Amer­i­can Roy­alty

Motor (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by MARK FOG­A­RTY

We delve be­hind the headlines and find out why Roger Penske is here to con­quer Su­per­cars

Amer­i­can rac­ing le­gend Roger Penske has up­set the order in Su­per­cars, beat­ing the lo­cals at their own game. We find out why suc­cess here is an im­por­tant ad­di­tion to his half-cen­tury of achieve­ments

Af­ter just two events in early 2015, Am­brose de­cided he wasn’t up to a come­back and stepped down

AT SU­PER­CARS events, the most prized park­ing spots are re­served for se­nior se­ries ex­ec­u­tives and lo­cal big­wigs. The ex­cep­tion is when Roger Penske vis­its. Such is Penske’s stature that one of the prime spa­ces is set aside for his ve­hi­cle. Nowhere is his stand­ing more ob­vi­ous than when he at­tends the Perth Su­per-Sprint at Barba­gallo Race­way.

There he re­ceives per­sonal park­ing right near the en­trance to the pad­dock. This year the only spot that was closer to the gate was set aside for an am­bu­lance. His place was ini­tially des­ig­nated by an of­fi­cial “RE­SERVED ROGER PENSKE” sign. That’s what it read on the Fri­day, but his name was cov­ered over for the rest of the week­end. Not that it mat­tered. Penske and his en­tourage of key rac­ing and cor­po­rate man­agers, who flew with him from the States in his pri­vate jet, con­tin­ued to park their MPV in the anony­mous space.

Penske is the only Su­per­cars team owner accorded ‘red car­pet’ wel­comes like this. The sport is proud that the best known team prin­ci­pal out­side F1 chose to ex­pand his Team Penske em­pire across the Pa­cific.

Known as ‘The Cap­tain’, Penske car­ries an air of au­thor­ity that stops a room. Yet he has an in­clu­sive man­ner. An old-school gen­tle­man, he is al­ways im­pec­ca­bly dressed – an at­ten­tion to de­tail that is re­flected in the pris­tine pre­sen­ta­tion that has been a hall­mark of Penske race teams and drivers.

Since tak­ing con­trol of Dick John­son Rac­ing to form DJR Team Penske in 2015, he has at­tended two or three Su­per­cars events a year, link­ing his trips with meet­ings with Penske Cor­po­ra­tion’s lo­cal man­age­ment. Perth is about as far from Penske Corp HQ at Bloom­field Hills, out­side Detroit, as you can get, but he has made the an­nual trek to co­in­cide with Barba­gallo be­cause Western Aus­tralia is an im­por­tant mar­ket for the com­pany’s truck­ing and in­dus­trial pow­er­plant in­ter­ests.

The ex­tra­or­di­nary suc­cess of Team Penske in Amer­i­can and in­ter­na­tional rac­ing dur­ing the past 51 years has been in­te­gral to the growth of Penske Cor­po­ra­tion from a sin­gle car deal­er­ship to a di­verse global trans­port en­ter­prise. He has al­ways used rac­ing to pro­mote his busi­nesses, which is why he bought 51 per cent of DJR.

The Penske brand has been built on sus­tained suc­cess on the track, in­clud­ing a record 16 In­di­anapo­lis 500 vic­to­ries. Team Penske is a long-es­tab­lished front-run­ner in Indy-Car and NASCAR in the USA, and the Aus­tralian squad is be­ing held to the same stan­dard of pre­sen­ta­tion, prepa­ra­tion and ex­pec­ta­tion. Af­ter a two-year re­or­gan­i­sa­tion, DJR Team Penske has emerged this sea­son as the Su­per­cars squad to beat. It has Triple Eight Race En­gi­neer­ing on the back foot, scram­bling to catch up.

Penske’s pa­tron­age has re­stored DJR to its glory

days of the late 1980s and much of the ’90s, when it was firmly en­trenched among the lead­ing teams. His takeover was a res­cue, pro­vid­ing the mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar in­vest­ment to se­cure its fu­ture. The deal was pred­i­cated on for­mer Su­per­cars cham­pion Mar­cos Am­brose re­turn­ing from his stint in NASCAR to lead the Amer­i­can-directed ef­fort. The team cut back to one Fal­con to con­cen­trate on re­build­ing un­der Am­brose’s guid­ance while he re­cap­tured his own form. But af­ter just two events in early 2015, Am­brose de­cided he wasn’t up to a come­back and stepped down. His dif­fi­culty in re-adapt­ing was com­pounded by the lack of test­ing al­lowed.

