Roger Penske had a choice to make.
It was February 1965 and the then general manager of a Philadelphia Chevrolet dealership had been offered the opportunity to become the store’s owner. But in order for that to happen, Penske would have to give up what drew him to Chevy in the first place: racing.
His decision back then — to end his race-car driving days and put on his dealer hat — has ended up turning into what has been a decades-long career with Chevrolet, one where Penske has not only become a dealership mogul, but a titan in the racing business, as well.
Penske talked about this decision and more in the latest Faces of GM blog entry.
“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,” Penske explained of his 1965 experience.
“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 continued.
Of course, Penske’s passion for Chevy had been ignited eight years before getting the store ownership offer when he bought his first Corvette, a 1957 competition model. Penske began racing and picking up wins.
In 1963, Penske met George McKean, a Philly Chevy dealer, and took him up on his offer to be the store’s general manager.
And then, Penske’s career as a racecar driver hit a crossroads two years later when McKean asked if he wanted to take over as owner.
Penske may have given up driving cars in races, but he didn’t drop the sport entirely.
He built a TransAm race team back in the 1960s, and racing legend Mark Donohue was his driver. By the end of the 1980s, Penske was part of an Indianapolis 500 championship.
GM president Lloyd Reuss had approached Penske about crafting an engine to compete in the famous race, and in 1988, they got their chance with driver Rick Mears steering the way to victory.
“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,” Penske said.
The Penske-Chevy combo won that day and captured other Indy 500 crowns, all part of 15 races it won during its IndyCar series tenure that eventually came to an end.
But things appear to be getting revved back up for Penske and IndyCar. His company and Chevy teamed up with Ilmor Engineering to build a new engine, which is currently undergoing testing. It will run in next year’s IZOD IndyCar series.
It’s just the latest in what been a decades-long relationship with Chevy that touches both the dealership and racing industries. In fact, he has had ties with Chevy for more than half of the brand’s existence.
“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,” Penske said.
Looking forward, he added: “I can tell you my goal is to put that Chevy back in the winner’s circle.”
Source: Faces of GM