Throwback Thursday - RP's "Big Decision"

January 7, 2016

As we begin 2016 and the “Celebration of 50 Years of Team Penske,” it’s only fitting that one of the first major events in the team’s history was not that of one of Roger’s legendary early drivers.  It’s not a story about Dick Guldstrand, Ben Moore, Dick Thompson or Mark Donohue.  It’s not even a story about Team Penske.

No, this story is about one of the most underappreciated racers in Roger’s history… Roger Penske himself.  And the moment that changed it all.

Before becoming one of the most legendary owners in all of motorsports, very few know Roger was a masterful driver himself.  Starting in 1958, RP began racing and began winning.  In fact, he won a lot. In 1958 he won three out of six races. In ’59, he won 10 out of 21 races. The winning continued year-after-year. Twelve more wins in 1960, nine wins in 1961.  He won at places such as Road America, Watkins Glen, Nassau, Daytona, Brands Hatch and Sebring.

He captured the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) National Championship in both 1960 and 1961 and earned the USAC Road Racing championship in 1962.  He won the Sports Car “Driver of the Year” award from Sports Illustrated magazine in 1961 and was as named “North American Driver of the Year” by both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times in 1962.

Roger even competed in two Formula One Series races – finishing eighth at Watkins Glen in 1961 and ninth at Watkins Glen in 1962.  He even won a NASCAR race, capturing the NASCAR Pacific Coast Late Model 250-mile race at Riverside in 1963.

But it was a test on May 11, 1965 that shaped the future of Team Penske. 

After all of his accolades behind the wheel, legendary car owner Clint Brawner offered RP a chance to test an INDYCAR at the track that meant the most to him, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in hopes that Roger would drive the Indianapolis 500 for the team.  It was a dream for Roger, dating back to 1951, when he saw his first Indy 500 and dreamed of racing along the track with his heroes.

But RP was busy working on things outside of the sport – his business ventures. 

With a full-time job and a burgeoning Chevrolet dealership in Pennsylvania, Roger couldn’t get the time off needed to partake in the test.  And with an eye for his future, Penske decided to turn the offer down and officially retire from professional driving. 

For Roger, it was time to focus on his life in the corporate world and also look at becoming a car owner.  And in 1966, Team Penske (then called Roger Penske Racing) was born.  From there, the history books write themselves.

Ironically, that decision to turn down the rookie test at Indianapolis in 1965 and retire from racing didn’t just spawn 400-plus wins, 16 Indianapolis 500 wins and 28 National Championships in the first 50 years of Team Penske, it also helped launch another career into stardom.

Without Roger to take the test, Brawner had to find another young driver. The driver that he found had had a lot of success on the dirt tracks of Pennsylvania in the sprint and midget ranks, but was looking for his big break.  That driver… a young, Italian by the name of Mario Andretti.