“We started out thinking that we would be some­what com­pet­i­tive, but when we got to the track and looked at the results, we were strug­gling,” Penske tells MO­TOR. “We were also count­ing on Mar­cos. He then de­cided he re­ally wasn’t up to it. Whether it was men­tally or phys­i­cally or just that the game had been raised, I don’t re­ally know. But I take my hat off to him for say­ing, ‘Hey, you need to go on without me’ and it was a very good dis­cus­sion with him.”

De­spite the com­mer­cial reper­cus­sions of Am­brose’s con­tro­ver­sial with­drawal, Penske re­mains adamant that he didn’t feel let down. “I think that we over­es­ti­mated what we could ac­com­plish in the first year,” he says. “I think that’s the bot­tom line. He did, we did. We were dis­ap­pointed that we didn’t pro­vide him with a proper car and be able to help him. I think he felt the same way, that maybe he wasn’t able to de­liver what we wanted from him.”

He didn’t re­gard los­ing Am­brose as a set­back, lament­ing that the part­ner­ship wasn’t able to flour­ish. “I guess it was more of a dis­ap­point­ment be­cause we re­ally wanted to pro­vide him with a real race team that he could come back here and be on top,” Penske adds. “That’s the dis­ap­point­ment I had. I think we felt we let him down and he re­ally didn’t maybe have a chance to grab the gear here and get go­ing the way he could. But I think he was so pro­fes­sional in how he han­dled his dis­mount.”

Scott Pye was re­called to stand in for Am­brose, who re­turned for a farewell co-drive at Bathurst, where they were on the pace un­til a late crash caused by steer­ing fail­ure, but oth­er­wise it was a desul­tory sea­son. “I think the noise was louder than what it needed to be be­cause we were re­ally just get­ting started at some­thing we’d never been in.”

DJRTP en­dured two win­less sea­sons as Pye was joined by Fabian Coulthard in a re-ex­panded lineup last year. But ac­cord­ing to Penske, run­ning two cars and other changes paved the way for the team’s trans­for­ma­tion this year. “The bot­tom line is the ex­pe­ri­ence we have now that we didn’t have when we walked in the door,” he says.

“We built some new cars as we came into this year and, at the end of the day, I think McLaughlin com­ing on board and team­ing with Coulthard, you’d have to say that was a big step. They’re young, they’re

Penske’s fame and pop­u­lar­ity within the con­fines of mo­tor­sport means he is mobbed by race fans – es­pe­cially here in Aus­tralia. Yet, the en­er­getic 80-yearold takes all the at­ten­tion in his stride and in Perth he ami­ably chat­ted while sign­ing au­to­graphs and pos­ing for myr­iad self­ies

ex­pe­ri­enced and they know how to win. And then I think our tech­ni­cal guys stepped it up.

“We’re on a mis­sion here to have a great race team and a suc­cess­ful race team – as we are in our busi­ness. But I want to be very, very care­ful and not make peo­ple think that we’re bet­ter than any­body else. We’re just build­ing a solid or­gan­i­sa­tion. You can see it, you can feel it, when you walk in.”

Penske is a racer at heart and his com­mit­ment to con­quer­ing Su­per­cars never wa­vered through the ini­tial dif­fi­cul­ties. “One of the great things about com­ing out here was that it was a real chal­lenge,” he says. “We were not go­ing to walk away from V8 Su­per­cars just be­cause we had a cou­ple of bad years. And they weren’t that bad. Maybe our rep­u­ta­tion was ahead of our bat­ting av­er­age.”

