The Pioneers of Team Penske

March 29, 2021


"Penske Material" provides an inside look at some of the personalities, stories and moments that make Team Penske so unique.

Before producing the first of Team Penske’s record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, prior to becoming one of the most successful teams in sports history and back when the team made its business calls on a pay phone (those actually did exist!), the original members of Team Penske rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

Shortly after Roger Penske retired as a race car driver to focus on his business, he formed his own race team in 1966. As the team began to compete in more races, making more frequent trips to Victory Lane while taking on new challenges, the Penske Racing crew slowly started to expand. Soon, a small but hard-working and dedicated group joined Roger Penske, Hall of Fame driver Mark Donohue and master mechanic Karl Kainhofer at the team’s original race shop in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania in the late 1960s as Team Penske began to grow.

John “Woody” Woodard remembers the day that he got his introduction to Team Penske as if it were yesterday. Woodard had seen Donohue win the 1967 Trans Am Series race at Marlboro Raceway in Maryland and he was impressed not only by the performance but also the look of the Penske-run car. “That Sunoco blue Camaro was just beautiful,” recalled Woodward. After he left his job working for a Nissan dealership in 1968 right before Christmas, Woodward pondered his next career move. He knew where the Penske Racing shop was located in Newtown Square so he got in his car and decided to roll the dice and take a drive.

“It was the Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s so I was pretty sure there wasn’t going to be anyone there,” said Woodard. “When I drove up there were two cars in the driveway. I knocked on the door and Mark Donohue answered, and I introduced myself. He invited me inside to meet Roger (Penske) and we spent the next two-and-a-half hours walking around the place talking about racing and what they planned to do.”

        

Penske and Donohue were talking about bringing on a mechanic or two to help expand the team and Woodard’s unexpected visit came at the perfect time. He officially joined the team a few days later.

Shortly after Woodward came aboard, Earl McMullen joined the team and then Chuck Cantwell and a few months later Don Cox joined on and the nucleus of the crew started to take shape.

“I knew Mark (Donohue) from Trans Am competition and I got to know a few of the (Penske) guys from seeing them at races,” said Cantwell, who worked on Carroll Shelby’s Trans Am Series team before joining Penske Racing and eventually becoming the team’s general manager. “When I started with the team, we had one desk in the (Newtown Square) shop, which Mark and I shared, and we had a pay phone with a dish full of dimes to make calls. That’s how Roger would reach us. He would call on that pay phone.”

At the end of the 1969 season, which culminated with a Trans Am Series championship for Donohue – the third consecutive year that ended with a title for the team – Penske Racing made the transition from running Chevrolet Camaros to AMC Javelins in Trans Am competition. The small crew put in a lot of hours and effort to adapt to the new car and get the program competitive. The transition also helped the team continue to grow as the investment by AMC in the program allowed for some modest expansion.

“There was a small house that was in front of the race shop that was being leased out to someone when I started,” said Cantwell. “By the end of 1969 we were able to get that house and we turned it into an office. We hired a receptionist, we got a couple more desks and we got a regular phone system. But it was still a pretty lean operation.”

The team continued to expand its programs to different disciplines. “We had the sports car endurance races, the Trans Am team and Karl (Kainhofer) continued to build the Indy car program,” added Cantwell. “We had a pretty busy shop, especially for the amount of people that we had.”

The team’s passion for racing and a lot of hard work and long hours added up to more victories for Penske Racing as the seeds of success were being sewn. While the early crew members sometimes worked around the clock at the race shop, they drew their inspiration from the two team leaders. Both Penske and Donohue set the standard for dedication and a relentless drive to compete and win.

“We were just a bunch of guys that loved going racing but Mark and Roger were definitely the spark plugs of the whole thing,” said Cox. “It didn’t take long once you got to the team to realize that both of those guys were just different.”

Donohue’s work ethic and commitment were legendary. The former mechanical engineer from Brown University turned championship race car driver had been known to work on a car’s setup all night and then drive it to the track and race it the next day.

“Mark was right there with us every second,” said Woodard, who served as the iconic driver’s crew chief for many years. “And Roger would routinely work 20-hour days and need very little sleep. He was always sharp as a tack and he never forgot a thing. Guys like that don’t come down the road very often.”

As the team continued to produce race wins and series championships, the foundation for North America’s most successful racing team began to take hold. When the team won its first Indianapolis 500 in 1972 with Donohue and then dismantled the Can-Am competition with the powerful Porsche 917/30 in 1973 that eventually led to the series shutting its doors, Team Penske was well on its way to racing prominence.

Though the early Penske crew never would have known the sustained excellence that the team would go on to achieve, they also realized that anything was possible with “The Captain” leading the way.

“We never had a doubt that Roger was going to make things better, no matter what we did as a team,” said Cantwell. “Everyone was just so driven to do well and meet Roger’s standards. I guess over the years the team has done a pretty good job of doing that.”

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