When it comes to racing excellence Roger Penske is the gold standard. From his series-high 161 IndyCar wins, including a record 15 Indianapolis 500s, to his 72 career NASCAR victories, including the 2008 Daytona 500, Penske has visited Victory Lane 353 times in his storied motor sports career.
So far this season, Penske’s drivers have won both IndyCar races, with Helio Castroneves winning at St. Petersburg and Will Power at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Ala. In NASCAR, Brad Keselowski drove to victory at Bristol in March and A.J. Allmendinger finished second in the last NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway on April 1.
Penske, who was Sports Illustrated’s Driver of the Year in 1961, is also one of the top industrialists in the world. Even at 75, the man shows no signs of slowing down and recently sat down to talk with SI.com about a variety of topics, including NASCAR, IndyCar and his decision to switch engines.
SI.com: You are joining Ford in NASCAR next year. How are things going with that?
Roger Penske: We’ve had a lot of conversations with Ford leading up to the announcement and are talking to a lot of people in Ford moving forward. … I have not had a meeting with Jack Roush yet. At the end of the day it’s a business and Jack has done a great job. If Ford is successful he will get the benefit and so will we. We have a lot of people calling us wanting to run Dodge. We have a big investment in our engine shop so we are not going to shut the door. That engine shop will operate in some mode because we have transient dynos and things like that. I think we bring a lot to the party. If Dodge is interested in having us build engines as a separate source, then our shop can be available for that.
SI.com: Ralph Gilles of Dodge noted that Ford gave you a long-term contract. Did that play into your decision?
Penske: You want a long-term commitment from your employer if you can. We are in a business where we are contractually bonded with race engineers, drivers and sponsors. We prepare contracts to make sure we are in a position to commit to our people, so a long-term commitment is very important to us. We had very good discussions with Dodge and based on their senior management they weren’t able to make the kind of commitment we felt was necessary to compete at the higher levels. …We haven’t won the championship in NASCAR yet and combining our efforts in ways that are meaningful for Ford would be good. Ralph Gilles and the whole SRT team were very supportive. They understood our position. We had a lot of discussion with them from the standpoint of what we could do. One wins and one loses and that was the pressure for me because we were with Dodge for 10 years.”
SI.com: Are you pleased with where IndyCar is right now?
Penske: One of the great things is we have a full field of cars and will have 27 when we go to Brazil [on April 29]. The new engine programs with Chevrolet and Honda are in pretty good shape. I think Lotus is a little bit behind but [they] have been fielding the five cars they are committed to. Overall, the cars have been good. I like the looks of the cars. It’s a new look and a new season and quite honestly a change always makes it better.
SI.com: Will the change in cars and engines effect influence wins races and titles or will it be you and Ganassi?
Penske: We didn’t want to change cars and go backward. I think the good news is we didn’t have any idea how we would stack up when we came to St. Pete. but the good news is we were all competitive. We feel good about it and I think there are some good drivers there. With new cars and new engines we have a level playing field. We don’t have the experience with some of the subtleties you can build into the car after you’ve had it for a number of years. That is going to be important. Our drivers know they have to perform. Certainly, Chip Ganassi feels the same way about his team. He’s with Honda and we are with Chevrolet so it is a pretty interesting battle just from that standpoint of the engine side. I think resources are sometimes overplayed. We all have exactly the same car and this car is so limited from what we can do in terms of the changes we can make. We can’t change a bracket without approval. … Then it comes down to strategy. We have a lot of engineers and some of our best people are the ones we just hired in recent years. The technology is out there. Sports car people are migrating from ALMS and Grand Am to IndyCar. They see the benefit to racing at the Indianapolis 500 and [with] the series.
SI.com: Part of what makes NASCAR so successful is the driver personalities; people know them and are familiar with them. Where do you see IndyCar right now in terms of personalities?
Penske: When you look at NASCAR we’ve got drivers that have been iconic drivers for 10 or 15 years. We’ve gone through a period with IndyCar where we had two series so we didn’t have continuity. We haven’t had the same schedule with the date equity that you want at these tracks with people coming back every year. … We have Marco Andretti, and Helio Castroneves has always been someone from a fan perspective that people love to see run because of Dancing with the Stars. Dario Franchitti is a superstar from what he has been able to do on the track. It’s more racing in these cities where we get the proper crowds and different demographics. … We have to build these stars around that. When NASCAR is running 43 cars with 38 races and twice in these markets you look at the top 15 people in NASCAR today [and] most of them have been around for five to 10 years, so there is a lot more continuity, so name recognition has been generated. The TV and overall publicity has been generated because of the continuity and that has made a big difference. That is something Randy Bernard needs to do.
