Penske’s Life-Changing Decision
by Tom Jensen December 04, 2020
Faced with having to choose between a career as a race-car driver or a career in business, Hall of Famer Roger Penske opted to step out of the cockpit. In his own words, here’s why he walked away.
Most fans know NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2019 inductee Roger Penske as the founder and leader of the hugely successful Team Penske racing operation and the Penske Group, a vast global business operation that employs more than 56,000 people worldwide.
But before building his business and racing empire, Penske was one of the top drivers in the United States in the early 1960s.
Penske began competing in Sports Car Club of America races in 1958, and in 1961, Penske captured the SCCA National D Modified championship and was named Sports Illustrated’s SCCA Driver of the Year. In 1962 he won a United States Auto Club championship and Driver of the Year honors from the New York Times.
A year later, he won the Riverside 250 NASCAR race on the old Riverside International Raceway road course in Southern California. Penske’s race-winning car was a 1963 Pontiac that was used for his Hall of Honor exhibit in 2019.
But in 1965, Penske gave up driving race cars. In this exclusive interview with the NASCAR Hall of Fame, he explained why he stepped out of the cockpit.
“I had to make a decision that was either going to be stay as a race driver or be in business,” Penske said of the decision he had to make. “And I had an opportunity to go to work for a Chevrolet dealer in Philadelphia, George McKean. When I went there, I said, ‘Look, I’d like to own this business in a couple of years.’ And I knew at the time that would take place, I’d have to make that decision.”
“In early 1965, I had that choice. But the banks and the insurance companies were not interested in funding some race driver racing around the country. I think Jim Rathmann had the same situation back many years ago as an Indianapolis driver and a dealer down in Florida.”
“At that point, I made the decision to stop racing. But more importantly, I needed $50,000 to put the final piece into the dealership on top of what the banks would loan me.”
“And I went to my dad. He and I always had this pact: If I needed $10 or $20, he said, ‘You earn half and I’ll support you with the balance.’ I went to him and I said, ‘I need $50,000 to finalize this dealership purchase, a Chevy store in Philadelphia.’”
I had to make a decision that was either going to be stay as a race driver or be in business.
— Roger Penske
“And he said, ‘I’m your man.’ He was retired at that point. We went to Pittsburgh. He’d had a good business career and had some savings at that point. He said, ‘I’ll go and take $50,000 out of my savings account.’
“I remember getting a check – went to Pittsburgh with him. And he gave me that check as we were leaving and he said, ‘If you lose this, I’ll go back to work.’ At that point, there was never a question in my mind. I was not racing. I had to be focused on business, so a pretty easy decision. The right decision.”
Penske deciding to step out of the cockpit changed the history of American motorsports.
The future Hall of Famer had been offered a ride in the 1965 Indianapolis 500, driving for Clint Brawner and his Dean Van Lines team, one of the top outfits in open-wheel racing.
But when Penske decided to retire as a racer, the seat in the Brawner Hawk went to a rookie driver named Mario Andretti, who qualified fourth and finished third, earning Rookie of the Year honors in the Indy 500.
So as momentous as Penske’s decision was, it worked out for both he and Andretti, two icons that would subsequently became champions and among the greats in American motorsports history.