Television and its constant innovation have changed sports, giving fans better and more opportunities and creating a potent platform for advertisers. With the possible exception of pro and collegiate football, the biggest beneficiary has been the racing industry, and probably no race-car executive did more to make it happen than Roger Penske.
In a real way, sport racing blossomed because of Penske. In 1973, he began Roger Penske’s International Race of Champions, featuring the biggest names in the sport from its various forms: NASCAR, Indy racers, Formula 1. Among the racers were Richard Petty, A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock, and Emerson Fittipaldi.
In a crucial liaison, he persuaded ABC Sports and Roone Arledge to feature it on The Wide World of Sports. The first year, all the cars were Porsche Carreras, because Penske already had an association with the famed automaker through the Can-Am racing series.
Eventually, Penske and WWS became good for each other and for the racing business. He provided the expertise, and ABC brought the stage.
Fast forward to today, and Penske has been deeply involved in the technological and philosophical evolution of racing. Innovations like helmet cams, cameras embedded in cars, and access to the pit areas are now relatively commonplace. And, with those and other enhancements, auto racing on TV took off.
For Roger Penske, successful outcomes are an old story. In the past 53 years, cars owned and prepared by Team Penske have produced 545 major race wins, 621 pole positions, and 37 championships. And Penske cars have won the Indianapolis 500 18 times.
He’s one of the most successful sports-business executives in history, but it goes beyond sports. Penske Corp. comprises 150 auto and truck dealerships nationwide, a truck-leasing company (owned with Mitsui) with 320,000 vehicles, 3,000 U.S. locations, and distribution of engines and motor parts in Australia and New Zealand. According to the company, the privately held Penske business has consolidated revenues of $32 billion and employs 64,000 people around the world.
On top of all that, Penske last month acquired the IndyCar Series and, oh, yes, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IMS Productions, which puts Roger Penske even more firmly at the center of racing as the proprietor of its most historic U.S. site.
It’s a challenge for any new owner, but people who know 82-year-old Penske know it’s a brilliant move.
“When I heard the news about Indy,“ says legendary sports-TV producer and Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer David Hill, “I thought, why the hell didn’t this happen a long time ago? He’s perfect.”
Hill headed Fox Sports when it acquired, along with NBC and TBS/TNT, the rights to NASCAR in 1999. It was a time when technological innovation was changing the way the sport was presented to fans. Although in-car cameras began to be used in 1979, it was later that they became as common or complex as they are today.
“Beyond just the drivers and teams, our broadcast partners wanted to highlight the emotions and personality of the drivers’ families,” Penske has explained. “The view from the in-car cameras has helped bring the speed and intensity of racing to the fans. It was so difficult on television to capture the feeling of going 200 miles per hour and racing side by side at that incredible speed. It revolutionized how racing was covered on TV.”
Penske persuaded his team and then others to allow TV cameras into places they hadn’t been before. “The teams,” he says, “saw how beneficial it was for them to have a good relationship with our broadcasters and give their sponsors more vis and more exposure.”
His fans in the sports business realize that Penske has one attribute few other sports-business executives of his stature can claim: he can talk the talk because he has walked the walk. Drivers and other business people in the racing business know he’s the real deal, because he was a driver himself.
Growing up in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Penske was mesmerized by racing. He won his first race in 1959, the year he graduated from Lehigh University. He never stopped racing, even after taking a job as a sales engineer at Alcoa Aluminum — a job, according to Encyclopedia.com, he kept until 1963. By then, though, he was already an emerging star in the race-car business, winning the Sports Car Club of America’s Presidents Cup in 1960, 1962, and 1963. By ’63, he won NASCAR’s Grand National Series race, too.
“He was a driver,” notes long-time sports-TV executive and producer Howard Katz. “He knows that of which he speaks. His business is racing. There’s no part of it that he hasn’t done and excelled at.”
Katz also calls Penske “an incredibly loyal person. People who work with or for Penske do so with pride. He’s a brilliant man. And he brought corporate relations to a new level.”
What impresses him is Penske’s way of paying attention to what would seem to others to be “the little things.”
Says Katz, “His management style is the personification of excellence, even down to the details. One thing that always impresses me: you go into a Penske garage, and it’s spotless. You could eat off the floor.”