Roger Penske celebrates 50 years at Indianapolis 500

Simon Pagenaud, of France, is congratulated by car owner Roger Penske after winning the pole during qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 IndyCar auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Sunday, May 19, 2019 in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — His hair was jet black and his shirt starched white when Roger Penske rolled into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time as a team owner with Mark Donohue behind the wheel.

He was young and ambitious and ready to conquer the racing world.

Much has changed in the ensuing 50 years.

The old race track has undergone massive overhauls, the original Gasoline Alley razed long ago and replaced by a new garage area. Technology has revolutionized IndyCar racing. An entire generation of race fans has turned over, their kids and grandkids now turning up at the speedway on Memorial Day weekend.

Penske is no longer young, either. He’s now 82.

But as he celebrates his golden anniversary at Indianapolis, it quickly becomes clear that plenty has remained the same. Penske still wears those crisp, white shirts. He is still ambitious, dogged in his pursuit of racing immortality. And while he may spend a bit more time on his boat these days, the truth is that racing remains his passion more than it has ever been a profession.

“You know, the work ethic, the go, it really hasn’t changed,” said Rick Mears, who won four of Team Penske’s record 17 Indy 500s. “He’s always said, ‘This is my golf game.’ Auto racing is his hobby and he loves it, especially here at Indianapolis. He just lights up.”

The love affair actually began in 1951, when Penske’s father, Jay, brought his son to the fabled speedway for the first time. There was little to remember about the race itself — only eight cars were running by the finish, when Lee Wallard took the checkered flag. But the young Penske was mesmerized by the speed and sound, his interest in all things auto racing solidified that afternoon.

“I remember we sat down off the fourth turn and could hardly see the cars go by,” Penske said this week, “and I guess at that point I was injected with motor racing and really wanted to drive here.”

For a while it appeared his passion would manifest itself behind the wheel. Penske began to carve out his name in lower-tier series, and he was even offered a rookie test at Indianapolis.

But Penske’s father had always encouraged him to be an entrepreneur, and the business side of the sport was just as appealing.

So when he turned down the test and a young Italian named Mario Andretti took it instead, Penske’s career began to change course.

He soon retired from driving to focus on his successful car dealerships and in 1965 launched Penske Racing at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Four years later, he was back at the Brickyard as a team owner.