As well as se­cur­ing McLaughlin in the wake of Volvo’s with­drawal, DJRTP was joined by dis­af­fected tour­ing car tech­ni­cal guru Ludo Lacroix, the gifted and ec­cen­tric de­signer of Triple Eight’s pre­vi­ously pace-set­ting rac­ers. Lacroix’s de­fec­tion in­censed Triple Eight chief Roland Dane, but Penske is adamant that the French­man wasn’t poached and that the se­crets of his for­mer em­ployer aren’t the rea­son the team’s Fal­cons are so fast.

“I was as sur­prised as any­one else when we got the call from Ludo that he was in­ter­ested in com­ing on board with us,” Penske says. “I met him at Bathurst (last year) and I didn’t even know who he was. Ob­vi­ously, when he showed some in­ter­est, Tim Cin­dric (US-based Team Penske pres­i­dent who over­sees all rac­ing ac­tiv­i­ties) fol­lowed up with him and he ended up com­ing on board. He didn’t re­ally come over un­til Jan­uary 1, so we didn’t have two or three months to do a brain drain on ev­ery­thing he knows. But I think his en­ergy and cer­tainly his knowl­edge have made a big dif­fer­ence.”

Dane, who is worth tens – if not hun­dreds – of mil­lions of dol­lars, has also com­plained that he is be­ing beaten by a team backed by a multi-bil­lion­aire. But Penske, who is fa­mous for spend­ing what is nec­es­sary on rac­ing without be­ing lav­ish, con­tends that DJRTP has to be self-sup­port­ing. “Peo­ple talk about how big a bud­get we have,” he says. “I can tell you this; the bud­get we have down here, we’re scrap­ing for ev­ery spon­sor­ship dol­lar we have. We’ve al­ways done that and that’s why our com­pany’s been suc­cess­ful. I would have to say that we’re try­ing to run within a bud­get that we think is pretty much the same up and down the garage area.”

Leav­ing aside that Penske cleared DJR’s debts and funded its ex­pan­sion, there is no ques­tion that Penske com­pa­nies largely un­der­wrote the team’s rac­ing op­er­a­tions in 2015/16. The re­turn of Shell this year as the pri­mary spon­sor, gain­ing sea­son-long sig­nage on both Fal­cons and team nam­ing rights sug­gests DJRTP has be­come a self-fund­ing op­er­a­tion. Cer­tainly, Penske ap­plauds the un­chang­ing look of the team fol­low­ing two years of rolling spon­sor­ships or dif­fer­ent back­ers per car, which are be­com­ing the

norm in Amer­ica with NASCAR and IndyCar.

“One of the things that I will say I’m so proud of is to be able to see our two cars here (Perth) hav­ing the same liv­ery on them ev­ery day,” he says. “That’s the way it used to be (in US rac­ing), in­stead of now, where you’re chang­ing brands all the time. That’s what you need to do to be able to af­ford it. Be­cause of our re­la­tion­ship with Shell/Pen­zoil in the US, it gave us an en­try here, plus there’s a great B2B play here with Shell work­ing with us and our cus­tomers. For me, it’s the se­cret sauce for us to keep goin’.”

Penske, who at­tends most races dur­ing the Amer­i­can sea­son, thrives on com­pe­ti­tion. In Su­per­cars, he relishes the in­tense ri­valry with Dane as much as he rev­els in the bat­tles with long-run­ning team-owner foes like Chip Ganassi in IndyCar and Rick Hen­dricks in NASCAR.

“Well, you gotta have a big smile to think that we can walk down the pit lane and shake Roland’s hand and say ‘Hey, y’gotta beat us to­day, too’,” he grins. “That wasn’t the case for a cou­ple of years and I’m sure he looks for­ward to the com­pe­ti­tion. There are other good teams out there also and I want to be sure that peo­ple don’t think it’s just Triple Eight and our­selves. I think each race we go to, if we can be fast, that gives me a lot more con­fi­dence that we have a solid base.”

That’s typ­i­cal RP, pol­ished, pro­fes­sional and po­lite. Al­ways re­spect­ing the op­po­si­tion. Be­hind the friendly fa­cade, though, is a hard-as-nails boss who de­mands ex­cel­lence. Now that it is com­pet­i­tive, his ex­pec­ta­tion for DJR Team Penske is noth­ing less than the drivers’ and teams’ ti­tles. “It’s pretty amaz­ing to sit here and say we won some races be­cause that was our goal this year. But there’s no ques­tion that we now have to fo­cus on try­ing to win the cham­pi­onship. Our two drivers are ded­i­cated to win­ning the cham­pi­onship and we have to give them the cars that do that. Of course, the cham­pi­onship is the goal.”

