One of the sweet mysteries of life has been why Roger Penske has been unable to win in NASCAR.
Here is a man who has prevailed in every form of racing in which he has participated:
Penske has won the Indianapolis 500 more times than any other owner.
His team was so dominant in the Can-Am Series that he destroyed it, because it was no longer competitive. To this date, the Penske 917 Can-Am Porsche is considered the single most awesome racing car ever created.
Back when Penske was the team owner for the original Trans-Am, his Chevies dominated. Until he switched to, of all things, American Motors. Two years later, the Javelin won the championship. A couple of years after that, the series imploded, partly because it took too much money and too much commitment to compete with Penske.
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In the process, he is the only racer ever to build a billionaire’s fortune on the back of racing, building an empire of businesses through his racing connections. (Yes, I know Hendrick owns a lot of car dealerships. But, he started as an auto dealer, from which he went into racing. Both have been complimentary, to be sure. However, he’s not progressed beyond selling cars. Penske owns, among other enterprises, Detroit Diesel and all of those trucks.)
Penske didn’t seem to care.
What became “Penske South” started out as a partnership with Rusty Wallace, one in which it was clear that Wallace was dominant and Penske was financial. At the time of its initiation, the idea may have seemed to make sense: the fashion of the day was the “owner-driver,” and bringing the financial and engineering muscle of Penske together with Wallace’s knowledge of the NASCAR circuit probably seemed like exquisite synergy.
But one thing which Rusty Wallace has never been able to achieve is “synergy.”
To do that, you need to have a sense that your best is accomplished by bringing out the best in others and having them do the same for you.
Rusty Wallace does not believe in that principle.
Roger Penske does.
Rusty Wallace has an approach to NASCAR that’s reminiscent of Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” You know – the book about communism in which the various farm animals take over the farm, but it turns out that “some pigs are more equal than others.”
No one suffered more from Wallace’s approach to NASCAR than his ostensible teammate, Ryan Newman.
But, Wallace is now the problem of ESPN, one which is likely to make Daryl Waltrip even more popular during the second half of the NASCAR season that during the first.
Yesterday’s win means that Penske, now rid of Wallace, is paying attention to NASCAR.
The same way he’s made his teams winners in every other racing league.
Unlike some other owners, Roger Penske has always believed in nurturing and developing his drivers. He creates long-term relationships with drivers, invests in them personally and psychically.
To this day, when one thinks of Roger Penske, one thinks of Mark Donohue. Together, they won multiple Trans-Am and Can-Am championships. They were focusing on Formula One when Donohue was killed.
Rick Mears is another driver identified with Penske. When the Indianapolis 500 was America’s race, it was Mears that won that race, time after time. Four times, in all – each time for Roger Penske.
However, Penske’s commitment to his drivers isn’t best illustrated by the races he’s won or the series he’s dominated. It’s best illustrated by a story told by Dr. Terry Trammell, at the time of the events the rising star of orthopedic surgery at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana.
It was during a race at a track in Canada called Sanair that Mears crashed in an open-wheel racer. In those days, drivers’ feet protruded beyond the front axle line and any frontal impact damaged the driver’s feet, usually crippling them for life. There was no crush zone. Other than the driver’s feet.
Mears’s feet were pulverized by the crash.
Mere hours after the crash, two men showed up at Methodist Hospital in Indiana.
They located Dr. Trammell, explained to him that they had been sent by Mr. Penske, and that they were not allowed to take ‘no’ for an answer. Dr. Trammell explained that he had surgeries scheduled. They explained that the jet was waiting.
Dr. Trammell got on that jet. The attending doctors had not believed that Rick Mears would walk again. Instead, he won two more Indy 500’s. Driving for Roger Penske.
What is less known is that Penske had dispatched the two men and the jet to Indianapolis before Mears had been taken from the track to go to the hospital.
But, you see, that’s always been Penske’s genius.
He’s a genius at recognizing who is, and who isn’t, just that good.
And then sticking with them, no matter what it takes, to make it happen.
It seems that he’s doing it again, in NASCAR.
Newman is that good.
In a driver, in a doctor, and in people generally. Probably because he sees something of himself in each of them.
During the telecast of yesterday’s race, one of the commentators likened another driver – Matt Kenseth - to David Pearson.
It was an interesting, albeit incorrect, analogy. Anybody who’s ever listened to the impatient, intolerant Mr. Kenseth over race radio knows better.
If Mr. Pearson and Mr. Penske had been contemporaries, Mr. Pearson would have been driving for Penske Racing.
And Richard Petty might not have those seven championships.
Ryan Newman is today’s David Pearson.
If you want to bet that he’s not the 2008 Sprint Cup Champion, just remember one thing:
The core of today’s Cup championship is decided on mile and a quarter tracks, all modeled on Michigan International Speedway.
All built by Roger Penske.