Fastlane

December 15, 2011

Roger Penske: Glancing back and looking to the future with Chevrolet

As Chevrolet celebrated its 100th anniversary, Roger Penske felt very qualified to look back on the history of the brand. After all, he’s been associated with Chevy for more than 50 years.

He said, “I go back to 1957. I bought my first Corvette. It was a 1957 competition Corvette. That really started my passion for Chevrolet.”

He was a racer and he was talented. He ran against – and beat – some of the top names. When Philadelphia Chevrolet dealer George McKean met Penske in August of 1963, he saw a person who would go far. Based on that, he offered him a job as dealership general manager. Penske said, “That was in August of 1963. I was out of college, out of Lehigh, and working for Alcoa. I was working for $425 a month, and George offered me $2,000, so it was easy for me to say I’m going to go into the car business.”

Along with being a dealer, Penske still had the desire to be a racer. The two careers paths did cross a couple of years later when he had a chance to become owner of the McKean dealership. Roger explained, “I had to go Detroit, and Bunky Knudsen at that point was general manager of Chevrolet. He said, ’Roger, we’re not going to have race drivers as dealers, so you have to make a decision. Are you going to be a race driver or a businessman?’ That’s probably the best advice I’ve ever had, because I decided no more racing – let’s become a dealer. That’s when I really started my career with Chevrolet, and I never turned back.”

He was no longer behind the wheel, but he was on the verge of building perhaps the most successful automotive racing empire in history. In the 1960s, he created a TransAm race team with the legendary Mark Donohue as his driver. Then, in the 1980s, GM President Lloyd Reuss came to Penske with an idea to build a racing engine to try to win the Indianapolis 500. Penske said that effort created his favorite Chevy memory. “The best moment I had with Chevrolet was winning that first one, the first Indy 500 with the Chevy motor with Rick Mears in 1988.” The Penske-Chevy combination went on to win 15 races, including a total of four Indianapolis 500 titles, before Chevrolet left the IndyCar series.

Now Penske and Chevrolet are attempting to duplicate that entire scenario. The new engine has been developed by Chevrolet, along with Penske and Ilmor Engineering. The testing is being done, and Penske Racing will be running with Chevy power once again in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar series.

Penske said his partnership with Chevrolet stretches beyond the race track, all the way to the dealership. He said, “The brand is on the rise. I can see it with the cars that are available for us to sell in the showrooms. It’s never been better.”

After more than 50 years together, does Penske have anything else to accomplish with Chevrolet? He said, “I can tell you my goal is to put that Chevy back in the winners circle.”

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