AT Supercars events, the most prized parking spots are reserved for senior series executives and local bigwigs.
The exception is when Roger Penske visits. Such is Penske’s stature that one of the prime spaces is set aside for his vehicle. Nowhere is his standing more obvious than when he attends the Perth SuperSprint at Barbagallo Raceway.
There he receives personal parking right near the entrance to the paddock. This year the only spot that was closer to the gate was set aside for an ambulance. His place was initially designated by an official “RESERVED ROGER PENSKE” sign.
That’s what it read on the Friday, but his name was covered over for the rest of the weekend. Not that it mattered. Penske and his entourage of key racing and corporate managers, who flew with him from the States in his private jet, continued to park their MPV in the anonymous space.
Penske is the only Supercars team owner accorded ‘red carpet’ welcomes like this. The sport is proud that the best known team principal outside F1 chose to expand his Team Penske empire across the Pacific.
Known as ‘The Captain’, Penske carries an air of authority that stops a room. Yet he has an inclusive manner. An old-school gentleman, he is always impeccably dressed – an attention to detail that is reflected in the pristine presentation that has been a hallmark of Penske race teams and drivers.
Since taking control of Dick Johnson Racing to form DJR Team Penske in 2015, he has attended two or three Supercars events a year, linking his trips with meetings with Penske Corporation’s local management.
Perth is about as far from Penske Corp HQ at Bloomfield Hills, outside Detroit, as you can get, but he has made the annual trek to coincide with Barbagallo because Western Australia is an important market for the company’s trucking and industrial powerplant interests.
The extraordinary success of Team Penske in American and international racing during the past 51 years has been integral to the growth of Penske Corporation from a single car dealership to a diverse global transport enterprise. He has always used racing to promote his businesses, which is why he bought 51 per cent of DJR.
The Penske brand has been built on sustained success on the track, including a record 16 Indianapolis 500 victories. Team Penske is a long-established front-runner in IndyCar and NASCAR in the USA, and the Australian squad is being held to the same standard of presentation, preparation and expectation.
After a two-year reorganisation, DJR Team Penske has emerged this season as the Supercars squad to beat. It has Triple Eight Race Engineering on the back foot, scrambling to catch up.
Penske’s patronage has restored DJR to its glory days of the late 1980s and much of the ’90s, when it was firmly entrenched among the leading teams. His takeover was a rescue, providing the multimillion-dollar investment to secure its future.
The deal was predicated on former Supercars champion Marcos Ambrose returning from his stint in NASCAR to lead the American-directed effort. The team cut back to one Falcon to concentrate on rebuilding under Ambrose’s guidance while he recaptured his own form.
But after just two events in early 2015, Ambrose decided he wasn’t up to a comeback and stepped down. His difficulty in re-adapting was compounded by the lack of testing allowed.
“We started out thinking that we would be somewhat competitive, but when we got to the track and looked at the results, we were struggling,” Penske tells MOTOR.
“We were also counting on Marcos. He then decided he really wasn’t up to it. Whether it was mentally or physically or just that the game had been raised, I don’t really know. But I take my hat off to him for saying, ‘Hey, you need to go on without me’ and it was a very good discussion with him.”
Despite the commercial repercussions of Ambrose’s controversial withdrawal, Penske remains adamant that he didn’t feel let down. “I think that we over-estimated what we could accomplish in the first year,” he says.
“I think that’s the bottom line. He did, we did. We were disappointed that we didn’t provide him with a proper car and be able to help him. I think he felt the same way, that maybe he wasn’t able to deliver what we wanted from him.”
He didn’t regard losing Ambrose as a setback, lamenting that the partnership wasn’t able to flourish. “I guess it was more of a disappointment because we really wanted to provide him with a real race team that he could come back here and be on top,” Penske adds.
“That’s the disappointment I had. I think we felt we let him down and he really didn’t maybe have a chance to grab the gear here and get going the way he could. But I think he was so professional in how he handled his dismount.”
