Penske Takes Lead on Race Track and Public Projects

A famous billionaire is making an impact on government. It’s not Donald Trump. It’s legendary auto racer Roger Penske.

Dawn Uhl-Zifilippo/WDET

There’s a famous billionaire, generally known by his last name, who is taking an active role with government.

But the name is not Trump. It’s Penske. As in legendary auto racer Roger Penske, who has spent much of the past decade helping public officials rebuild his hometown of Detroit.

Penske’s NASCAR stock car team races for a championship this weekend.

And Penske continues to take the lead on the race track and on public projects.


The Captain Builds His Ship


Dawn Uhl-Zifilippo/WDET

That was the case In May, when officials in Detroit gathered to celebrate the opening of the main terminal for the city’s new light rail line.

Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell led a parade of public figures who praised the man they called the driving force behind the rail project.


“You could not have picked a better person to have named this new headquarters after than Roger Penske,” she said. “His vision and leadership for this region has made it such a better one. If it wasn’t for him spearheading this project and so many others, we wouldn’t be here today.”


I wanted to be a Chevrolet dealer and GM told me early on that they didn’t want their dealers to be racers. — Roger Penske


But even when talking about trains, the 79-year-old billionaire businessman’s thoughts did not stray far from the sport he’s become synonymous with.

Penske said, “You folks see this vision. Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Keep your foot on the gas, as we would call it in the race car. We need to continue.”


Roger Penske’s world is built on wheels, including a successful trucking business, car dealerships and a racing team that’s won everything from Indycar championships and Formula One races to NASCAR competitions.

Yet Penske says, when given the choice, he decided against pursuing his own race driving career.


“I wanted to be a Chevrolet dealer and GM told me early on that they didn’t want their dealers to be racers,” Penske said. “My Dad loaned me $50,000 to get into business and he took it out of his savings account. He was retired. So I had to pay him back too. So it was a pretty easy decision for me to make, to be a businessman versus a race driver.”

Dawn Uhl-Zifilippo/WDET

Penske did create his own race car team, however, one renowned for doing everything first-class under the eye of an owner known in racing circles as simply “The Captain.”

Penske has won 16 editions of the world’s most famous auto race, the Indianapolis 500.

No other owner has come close to that.

Dawn Uhl-Zifilippo/WDET


Becoming Racing Royalty


Penske driver and protégé Rick Mears won four of those Indy 500’s for The Captain.

Mears says it was more than just top-notch equipment that drew him to the team.


“First of all, just Penske himself. Period. There’s nobody better. He drove,” Mears said. “So when I’d come in and say the car’s doing this, doing that, he knew exactly what I was talking about. If an owner’s never been there, done that, he might be thinking ‘Well why don’t you just stand on the gas a little harder?’ Roger knew if the thing wasn’t working you can’t drive it. It doesn’t matter who you are. He responds. If we’re not going the right direction he figures out how to get it turned around and go the other way.”


Penske earned respect among auto racing’s royalty, like the only driver ever to win the Indy 500, the prestigious Daytona 500 and the Formula One World Championship, Mario Andretti.

He said, “(Penske is) one of the competitors that, if you’re a driver, you want to drive for. And if you’re a competitor, he sets a standard. If you beat Roger Penske you’ve done a great job. And if you finish second to him, it’s still a good day.”

Dawn Uhl-Zifilippo/WDET

But not always. Andretti still chafes over one loss to Penske.

During the 1981 Indy 500 Penske’s driver won when he seemed to illegally take the lead from Andretti by passing numerous cars while under a caution flag. After the race officials penalized Penske and gave the win to Andretti.

Then, months later, officials changed their mind and gave the victory back to Penske.


Andretti said, “They gave in to the pressure of an outside lawyer which Roger brought in. This is one that’s hard to swallow because that organization intimidated everyone. They dragged this on for six months.”


Driving the Public Sector Forward


Penske’s ability to make things happen, and his reputation in sports, made him a natural to help Detroit officials prepare to host the 2006 Super Bowl.

Even when, Penske says, he had to personally oversee beautifying some of the city.


“Think about Woodward Avenue. I remember (being) with a paint crew and we’d go around in a van and we’d say ‘Paint this building’ and ‘Can we tear this building down?’ I think (we did that) right up until the kickoff. We missed a couple probably,” Penske said.


You give back. I’ve been fortunate in my lifetime and business career. One of the things that I want to see is this city become a great city again. And I think we’re on our way. — Roger Penske


He adds that the work created a desire to do more in the public sector.

Penske said, “You give back. I’ve been fortunate in my lifetime and my business career to be able to do things that I want to do. But I think that one of the things that I want to see is this city become a great city again. And I think we’re on our way.”

Dawn Uhl-Zifilippo/WDET

Penske organized teams to pick up trash in downtown Detroit.

He lent his name and cachet to numerous projects, like the light rail line.

And, at least publicly, Penske avoided talking about politics or politicians.

He said, “I’ve tried to not get involved with governmental politics. I’ve used the government to support our projects, which are important. But at this point I’m laser-focused on Detroit.”


Critics and Kevorkian


His efforts have not always been well-received.

Penske negotiated with city officials to pave over a small portion of Belle Isle for use as a pit area when the island hosted the annual Detroit Grand Prix.

In exchange his organization made improvements to the island’s landscape and infrastructure.

Some critics charge the new pavement marred the island’s natural beauty.

Dawn Uhl-Zifilippo/WDET

But long-time Penske driver and Dancing With The Stars winner Helio Castroneves says those critics should take a second look at Belle Isle. 

“I feel sorry that they feel that way,” Castroneves said. “Because, to be honest, what the promoters are doing, they’re actually preserving the island. It’s frustrating because people can come to the park and realize that what we’re doing, it’s actually a nice thing for the community of Detroit. All these years that I’ve been with Team Penske, it makes me feel like (Detroit) is part of my backyard as well.”


It’s not his backyard that continues to fascinate Penske, however.

It’s the Brickyard, the nickname for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

And Penske says even after all his trips to Indy’s Victory Lane, it’s the one that got away that he remembers most. That’s the 1995 Indy 500, when none of his cars could find enough speed to qualify for the famed event.

Penske said, “We’d won the race (the year) before, led every lap but two, sat on the pole. And then I had to walk down that pit road with the two drivers, one on each side, 100,000 people saying wow, you didn’t make it. And that makes you a much better person.

“(Over the track loudspeakers) the speedway announced ‘(Assisted suicide advocate Jack) Kevorkian, please report to the Penske garage.’ Which was maybe a little bit of overkill, but I felt that way, ha!” Penske remembered.


Penske has gone on to win many other races and championships since then. And he says his work, on the track and in the city of Detroit, is still far from reaching the finish line.


  • Quinn Klinefelter

    Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.