Through­out half a cen­tury, many greats have raced for Penske. McLaughlin and Coulthard are very much in the mould of Penske drivers, who need to be pre­sentable as well as tal­ented. McLaughlin is the quick­est of the Kiwi pair­ing, blaz­ing a pole-win­ning trail that at­tests to his sheer speed. He is a nat­u­ral fan favourite be­cause he is gifted, au­da­cious and cheeky.

Coulthard was ex­pected to be over­shad­owed, but he has risen to the chal­lenge. Per­fectly groomed, he is a more re­strained per­son­al­ity. Coulthard’s fron­trun­ning per­for­mances ce­mented his place in the team, which re-signed him in June for an undis­closed term. Both he and McLaughlin have im­pressed Penske as much for com­mit­ting to DJRTP when it wasn’t suc­cess­ful as their abil­ity to win races.

“I think the first step of build­ing the real bridge here was Fabian com­ing on board last year,” Penske says. “He had to go through a time where we were build­ing, so for him to stay cool and com­mit him­self to be with us for the fu­ture was a big one. He and Scott work so well to­gether, and he’s re­ally stepped it up. He was a win­ning driver be­fore he joined us and there’s no ques­tion you’re see­ing that with what he’s able to do this year. He’s a ter­rific as­set to the team.”

“I think Scott saw that com­ing with Penske and thought it could be a good thing for his fu­ture. The good news is that both of these guys said, ‘Look, we’re com­mit­ting to go with you’ and if you look at the suc­cess they’d had pre­vi­ously, you’d say, ‘Why would they do that?’ But with that kind of com­mit­ment, we said that we’re go­ing to make this thing work and we’re go­ing to get the right peo­ple. We’ve got some real good cars now, they both say that. We’ve been able to give them the pay-off of a good car and they both know how to win races when you give them the equip­ment to do it.”

Ap­proach­ing his ninth decade, Penske has no plans to slow down, ei­ther in busi­ness or rac­ing. He is fit and healthy, with the en­ergy, en­thu­si­asm and de­sire to keep go­ing as the hands-on face of a multi-na­tional cor­po­ra­tion and an iconic race team, both of which feed his undi­min­ished com­pet­i­tive spirit.

“I fall asleep if I’m not do­ing stuff,” he says. “It’s very mo­ti­vat­ing ev­ery day to get up and have to deal with prob­lems. They don’t call me when ev­ery­thing’s go­ing real well. You get the call when some­thing’s not go­ing right and that’s what I like.

“You have to be able to re­spond to crit­i­cism, re­spond to fail­ure and re­spond to the com­pe­ti­tion. I guess that’s what I’ll do as long as I can. It’s ex­actly what I love do­ing. And then to be able to come to the race­track, this is my golf game or fish­ing trip.”

RP started out as a driver him­self – a suc­cess­ful one at that, pro­duc­ing im­pres­sive road-rac­ing results – be­fore re­tir­ing in 1965 to fo­cus on his Chevro­let deal­er­ship. Team Penske has been re­ferred to as the “New York Yan­kees of mo­tor­sport”

pics GETTY IM­AGES

Pluck­ing Mar­cos Am­brose (left) out of NASCAR – he en­dured nine largely fruit­less years in the US – to head the Aussie op­er­a­tion was sup­posed to be a mas­ter­stroke. How­ever, the twotime champ de­cided not to con­tinue

The Penske em­pire is no small fish in a big pond with more than 53,000 em­ploy­ees world­wide – truck leas­ing, au­to­mo­tive group and race team. The Penske group is a mem­ber of the For­tune 500 club

Kiwi Scott McLaughlin has pros­pered with DJRTP af­ter leav­ing GRM when Volvo left the sport. Aussie Will Power (be­low) has been a con­stant IndyCar front run­ner for Penske, es­pe­cially on road cour­ses

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