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Auto Racing: The 50th Team Penske anniversary that might not have been

BIG year for Team Penske with media and fan engagement, sponsor partnerships, and special events.

  • Honda Indy 2015

When Al Unser won the 1971 Indianapolis 500, I took note of two things at the press conference afterward: 1, the assembled media sang Happy Birthday to him (he was born on May 29, 1939, and the ’71 500 was held on May 29) and 2, he was there by himself.

As had been the case the year before, when he’d also won, Unser met the media solo. His car owners, Vel Miletich and the very famous Parnelli Jones, let him enjoy the limelight by himself.

The next year, Unser finished second and the winner was the late Mark Donohue. I went into the press conference and right away found it interesting that there were two stools set up behind the microphone, not just one. And when Donohue walked in, he was accompanied by a tall, slender guy about his age who – once the questions-and-answers started – seemed to do most, if not all, of the talking.

Somebody would ask Donohue a question and this other guy would answer it and I remember thinking to myself, “Who is he, anyway?” I poked the late Len Coates, another Toronto reporter who was sitting beside me, and said, “Who’s that other guy?” Lennie whispered back: “Roger Penske. He owns the car that Donohue drove. You must remember him.”

At which point I felt like a total dummy. Of course I knew Roger Penske. Or, I should say, I knew of him. I’d seen him race at Mosport in the early 1960s, although I’d never talked to him. Ditto when he raced at Watkins Glen in the ’61 and ’62 U.S. Grands Prix (he finished eighth and ninth, respectively).

I knew some of his history, in that he was a bit of a rebel in those race-driving days. He, and others, had defied the all-powerful, all-amateur Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) back in 1960 by entering a professional race at Harewood Acres in southwestern Ontario and winning (gasp) money. The rebellion, if you want to call it that, forced a change in the way the SCCA did business.

He’d quit race-driving in 1965 (he was offered the opportunity of opening his first car dealership and that was a condition). He established his own team the following year in time for the 24 Hours of Daytona, with Donohue at the wheel. As you would expect, they had a podium finish. The rest, as they say, is history. Championships in Indy cars, sports cars and NASCAR would follow. Race wins were racked up in all disciplines, including Formula One where John Watson drove a Penske to victory in the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix.

In all, there have been 424 race victories (including 16 Indianapolis 500 wins and two Daytona 500s), 487 poles and 28 national championships. More than 80 drivers have raced for Team Penske, including Canadian Paul Tracy, who won 12 CART races for the team. Greg Moore was contracted to join Penske in 2000 but was killed late in the 1999 season, opening the door for Helio Castroneves.

This year, Team Penske is celebrating its 50th anniversary and I guarantee that The Captain wants to win every big race out there, starting with the Daytona 500 in just a few weeks.

But the prize he’s got to be shooting for would be the 100th Indianapolis 500 in May. His drivers have won those 16 to date so he – and they – know how to do it. For Roger Penske, winning the centennial edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing would truly be the cherry on the top of the sundae.

Because, at the end of the day, Roger Penske likes Indy car racing more than he does all the others. I’ve never heard him say that, but since 1969, when he first ran the 500 with Donohue (who was rookie-of-the-year after finishing seventh), Indy racing has been his priority. I can say that because, when push comes to shove – as in, when there’s an Indy car race and a NASCAR race on the same day – you will find Penske at the IndyCar event, leaving others to take care of the stock cars.

This past week, there was the first of what I expect will be multiple evenings, celebrations and parties to honour Roger in 2016. Held in Charlotte (where an exhibit honouring Team Penske was opened at the NASCAR Hall of Fame), it featured a reunion of current and past Team Penske drivers in all disciplines. One notable absentee: Tracy.

And yet, all of this – the racing, commercial empire successes and the altruism (chairing the Super Bowl committee, arranging the donating of public service vehicles to the city of Detroit, taking a lead roll in public transit in the Motor City) – almost didn’t come to pass. A decision Penske made back in 1963 has had an effect on the lives of all the people who have followed him since. If he’d gone the other way – and he was tempted, I’m sure – none of what’s being celebrated would have happened and the racing career of another famous individual might never have gotten beyond the minor leagues.

On YouTube, somewhere, there is a video of the 1960 or ’61 Indy 500 and early in the film, the camera settles in on the pole sitter, one Eddie Sachs, as he sits in his car on the grid. Sachs looks into the camera and smiles and as it pans back, there – standing on the other side of the car – is none other than Roger Penske.

As mentioned above, Penske was very much a race driver in those days. He had a job, and needed to take time off to race, but he was a weekend warrior – and a successful one at that. In fact, in ’61, he was chosen SCCA Driver of the Year by Sports Illustrated.

Indy cars were the top of the racing mountain in the United States. Sports-car racing was out there too, but it wasn’t the spectator sport it’s since become and NASCAR really wasn’t on anybody’s radar north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Although midget and sprint car racers made up the Indy car talent pool back then, car owners and chief mechanics in the Indy car series were very aware of guys who could win and Penske was high on the list of the people who ran the most sought-after ride of the day, the mighty Dean Van Lines Special.

In fact, during the 1962 season, the “Dean’s” chief mechanic, Clint Brawner (chief mechanics ran the race teams in those days) informed car owner Al Dean that he was going to part ways with his driver, Sachs. It wasn’t that Sachs couldn’t drive racing cars, and drive them well. It was because he knew nothing about how race cars worked and showed no interest in ever learning, something that made it very difficult to tell the chief mechanic what the car was doing, which was critical in those pre-computer days.