I don’t think we have to have 20 races. If we have 15-16 events in the right markets, I think we are trying to decide that now moving into 2013. But we have to have some ovals.
SI.com: Talk about your NASCAR team.
Penske: We are really happy with the driver lineup we have. They are working well together. It’s early days. The cars have been good. We had a fuel problem at Las Vegas, but Brad Keselowski’s run at Bristol shows how good he really is. You don’t lap Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman because you don’t know what you are doing. I think Brad is really focused. A.J. Allmendinger is keen to perform. We’ll get him where he has the confidence. It took Brad a good part of last season to get where he wants. I think we have the equipment and the people to succeed. These guys are on it but it’s a long season. Getting a win early on makes a big difference. It’s so close. We see the same momentum on the Nationwide side with Sam Hornish Jr. He is getting some rhythm and Brad is very competitive.
SI.com: It was 15 years ago that you opened up the track in California. Do you have any interest in getting back into the race track business?
Penske: My son Greg said a number of times that we sold tracks at a time when there was overcrowding of dates, but we wish we had kept Michigan and California. If they were ever up for sale, we would be interested in it. But I’m not exploring it.
SI.com: What will it take to get Will Power over the hump in the championship?
Penske: We just can’t make the mistakes that we made last year. We had pit accidents, and he doesn’t have the experience on the ovals. We were anxious to compete at Las Vegas and then had that terrible accident with Dan Wheldon so everything stopped and we moved on. As a road racer he has shown how good he is and the number of road races on the schedule should play into our hands. He is going to be a factor, as will Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe. These guys are really motivated.
SI.com: Isn’t one way to break up the pack in IndyCar to give the engine more horsepower with less downforce?
Penske: I think by taking downforce off you can run with the horsepower we have today. We need to test at Indy and not run in the packs. With these cars we have now it’s pretty easy to drive flat on the ovals. I think it is something the series will take a look at. Will Phillips [INDYCAR VP of Technology] has done a very good job. He is a good thinker and doesn’t move too fast or make mistakes. They will address some of that.
SI.com: Do you think high-banked ovals are still good for IndyCar?
Penske: I think open-wheel racing side-by-side on any oval is important. You get much higher speeds on the big tracks. At Indy you have to get off the throttle to go through the corners. You have to have some ovals to prepare for Indy. It is where we can run on our schedule; the promoter is important and where we think it will be a good show for the fans.
SI.com: Is it good for IndyCar to have international races?
Penske: We’ve talked a lot about the series going outside of the United States. NASCAR ran a couple of races in Japan and it didn’t work out for them. We [IndyCar] had a reason to go to Japan because Honda was such a supporter to the series. I haven’t seen anybody calling us up to write a big check because we are going to China. The way to make this series better is date equity of races in the United States and then to have a balance of permanent road courses with street races in Detroit, St. Pete, Long Beach and Toronto and places like that, and then have some ovals. If you can have 16 races with one-third on ovals, one-third on streets and one-third on permanent road courses, then you have a balance and have a pretty good schedule and find out who are the best drivers and teams.
SI.com: What markets do you want IndyCar to go to?
Penske: I like Houston because we will be running around Reliance Park so the infrastructure is there. It’s a location that has capital and the proper sponsor with Shell/Pennzoil. Baltimore was a great location — we just had problems with the promoters. I saw a lot of people there with kids and we need to get new people involved in the sport. Long Beach is good. We need to be in different locations.
SI.com: What about the commitment Chevrolet has made to the IndyCar engine program?
Penske: They made the commitment to invest in the brand and there is no question they have committed to IndyCar from an engine perspective but also made the commitment to be involved with the race in Detroit that will be run the week after Indy. The nice thing is from top to bottom within General Motors North America motor sports has support.
SI.com: Do you miss the good old days when you only had seven guys working in your garage?
Penske: We used to drive the truck ourselves with a two-wheel trailer and a station wagon going to the races. Something has changed.