Penske Profile - Tim Lombardi

April 10, 2015

To borrow a line from a famous character in television commercials, Tim Lombardi may be “The Most Interesting Man in Motorsports.” Another moniker to describe him – one that is not used every day – is “renaissance man.” A 39-year veteran employee of Team Penske, Lombardi has seen, or done, just about everything possible in a motorsports career, the only career he has ever known. After holding down many positions during his tenure, Lombardi is now the team coordinator for the Verizon IndyCar Series operations at Team Penske. 

Growing up in Valley Forge, Penn. meant that Lombardi was just a short drive from Roger Penske’s early race shop in Newtown Square, Penn. An avid motorsports fan, he quickly became a Penske fan as the local race team. Lombardi’s first experience at the racetrack came at Watkins Glen International, where he would regularly visit the facility to watch the Formula One, Trans-Am or Can-Am stars of the day, never knowing that an opportunity to drive would soon present itself. He particularly enjoyed watching the Sunoco Porsche 917-30 Can-Am car driven by Mark Donohue. 

In 1972, while in college at the University of Tampa, a mutual friend “convinced” Lombardi to purchase his SCCA sports car – an Austin Healey – so that he could move up to run in Trans-Am. Not sure what to do with student loans and no money, Lombardi received a stroke of good fortune when a friend of the car owner offered to buy the car and let Lombardi pay him back after he graduated. With the help of a body shop behind the garage that housed his new endeavor and owned by his team owner, the Austin Healey was kept in “Penske condition,” even down to the shiny, gray lacquer that Mr. Penske used on his cars during this time. 

Just two years after becoming an amateur racer, Lombardi had graduated and taken a job with a large corporate conglomerate in Valley Forge. One of their main companies was an importer/distributor for the northeast United States for British Leyland Cars, including Jaguar, Triumph, MG, Aston Martin and Austin Healey. Through a forged relationship with the CEO, Lombardi was able to gain sponsorship from the corporation, ALCO Standard Corporation in a big move for the strictly amateur racer. 

Despite his sponsorship, Lombardi needed more disposable income. A potentially lucrative job as a regional salesman for the British car distributor went away with the international oil crisis of the 1970s. In a complete switch of streams, Lombardi became a card-carrying member of the steelworkers union, working in a local steel plant. While working the swing shift and having to eat his “lunch” at 4 am, he decided this wasn’t a career for him. So he cold-called Penske Racing and the team president at the time, Jay Signore, picked up the phone. The two arranged a meeting and, after several interviews, Lombardi started with the team on August 1, 1976. 

His first job with Team Penske? Van driver/mechanic/parts specialist for a team competing in the IROC Series. In 1977 he moved into the team coordinator position, which covered a multitude of jobs. However, after showing some serious promise on the racing side, he moved to California to work for Mr. Penske’s first car dealership on the West Coast, Bob Spreen Cadillac in Downey, Calif. He didn’t completely leave motorsports as he traveled on the road as the pit board man for Rick Mears in INDYCAR competition. This was at the beginning of the Penske automotive empire and Lombardi was looked upon by the Spreen faithful as “the guy from the race team.” No matter, it was a great learning experience for the still-young Lombardi and he took all the suspicion in stride. He worked at the dealership until January of 1981 before moving back to INDYCAR.

Back on the racing side of the house, Lombardi was charged with: organizing all team travel; truck and motorhome movements; driver and team uniforms (including some NASCAR); managing the Hugo Boss relationship; radios; credentials; catering; marketing; graphics and running the transportation department. He believes that he decaled 99 percent of the IndyCars and equipment that left the Team Penske shop between 1981-2010. 

In 1997, Lombardi drove a truck to the Daytona 500 for the NASCAR Cup Series effort driven by Dave Marcis. He was back at the “World Center of Speed” in 2008 as a marketing manager when Ryan Newman won the first Daytona 500 for Team Penske in the 50th running of the race. 

Having spent so much time touring the world with one of the winningest organizations in professional sports, Lombardi has plenty of fascinating stories. We’ll let him tell you some in his own words. 