Dean wanted to know who Brawner was thinking of hiring and the mechanic answered: Roger Penske. Dean said to go ahead, but according to Brawner, in his book Indy 500 Mechanic that he co-wrote with the wonderful racing author Joe Scalzo, Penske turned out to not be all that interested.

When Penske turned him down, Brawner went to Plan B. Initially lukewarm to the idea, he was urged to reconsider hiring a young midget and sprint-car driver from Pennsylvania. Brawner’s best mechanic friend, Jud Phillips, and the late racing writer and editor, Chris Economaki, both gave the kid glowing references so, in time, he was invited to join the Dean Van Lines team.

Just think: if Penske had said yes to Clint Brawner, chances are that every success he’s since celebrated in business and racing simply wouldn’t have happened.

And Mario Andretti might never have been given the opportunity that led to Indy car and NASCAR victories and championships and a glorious career in Formula One.

Funny how life works out, eh?

RELATED: Insider Report: An interview with racing legend Mario Andretti

OTHER RACING:

The 54th Rolex 24 at Daytona goes to the post next Saturday morning. Much of it will be televised by FOX Sports Racing, which subscribers of Rogers and Cogeco Cable can get. I have no idea why Shaw and Bell – the other big cable players in this country – continue to insult the Canadian auto-racing community by refusing to make a deal. In any event, seven Canadians will be racing in that classic: Lance Stroll (Williams F1 development driver who will very likely be Canada’s next full-time F1 star) will be at the wheel of a Daytona Prototype as will Chris Cumming, Mark Wilkins and Mikael Goikhberg. The Grand Prix Le Mans class will feature Canadian drivers Bruno Spengler and Kuno Wittmer while Paul Dalla Lana will race in the GT Daytona class.

The 100th Indianapolis 500 is getting a presenting sponsor for the first time. The May 29th race will be called the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in a three-year deal worth – reportedly – $5 million. There has been some controversy but I have no idea what the fuss is about. Somebody just invested $5 million into Indy car racing. Let’s everybody stand up and cheer. It’s not the PennGrade Motor Oil Indianapolis 500. It’s a “presented by” deal. As a result, it was still be the Indianapolis 500 or the Indy 500. Only the guys on TV will have to say all eight words.

Some people are writing stories that for the second year in a row, Danica Patrick won’t be in a Super Bowl ad. Stop the presses. I don’t think I’ll be able to bring myself to watch the game now. Others are writing that this is her make-or-break year. Isn’t it always? She is a professional racing driver who has done well to this point. Not as good as some men but better than other men. I think she can do better and I think she will this year. But she is not Jimmie Johnson. She is not Jeff Gordon, nor is she Kurt or Kyle Busch. She is not Kevin Harvick. But so what? She does a good, steady job. She could still surprise people – by something coming out of left field. It is the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 and she has been the most successful woman Indy car driver to date. I would not be surprised – not saying it will happen, just suggesting – that if somebody was to offer her a ride, she would take it. A couple of top teams still have vacancies for Indianapolis. It is not beyond the realm of possibility.

You have all heard of the Caution Clock by now, I’m sure. That is, in the Camping World Truck Series, if there is no reason to bring out a caution for 20 minutes, they will throw one anyway. That way, they close up the field regularly for the benefit of the fans who enjoy close competition rather than a runaway. I would ask them to reconsider the use of the Caution Clock on road courses, such as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, where the trucks will race on Labour Day weekend. Caution periods usually see the pace car run at 55 miles an hour, which is the pit road speed limit. That might work on oval tracks, where the trucks can be seen by the spectators the whole way around, but not on road courses, where they disappear while out on the course. Mosport is two and a half miles in length and a 55 mph caution lap can take forever. Put two or three together and everybody’s gone to sleep. Three of those in an hour and people are going to leave and go home. Please reconsider, NASCAR.

Jerry Cook, Bobby Isaac, Terry Labonte, Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner were inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Saturday night. Cook is the second of the great short-track modified drivers to make it in. Richie Evans was the first. Reggie Ruggiero should be next. Smith is still promoting, of course, and Labonte is still racing on occasion. Not sure about that but who am I to quibble? Turner, incidentally, was another of the drivers Clint Brawner talked to about replacing Sachs in Indy car racing and Curtis went so far as try the Dean Van Lines dirt car at a U.S. Auto Club dirt-track race in Springfield, Ill. But he didn’t take it seriously, wearing street shoes when he got into the car. He didn’t turn a lap fast enough to qualify and that was that. Single-seaters weren’t his cup of tea, apparently, wrote Brauner.

And finally, in some actual racing, Ryan Dungey won his second consecutive Monster Energy AMA Supercross race of 2016 Saturday night at Angel Stadium in California. It was seen live on FOX Sports Racing. Dungey and the rest will be at Rogers Centre in March. . . . Toronto’s Devlin DeFrancesco had a rough weekend in that Toyota formula winter series he’s been running in Down Under in New Zealand. Although he practiced well, setting good times, he was up to P6 in the first race when he was knocked off the track by his own teammate. It was a 195-kmh collision; both drivers were okay. His starting position in the second race was determined by his finishing position in the first, which means he was way at the back and managed to fight his way up to P14 at the checkers. Race three of the weekend was his best of the lot and he finished fifth. We’ll look for better things from Devlin as he gains experience.

nmcdonald@thestar.ca

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