started on the pole and never ran lower than sixth when, about nine hours into the race, a broken oil pipe ended Penske’s only run at Le Mans behind the wheel.
He eventually gave up driving — at the urging of his father — to focus on building his global transportation business and, in his spare time, one of the most respected empires in motor sports.
Penske returned to Le Mans as a team owner in 1971, an effort derailed by early engine failure.
Make no mistake, Le Mans means every bit to Penske as those 19 wins at Indy. And he wants one. Badly.
“I guess I put Le Mans in the category of the Indianapolis 500. These are the two of the greatest races ever around the world,” Penske said.
His quest is part of an agreement made with the NASCAR-owned IMSA sports car series, which reorganized its top class this year to hybrid engines to make its competitors eligible to race at Le Mans. The move by IMSA made it the first North American series to switch to hybrid, and it lured new manufacturers to the series with new goals.
Penske makes his return to Le Mans as the factory program for Porsche, and one of his 963 hybrid prototypes will carry the number 75 to commemorate 75 years of Porsche sports cars in the centennial celebration of the race.
He joins Chip Ganassi, who has a pair of Cadillacs entered, as well as another Caddy from Action Express Racing, a team owned by Bob Johnson and supported by NASCAR CEO Jim France.
France also is bringing a version of the Next Gen car now in its second season of NASCAR competition as part of the Garage 56 program with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. That means seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is coming along with Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon in a crossover nobody saw coming even five years ago.
But all eyes are on Penske, who is on a roll.
He last won the Indy 500 with driver Simon Pagenaud in 2019, the year before he bought Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He wasn’t pleased to be stuck on 18 wins for three consecutive years at Indy; Team Penske and Newgarden knew it, too.
Newgarden had barely given him win No. 19 before Penske already was talking about a 20th.
“That’s what we’re here for: to set goals for other people to try to achieve,” Penske said. “The 19th win at Indy was long overdue.”
He’s relentless, at any age, and offered a vociferous defense of Blaney’s 59-race winless streak finally snapped last Monday. Penske cited mechanical failures, pit road mistakes and a letdown from Team Penske to Blaney as to why the driver had struggled to win.
And then he was talking about Detroit, where Penske Entertainment was the promoter of the downtown IndyCar event. The race used to be downtown for both Formula One and an earlier version of Indy cars, but it became a hassle and fell off the schedule entirely.
It was Penske who brought IndyCar back to Detroit after his 2006 stint as chair of Detroit’s Super Bowl committee. He wanted more for the city after its cleanup from the NFL title game, so he revitalized the IndyCar race on repurposed and dramatically cleaned Belle Isle.
This year he wanted it back downtown and he wanted the event to be a celebration of IndyCar, of partner Chevrolet and of downtown Detroit. He wanted a party and his staff pulled it off, even with driver complaints about the actual course.
The sparkling wine has barely dried from last week’s sweep, and Detroit is still buzzing about Sunday’s race, but Penske has no time to rest. He’s got to pack and head to Le Mans, where he believes he’s got a chance to win.
Should his team pull it off, there would be a surprisingly short list of firsts for Penske to chase. That’s OK because he prefers to look out the front windshield. Win Le Mans this weekend and Penske immediately will turn to winning two in a row.
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