Scott Pye was recalled to stand in for Ambrose, who returned for a farewell co-drive at Bathurst, where they were on the pace until a late crash caused by steering failure, but otherwise it was a desultory season. “I think the noise was louder than what it needed to be because we were really just getting started at something we’d never been in.”
DJRTP endured two winless seasons as Pye was joined by Fabian Coulthard in a re-expanded line-up last year. But according to Penske, running two cars and other changes paved the way for the team’s transformation this year. “The bottom line is the experience we have now that we didn’t have when we walked in the door,” he says.
“We built some new cars as we came into this year and, at the end of the day, I think McLaughlin coming on board and teaming with Coulthard, you’d have to say that was a big step. They’re young, they’re experienced and they know how to win. And then I think our technical guys stepped it up.
“We’re on a mission here to have a great race team and a successful race team – as we are in our business. But I want to be very, very careful and not make people think that we’re better than anybody else. We’re just building a solid organisation. You can see it, you can feel it, when you walk in.”
Penske is a racer at heart and his commitment to conquering Supercars never wavered through the initial difficulties. “One of the great things about coming out here was that it was a real challenge,” he says.
“We were not going to walk away from V8 Supercars just because we had a couple of bad years. And they weren’t that bad. Maybe our reputation was ahead of our batting average.”
As well as securing McLaughlin in the wake of Volvo’s withdrawal, DJRTP was joined by disaffected touring car technical guru Ludo Lacroix, the gifted and eccentric designer of Triple Eight’s previously pace-setting racers.
Lacroix’s defection incensed Triple Eight chief Roland Dane, but Penske is adamant that the Frenchman wasn’t poached and that the secrets of his former employer aren’t the reason the team’s Falcons are so fast.
“I was as surprised as anyone else when we got the call from Ludo that he was interested in coming on board with us,” Penske says.
“I met him at Bathurst (last year) and I didn’t even know who he was. Obviously, when he showed some interest, Tim Cindric (US-based Team Penske president who oversees all racing activities) followed up with him and he ended up coming on board. He didn’t really come over until January 1, so we didn’t have two or three months to do a brain drain on everything he knows. But I think his energy and certainly his knowledge have made a big difference.”
Dane, who is worth tens – if not hundreds – of millions of dollars, has also complained that he is being beaten by a team backed by a multi-billionaire. But Penske, who is famous for spending what is necessary on racing without being lavish, contends that DJRTP has to be self-supporting.
“People talk about how big a budget we have,” he says. “I can tell you this; the budget we have down here, we’re scraping for every sponsorship dollar we have. We’ve always done that and that’s why our company’s been successful. I would have to say that we’re trying to run within a budget that we think is pretty much the same up and down the garage area.”
Leaving aside that Penske cleared DJR’s debts and funded its expansion, there is no question that Penske companies largely underwrote the team’s racing operations in 2015/16. The return of Shell this year as the primary sponsor, gaining season-long signage on both Falcons and team naming rights suggests DJRTP has become a self-funding operation.
Certainly, Penske applauds the unchanging look of the team following two years of rolling sponsorships or different backers per car, which are becoming the norm in America with NASCAR and IndyCar.
“One of the things that I will say I’m so proud of is to be able to see our two cars here (Perth) having the same livery on them every day,” he says.
“That’s the way it used to be (in US racing), instead of now, where you’re changing brands all the time. That’s what you need to do to be able to afford it. Because of our relationship with Shell/Penzoil in the US, it gave us an entry here, plus there’s a great B2B play here with Shell working with us and our customers. For me, it’s the secret sauce for us to keep goin’.”
Penske, who attends most races during the American season, thrives on competition. In Supercars, he relishes the intense rivalry with Dane as much as he revels in the battles with long-running team-owner foes like Chip Ganassi in IndyCar and Rick Hendricks in NASCAR.
