Before Roger Penske Was a Billionaire, He Was a Very Successful Amateur Racer

Like most top drivers today, Penske is a natural athlete with a high degree of balance and timing. (He is also a proficient water and snow skier, and shoots golf in the 80s.) “I developed my own style of driving” (although it has been noted that he resembles Dick Thompson in timing and brio) “and all I want is to drive smoothly and fast. Despite stories to the contrary, in 1960 I think I spun out only twice; wasn’t it only twice, Lissa?” he asked, turning to Mrs. Penske. With a wry smile she agreed and named the events, each spin obviously sharp in her memory. “And I think I’ve had comparatively few mechanical troubles, but this is due to Roy Gane, who prepares all my cars—he maintained Elliott Pew’s AC Bristol and Eve Mull’s cars at one time, remember?”

We then got on the subject of the cars he had owned and driven, and his opinions of them. “Ben Moore got me to buy the Corvette and, as I mentioned, I think that was a good car for me to start with. Then there were the Porsches, the RS, the RSK, and the RS-60— I think the RSK taught me the most. I only kept the RS-60 for a couple of months before I bought the Tipo 61 Maserati.” The Maserati brought to mind an opinion I had heard early in 1961 to the effect that, while Penske was a hot Porsche driver, he’d gone over his head in buying the bigger, more powerful Maserati. Penske’s disgust was apparent, “Ah, that’s silly! Anyone who has driven both cars knows that the Maserati is an easier car to drive. The Maser was terrific–it was more fun than any car I’d ever owned. It had all the power you could use, and had marvelous handling and brakes. I was sorry to get rid of it, but it was too heavy compared with the rear-engined jobs. Now the Monaco is an entirely different sports car. Actually, it’s an F-1 car with a sports body. It’s quite a bit like the Porsche, except that it handles much better. It can get quite violent though, and when it breaks loose, it’s gone!

“Formula 1 racing, now, is something else again. I’ve got a good car but in F-1 it is harder to reach the top, mainly because it is more exacting, almost an art in itself. I like sports cars, but I think there is some good racing coming in F-1. Unfortunately, I don’t think that it is too much of a crowd pleaser, probably due to the lack of spectator identification with the car. As far as U.S. participation is concerned, I think we can drive with the best from Europe. We proved that at Laguna Seca. Personally, I think I could have done better than 5th at Laguna Seca.”

Since his last three cars (the Maserati, the Cooper Monaco, and the F-1 Cooper) were bought outright from the factory, I boldly asked him just where all his money came from and what kind of budget he raced on.

“Actually, the money comes from two sources. I’m fortunate enough to have as a friend John M. Wyatt III, of Richmond (VA.) who not only acts as sort of business manager, but also helps finance some of my racing expenses. Also, in 1960, just before I bought the Maserati I went to the duPont Company in Wilmington and presented the idea of using the car as part of the advertising for the new duPont radiator coolant, Telar. My idea was that I would use Telar exclusively in the car and enter it in races as the Telar Special. In return, this could be used in duPont advertising to get exposure in racing and trade magazines. The company bought the idea.

“My expenses over a year’s time amount to well over $10,000, not including car purchases. Now here,” as he brought out a sheaf of papers with neatly totaled columns, “is how my expenses run. All the money I get is turned over to John Wyatt, who takes care of all the book work and pays all the expenses. I don’t see any of the money.” In view of the foregoing, I asked whether he considered racing a business or if he might go into it on this basis in the future. Penske’s answer to both questions was an emphatic, “No.”

This sort of arrangement, although not specifically banned, is seldom encountered on the amateur sports car circuits. While 1962 and the coming years will undoubtedly see it become more prevalent, it is interesting to note, in this case, the timing involved. Penske entered into his contract with duPont after only his third year of racing, and actually only after his first year of note. It says much for Penske’s ability as a salesman.

I then asked what he would advise for, say, a medium-income enthusiast who wanted to try his luck. “First off, of course, to get an SCCA license he will have to graduate from an accredited driver school— this I heartily recommend. But he has to remember that racing is an expensive sport, particularly if he is serious about it and is aiming for something like the National Championships. As a rule of thumb, he might figure something like this: say $3000 for his car, then about half of this amount again as expenses over a year if he is going to most of the National races. Today, with the Formula Intercontinental and the pro racing circuit money available, I think he can have a pretty good chance.”

In 1962 Penske will race in the major SCCA Nationals, the large American and Canadian pro races, with the Briggs Cunningham équipe at Sebring and, for the first time, in Europe. As for further racing in Europe, Penske states,”I’ve considered it, and I’ve had some bids, but right now I don’t think so–I have only a certain number of days off a year from Alcoa for my vacation. Actually, my idea of a European season would be to go over with my own car as part of an American racing team. With something like three cars and three drivers, and maybe American equipment–the new aluminum engines show quite a bit of promise–it is quite feasible. As I see it, we might be able to get, say, an oil company as a sponsor.” If the past is any criterion, I, at least feel that if Penske really put his mind to it, he could probably sell the AMA the idea of sponsoring a race team!

At 25, with European racing well in the future, if at all, Penske is one of the youngest and most promising of the elite corps of American drivers. In a period when most of the top U.S. drivers are in their thirties and forties, his age, ability, and uncommon business sense may, in a few years, see him fall heir to the racing crown of the U.S.