Who was the driver when you first started at Team Penske?
“I started in 1976 in the IROC series but my first IndyCar driver I worked with was Rick Mears. He started with us part-time in 1978, my first year on the Indy team. We also had Tom Sneva and Mario Andretti running part-time.

What was your favorite track/race market that you’ve visited?
“Surfers Paradise, Australia and Vancouver, B.C. – neither of which we race at now. Both places had a great vibe. I flew several times on my own to Surfers’ races just to spectate when we weren’t part of the series at that time and I met good friends there. The beach environment is just fantastic. Aussies are really friendly and to this day I still go to Vancouver to visit very good friends I met back in the day.”

What has been your favorite moment at Team Penske?
“The first thing that comes to mind was my first win at Indianapolis in 1979 with Mears. We were working from the old, tiny wooden garages. This was well before cell phones so we had one wall-mounted hardline phone. You couldn’t swing a cat in those tiny garages. The morning after the win, the phone rang and I answered, “Winners garage!” It was Roger, and he chuckled. A cool memory when you can get a chuckle from him for answering a phone, but it was win No. 2 for him so this was huge for all involved. Next best would be the 1994 season when we ran a three-car team with Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy. We won 12 of 16 races and had five 1-2-3 finishes.”

How have you seen Team Penske grow and evolve in your time here?
“Whoa! Just the sheer size of the facility and number of people required nowadays to compete at this level of the sport. In the early days there was little in the way of engineering, the team manager made nearly all of the decisions. The chief mechanic was not only responsible for the cars but also to build the gearboxes, turbos, uprights and other suspension bits. The marketing and sales department was only one person – Roger Penske. There was one PR person even when we ran three cars. Team catering was a good friend of Roger’s and one of the founding members of NASCAR, Frank Mundy, who flew to the races, hand carrying plastic gallon containers of chicken salad, egg salad & tuna salad he made and brought from his home in Atlanta. He filled his hotel room tub with ice to keep the containers cool and the next morning he produced sandwiches in brown paper bags marked “Chicken” “Egg” & “Tuna!”  Believe it or not, this was team catering and we were living the life! And we were at the top of the heap!

“Now I like being able to have a hot meal, (sitting down), a cell phone versus a pocket full of dimes, waiting for my turn at the one or two pay phones at the circuit and a computer instead of a small pocket notebook and an ink pen! For a span of years in the 90’s the Indy team management consisted of Karl Kainhofer, Chuck Sprague, Clive Howell and me. Rick Rinaman and Jerry Breon were the best tire changers in the series for many years and Rick could still beat many of them even while now in his 60s. Pit practice was me in the car, Roger and a few others pushing it into the pit box, Rick Rinaman, Jerry Breon and a few others. With the intricacies and sophistication of racing today, more specialized people are required to do the best job when you’re on the top rung of sport. That’s evolution.”

What was your first Indy 500 experience like?
“It would have been 1978 and I had never been there before. As anyone who’s been there, the size of the facility is very impressive although still steeped in oldness! I actually did not care much for oval racing initially but the best experience every May is the feeling standing on the grid prior to the start, looking up towards turn four, seeing hundreds of thousands of excited fans, listening to national anthem, the military fly over. It still hits me to this very day. The most emotional part is watching the armed services riding by in the back of the pickup trucks and the reception they receive from the crowd, truly emotional to be an American at this event.”

What are your hobbies? 
“I’ve always been interested in music and have several guitars that I play from time to time. From my junior high days, I wanted to be a guitar playing rock star but I was a dreamer! I was on the tail end of the hippie days. I was an occasional guitar player and needed a regular job that paid the bills and racing was my next interest. I still get together with several guys on the team in my lower-level bar at my house, which is large enough to have a full band set-up with guitars, amps, drum set and PA system so we can make “noise” at will and no close neighbors to complain!

“Interestingly enough, before we moved the IndyCar operation from Reading, Pa. to Mooresville, Taylor Swift’s father, a good friend of mine, said that if his daughter’s career ever took off, he’d hire me in a second to be her road manager. I could name my salary and he’d find me a lot on the lake near his outside Nashville. She was then still a teen at the time and had yet to break into stardom.  I made my decision to go Mooresville.”