When it comes to a sure-bet NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, Roger Penske undoubtedly sits high on that highly-revered list.
The 81-year old owner and Team Penske namesake is perhaps the most legendary and renowned team principal in all of motorsports with two NASCAR premier series championships – including just last season with Joey Logano – and Daytona 500, Indy 500 victories and IndyCar titles, too.
His team has 114 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race victories – including the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 – spread out among nine drivers; four of them Cup champions at some point in their careers, and two of them Hall of Famers themselves poised to welcome him among NASCAR’s most celebrated elite.
Penske is part of an illustrious list of 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees that includes the late Cup drivers Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison, fellow team owner Jack Roush and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who will all officially enter the sport’s great Hall of Fame on Feb. 1.
For Penske’s recognition, it was always a matter of “when,” not “if.”
“He’s always growing, always learning, and no matter how successful he is, or how successful he is in his life, he’s always willing to take the time to learn technology, to learn about things in general,’’ said Team Penske Cup driver Brad Keselowski, who earned Penske’s first NASCAR premier series championship in 2012.
“In motorsports and business, technology is always evolving and you’ve got to keep up with the times. His ability to do that and his self-motivation to do that is really unparalleled next to any other person I’ve ever seen in my life.
“He’s committed to always growing and always learning and that’s the number one thing I take from him.’’
It certainly helps explain Penske’s staying power at the “top.”
While he is widely renowned for his work leading a race team, Penske actually began his racing career as a driver. After earning a degree from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University, Penske immersed himself in the racing scene. He collected cars and raced cars, and in his mid-20s competed in events around the world, beating competitors – racing legends even - such as Bruce McLaren, Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt.
When it comes to his NASCAR Hall of Fame honors, however, Penske will be best celebrated for his work as a leader outside the race car – a team owner, a driver svengali, a mechanical marvel, an intense competitor always ahead of his time.
The legendary Mark Donohue scored Penske’s first NASCAR premier series team victory – a win in the 1973 season-opener on the Riverside, Calif. road course. At the time Penske dabbled in stock cars while running full force in IndyCar. NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison won four races for Penske in the mid-1970s and competed fulltime – 30 races – in a singular season (1976).
But Penske didn’t fully establish a lasting full-time presence in NASCAR until 1991 when he hired the 1989 Cup champion Rusty Wallace to drive his No. 2 Pontiac. It didn’t take long for the pairing to sync up. Wallace won the sixth race of the 1991 season – from the pole position - at Bristol, Tenn. then won again at Pocono, Pa. that summer. It was the beginning of a strong relationship and mighty competitive offering that claimed 37 trophies (most among Penske’s Cup drivers) before Wallace retired following the 2005 season. The two hoisted winner’s trophies in 12 of Wallace’s 15 seasons with the operation.
“One thing I’m so fond of, is his ability to understand and tackle things,’’ said Wallace, a NASCAR Hall of Famer (Class of 2013) himself.
“Roger’s not just a smart CEO that runs a big company, he knows about engines, rear ends, brakes, tires and all the mechanical stuff about the car, and when you’re talking after practice he can talk all that smack with you. He knows it all instead of being an owner that doesn’t really know what’s going on.”
That’s become increasingly evident in NASCAR, where Penske is racking up statistics, accolades and big race trophies similar to what he does in open-wheel racing. Penske has three IndyCar championships and an unprecedented 17 wins in the Indianapolis 500 – the latest coming last May with driver Will Power.
In NASCAR, Penske has reached Cup Series Victory Lane with nine drivers – starting with Donohue, Allison, Wallace, add Jeremy Mayfield in 2000, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman, former Cup champion Kurt Busch and Penske’s own Cup championship twosome of Keselowski and Logano. The team’s newcomer – 25-year old Ryan Blaney – won for Penske in his first year with the operation, claiming the 2018 Charlotte road course race.
And still, for each race trophy, for each championship, Penske remains humble and proud of a job well done by a hand-picked organization of high achievers and big dreamers.
“For me, 33 championships (across all racing genres) that gives us as Team Penske, and certainly to get the Indianapolis race, the Southern 500, and now to think that we’re the champion of 2018 for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is something that I never imagined at the beginning,’’ Penske said last November after Logano won the series championship at Homestead, Fla.
He added, “There's really three things that are really ‑‑ I think ‑‑ every time I think about how we succeed and how we can be better, one is what’s your brand.
“And this kind of winning, not only on the racetrack but in business, drives a great Penske brand, which has been terrific. I think technology is so important when you think about what technology has done to us in business and think about the technology up and down pit lane. You’re got to be on top of it.
“But underlying that and the foundation of everything else is your people. If I can manage those three pillars, I think we’ll continue to have success.’’
That success – from race trophies to the first-class buttoned-up operation that Penske brings to each race series – has absolutely resulted in the kind of victory and acclaim that has earned “The Captain” - as he is nicknamed - the well-deserved honor of NASCAR Hall of Famer.
“I think for Roger, who’s done everything there is to do in IndyCar and other forms of motorsports, to get into the world of NASCAR and be able to go in to the Hall of Fame with the driver who helped bring him into NASCAR, back in the early 90s – to have him win a Cup championship, go into the Hall of Fame. … I think it’s pretty special for him,’’ Wallace said. “When I talk to him, he’s pretty darn excited about it.
“He’s checked all the boxes on everything and rightfully so. He deserves this and he’s in.”