Sunday 26 January 2020

The Amelia Island Conours honours "The Captain", Roger Penske at its silver anniversary

For its 25th edition during the first weekend of March, the Amelia Concours d'élégance, famed racer, team owner and international businessman Roger Penske will be the honoree. 

Roger Penske’s name is synonymous with motorsport excellence and success. Yet few appreciate his on-track accomplishments as a driver in the years (1958-64) before the creation of Team Penske. It began at an SCCA drivers’ school at Marlboro Raceway (MD) and just four years later he won the professional USAC Road Racing Championship title.

Roger Penske started 130 races in seven seasons and won 51 of them. He also finished in the top five in another 60 races. That record stands with even the greatest drivers. He won his first national championship -- SCCA D Modified -- in 1961 racing a Maserati T61 and a Cooper Monaco. Sports Illustrated named him “Driver of the Year.” It was merely prefaced. In 1962 he changed American road racing and left his mark on motorsport forever.

Photo courtesy of David Friedman.

In 1962 Penske created the Zerex Special sports racer from the remains of a Formula 1 Cooper that had crashed in the first US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. When the Zerex Special showed up at Riverside, CA that October for the LA Times Grand Prix everyone cried “foul.” But the car was legal even though the driver sat in the center, not in the usual position for a two-seat sports car. There was a small -- but legal -- second seat under an access panel. That meant Penske’s Zerex Special met the letter of the regulations precisely.

Penske not only won that race, he also delivered broad and positive publicity to his sponsor Du Pont. And when he put the names Du Pont and ZEREX on his unique red center-seat sports car it broke through the clutter at a time when the major American sports car racing sanctioning body outlawed commercial sponsorship. Penske’s Zerex Special was the biggest news in motorsport that October weekend, even displacing the competition debut of a new American sports car named “Cobra” to the inside pages. A week later Roger and his Zerex Special won at Laguna Seca and he was crowned the 1962 USAC Road Racing Champion. 

Photo courtesy of Bill Warner.
After sweeping the 1964 Nassau Speed Weeks, Penske retired from driving to concentrate on business. In 1966, Roger created Roger Penske Racing, which would eventually become Team Penske. It was a time of technical innovation, especially in road racing; wider tires and the new science of aerodynamics moved the performance boundaries and brought increased speeds. A pair of United States Road Racing Championships (1967 and ’68) and three Trans-Am Championships (1968, ’69 and ‘71) came quickly.

In 1972, Team Penske won racing’s biggest prize, the first of a record 17 victories in the Indianapolis 500. That was the same year Team Penske arrived in Can-Am - the Canadian American Challenge Cup - with the 1000 hp Porsche 917/10. There were nine championship races that season; Team Penske won six and took the title. A year later when the new Porsche 917/30 arrived with even more power, Team Penske won six of eight races and another Can-Am championship title for Porsche.

Penske applied the same concentration and effort that he brought to motorsport to his first car dealership in Philadelphia. It was the first rung on a ladder that would see Penske’s international portfolio bulge to over $31 billion in annual revenue and more than 63,000 employees worldwide. Known as “The Captain” for his lead-from-the-front management style, Roger Penske’s business empire is global in fame and reach.

Photo courtesy of Bill Warner.

“Remarkably, Roger Penske began to create the template for modern professional motorsport when he was still in his twenties,” said Bill Warner, founder, and Chairman of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. “I can think of no one whose contributions to all facets of motorsport deserve to be acknowledged as much Roger Penske’s. We’re flattered that he’s been able to make time to accept our invitation to be the Honoree of the Silver Anniversary Amelia Concours.”