“Well, you gotta have a big smile to think that we can walk down the pit lane and shake Roland’s hand and say ‘Hey, y’gotta beat us today, too’,” he grins.
“That wasn’t the case for a couple of years and I’m sure he looks forward to the competition. There are other good teams out there also and I want to be sure that people don’t think it’s just Triple Eight and ourselves. I think each race we go to, if we can be fast, that gives me a lot more confidence that we have a solid base.”
That’s typical RP, polished, professional and polite. Always respecting the opposition. Behind the friendly facade, though, is a hard-as-nails boss who demands excellence. Now that it is competitive, his expectation for DJR Team Penske is nothing less than the drivers’ and teams’ titles.
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“It’s pretty amazing to sit here and say we won some races because that was our goal this year. But there’s no question that we now have to focus on trying to win the championship. Our two drivers are dedicated to winning the championship and we have to give them the cars that do that. Of course, the championship is the goal.”
Throughout half a century, many greats have raced for Penske. McLaughlin and Coulthard are very much in the mould of Penske drivers, who need to be presentable as well as talented. McLaughlin is the quickest of the Kiwi pairing, blazing a pole-winning trail that attests to his sheer speed. He is a natural fan favourite because he is gifted, audacious and cheeky.
Coulthard was expected to be overshadowed, but he has risen to the challenge. Perfectly groomed, he is a more restrained personality. Coulthard’s front-running performances cemented his place in the team, which re-signed him in June for an undisclosed term. Both he and McLaughlin have impressed Penske as much for committing to DJRTP when it wasn’t successful as their ability to win races.
“I think the first step of building the real bridge here was Fabian coming on board last year,” Penske says. “He had to go through a time where we were building, so for him to stay cool and commit himself to be with us for the future was a big one.
He and Scott work so well together, and he’s really stepped it up. He was a winning driver before he joined us and there’s no question you’re seeing that with what he’s able to do this year. He’s a terrific asset to the team.”
“I think Scott saw that coming with Penske and thought it could be a good thing for his future. The good news is that both of these guys said, ‘Look, we’re committing to go with you’ and if you look at the success they’d had previously, you’d say, ‘Why would they do that?’ But with that kind of commitment, we said that we’re going to make this thing work and we’re going to get the right people.
We’ve got some real good cars now, they both say that. We’ve been able to give them the pay-off of a good car and they both know how to win races when you give them the equipment to do it.”
Approaching his ninth decade, Penske has no plans to slow down, either in business or racing. He is fit and healthy, with the energy, enthusiasm and desire to keep going as the hands-on face of a multi-national corporation and an iconic race team, both of which feed his undiminished competitive spirit.
“I fall asleep if I’m not doing stuff,” he says. “It’s very motivating every day to get up and have to deal with problems. They don’t call me when everything’s going real well. You get the call when something’s not going right and that’s what I like.
“You have to be able to respond to criticism, respond to failure and respond to the competition. I guess that’s what I’ll do as long as I can. It’s exactly what I love doing. And then to be able to come to the racetrack, this is my golf game or fishing trip.”
Roger Penske’s Racing Empire
The Team Penske juggernaut has been in motion since 1966 and has scored wins in every catergory it has entered from Trans-Am, Can-Am, endurance racing, Formula 1, American Le Mans, NASCAR, IndyCar and now Supercars.
Strong ties to Ford in America extend to the lower run NASCAR series with the Mustang. Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney (Penske support) lead the charge. Keselowski won the team’s first main-game title in 2012 in a Miller-backed Dodge
Penske made its NASCAR debut in 1972 and has been a race winner since. Joey Logano finished second in last years’ championship. In 2008, Ryan Newman secured Penske’s first Daytona 500 win with teammate Kurt Busch second
Outside of Australia, Team Penske is best known for its IndyCar success with a victory tally in excess of 170 as well as some 200 poles and 13 titles. Toowoomba’s Will Power is a current part of the honour roll, winning the 2014 crown