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50 years ago, he debuted as a race team owner -- and quickly changed the sport

Roger Penske could have been a contender as a race car driver.

As a young man, he bought, raced and sold race cars and did well enough on the track to be named Sports Car Club of America's Driver of the Year by Sports Illustrated in 1961. With his movie-star looks and unflappable demeanor, his future looked bright.

But Penske soon would make a decision that would change his life, that of another driver and indeed the history of auto racing.

"I was asked to take a driver's test to race in the Indianapolis 500 around 1965, and I couldn't do that because I had a job, and I had to pass on it," Penske told Automotive News. That job was as a Chevrolet dealer in Philadelphia -- the start of his automotive career.

Instead, "Mario Andretti took his test and became one of the greatest race car drivers of all time," said Penske, who turns 79 this week. "So he ended up on his feet, and I ended up on mine."

Now there's an understatement.

With characteristic stoicism, The Captain has no regrets about the momentous decision to forsake his own driving career for a life managing other drivers and running a business empire.

"I don't know if it could have been me," says Penske, who became smitten with racing when his father took first took him to the Indianapolis 500 in 1951 at age 14. "But I'm very happy with the side I'm on right now, to be honest with you."

And a great side it has been for the half century since his racing team entered the 1966 24 Hours of Daytona, an anniversary Penske is celebrating this year. Team Penske has rolled up a racing record that will stand for a long time. His drivers have won 16 Indianapolis 500s, 11 ahead of the next owner. Penske has won two Daytona 500s, a NASCAR Cup Championship and 28 national titles in all. And Penske has translated his racing successes into a template for his diverse business ventures.

The question is: How could one man rise so far above his competitors so consistently? The answer comes in how Penske built and ran his team.

College kids
When Penske got into racing in the late 1950s, the sport was ruled by daredevils. They had to be daredevils because racing was a very dangerous game in those days. Crashes were frequently horrific and often fatal to drivers. Many team owners were swashbuckling, macho men.

Roger Penske and his youthful cadre were a breed apart, says Donald Davidson, historian of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"They were the clean-cut college kids. Their whole approach seemed different" in comparison with that era when "you had a lot of individual car owners. Some were really flamboyant characters. Then the Penske guys came in.

"They were very young, into aerodynamics and all that kind of stuff."

From the beginning, Penske had a keen eye for spotting talented drivers with the right kind of character to thrive in his team concept, Davidson says.

No more so than Mark Donohue, Penske's first driver-partner, a multitalented, jack-of-all-trades sports car racer. Penske and Donohue first competed at the Indianapolis 500 in 1969, and within three years became a major force to be reckoned with. Donohue won the first Team Penske Indy 500 in 1972, driving his McLaren-Offenhauser to 162 mph, a speed record that would stand 12 years.

Says longtime Penske associate Walter Czarnecki, executive vice president of Penske Corp.: "Mark was also co-founder of the company. He did it all. He was race engineer, team manager; he drove the transport. He did whatever it took when Penske Racing was a handful of people."

Says Davidson: "There have been several driver-owner combinations that just click. Donohue and Penske -- that's one of those when you mention one, you immediately think of the other, very similar to Jim Clark and Colin Chapman of Lotus."

But the golden partnership didn't last. Donohue was killed in a practice session for the Austrian Grand Prix in 1975.

Penske then found a new star, a driver who would become a model for Team Penske's consistency. Rick Mears, who would win six poles and four 500s for Penske at Indianapolis, was the quintessential Penske driver, another one of those drivers Penske spotted before anyone else, says Davidson.

"He seemed to go for these guys who were clean cut and could present themselves very well," says Davidson. "He saw something in Mears. He had the long hair, the beard and the mustache. In appearance, he wasn't the Penske type."

Brief encounter
Mears, now 64, works as an adviser for Team Penske. He remembers his first encounter with Penske during his first attempt to qualify at the Indianapolis 500 in 1977. Mears, a young driver trying to make his mark at Indy with a small team, was leaning up against the pit wall at the Speedway when Penske walked by.

"He said, "Hey, Mears, how you doing?' I said, "I'm trying to figure out what we need to do.' He said, "Well, just don't stick it in the fence. Good luck.' And down the road he went. I was a young kid. I didn't make the show that year."

Later that year, driver Wally Dallenbach invited Mears to join a recreational off-road motorcycle ride in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Mears couldn't resist the chance to rub elbows with some of the other participants -- a veritable who's who of Indy 500 stars including Penske and drivers such as Parnelli Jones, Al Unser Sr. and Bobby Unser and Dan Gurney.

As the riders were preparing to set off one day, Penske told Mears he had heard the young driver was about to sign with a race team from Phoenix. Mears replied the deal had fallen through. The thought that he might get to drive for the one of the biggest team owners in the business hadn't crossed Mears' mind yet.

"He was the guy. I just didn't have the experience. At the end of the conversation, he said, "I've got something in mind. Call me before you make a deal with somebody else.' Needless to say, I stayed close to him the rest of the ride."

Soon, Penske would offer Mears a part-time job -- at least six races filling in for Mario Andretti while the latter was off in Europe pursuing his Formula One world championship. The arrangement would include his first ride at the Indianapolis 500, where he qualified on the front row, becoming the first rookie to post a qualifying time over 200 mph.

The way Mears figured it, a part-time job with Roger Penske was better than a full-time job with any other team owner.

Penske's way of managing a team and Mears' attitude toward driving meant the two were an ideal match. Mears loved Penske's egalitarian approach.

Mears, who won the Indy 500 in 1979, 1984, 1988 and 1991, has no patience with drivers who think only of themselves and their own glory.

"A lot of drivers are very selfish. If they find something on their car, they don't want to give it to somebody else. They want to keep it."

When Mears joined the Penske team, he quickly learned to work with his new teammates: Tom Sneva and Andretti.

"I understood you could go to another level by helping each other. If I've got a teammate and he's got the same equipment [and I lose to him], that means I'm leaving something on the table. That keeps drivers digging, striving to improve. If you're driving against somebody with different equipment," there's no way to really tell who's better, he says.

"Roger made sure we all had the same equipment. People tend to think with a race team, there's a one, and a two and a three. He always said: "If I have three horses in the race, why would I only want one good horse?' To keep the caliber of driver he wanted, he had to keep the options open" and give the team "three good shots at winning the race."

The Penske way would continue to attract great drivers over the years, including Indy 500 winners Bobby Unser, Al Unser Sr., Danny Sullivan, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr., Helio Castroneves, Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Penske's success wasn't confined to open wheel racing. Penske teams have won 147 NASCAR races, including two Daytona 500s: Ryan Newman in 2008 and Joey Logano in 2015. Bobby Allison and Rusty Wallace also carried the Penske banner. And Penske carried on with his early sports car success in such series as Can-Am and IROC.

3,200 years' experience
Penske's devotion to a team concept, creating equal opportunities for all, is one reason people tend to stay with him for a long time, says historian Davidson.

"People say he surrounds himself with overachievers, and a lot of people stay with him a full career. People tend not to come and go. Some people were with Penske for 30-some years.

"Even after they retire, they keep coming around. Most of his drivers had long tenures, but the crew guys, the engineers, they just stayed for years."

Jonathan Gibson, vice president for Charlotte, N.C.-based Team Penske, the umbrella organization for his racing activities, says Team Penske's 400 employees have a collective 3,200 years' experience.

One of those veteran guys is Czarnecki, who has worked for Penske for 45 years both as part of the race team and Penske's various business enterprises.

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