It began with Roger Penske and his Austrian mechanic

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Cars driven by Roger Penske or his various racing teams are gathered together at the 2020 Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance | Concours photos by www.deremerstudios.com

Roger Penske is well-practiced at collecting accolades. As the honoree of the 25th annual Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, the 83-year-old racer and entrepreneur appeared at two separate seminars, a press conference, two dinners, and then showed more than 30 cars at the concours proper, all in extension of his considerable achievements over more than six decades in motorsport. 

We attended the Saturday seminar about the early days of Penske Racing (now known as Team Penske), where moderator Ray Evernham hosted a panel discussion featuring people who worked with, around, and for Penske in the mid-to-late 1960s and early ‘70s. 

Penske recalls the early days of his racing career
Kainhofer was Penske Racing employee No. 1 | Kevin A. Wilson photo

Or, in one case, significantly earlier. Karl Kainhofer, introduced by Evernham as “employee number one” when Penske Racing was formed in 1966, wanted the record corrected. He’d been with Penske since 1959, when he joined the young driver campaigning a Porsche in SCCA events. 

In the 20 years before he retired in 1997, Kainhofer had been the team’s chief engine builder. 

“In the early days,” said Evernham, “you built the whole car, bumper to bumper, with the crew, yes?”

“There was only one guy,” Kainhofer replied.

Penske himself credited Kainhofer — a native of Austria and Porsche-trained master mechanic who emigrated to America in 1958 to work on another racer’s Porsche — as the originator of the company’s reputation for precision, cleanliness and thoroughness. 

“Karl’s approach was really the genesis of what came to be called ‘Penske Perfect,’” Penske said. “What’s it been now Karl, 60 years?” 

As if to prove the point, Kainhofer simply replied “61.”

The Saturday Penske panel and Sunoco-sponsored Indy car

Other panelists included Walt Czarnecki, who came to Penske with the AMC Javelin Trans Am program in 1970 and has been at his side ever since, having served as president of Michigan International Speedway, and then vice chair of Penske Speedways (which merged with ISC in 1999), and most recently as vice chairman of Penske Corporation. 

Also John “Woody” Woodard, who’d been crew chief on the early Trans Am Camaros and Javelins and went on to do much more; Don Cox, who came to Penske via GM, Chaparral, Porsche and managed efforts in Trans Am, Indycar, World Endurance Championship, and Can Am; Chuck Cantwell, an accomplished driver who’d raced against Penske in the early days and became team manager, first on the Ferrari 512 endurance racer at Daytona. 

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Also reminiscing were Judy Stropus, the pioneering timing and scoring chief who worked for Penske teams during the Mark Donohue era, and Jay Signore, who was instrumental in the creation and operation of the IROC series from 1973 through 2006.

Penske credited these people and others among what is now a massive 66,000-employee corporation with making it all happen. 

“Whether you’re competing around the world in business or racing, it’s really all about the people,” he said. “One metric I always keep an eye on is turnover, what makes people stay with you, what makes them want to leave.”

He added, “It puts your feet on the ground, to contemplate how you got started.”  

And it hasn’t stopped; Penske has more than 500 race victories to its credit, and while many go back to the ‘60s, they’re coming off a pretty good year. Team Penske won 41 races, 43 pole positions, three major series championships, and claimed Penske’s 18th Indy 500 victory. And then he up and bought Indycar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway outright. 

In the context of the early days, Penske said he had recently been to the White House with his NASCAR champion driver Joey Logano, again with Indy 500 champ Simon Pagenaud, and yet again to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in October. 

Penske drove this 1961 Porsche RS61 Spyder to first, fourth and fifth place finishes during the 1960 Bahamas Speed Week | Kevin A. Wilson photo

“I won the President’s Cup races in the Porsche [in 1960, when he was SCCA champ],” Penske recalled. “And I went to the White House for the first time, where I met General Curtis LeMay,” whose efforts to make military bases accessible to sports car racers in the 1950s was instrumental in the growth of the sport. 

Not so instrumental, though, as the continuing excellence and heritage of Penske Racing. 

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Kevin A. Wilson is a freelance automotive editor, writer and historian working in the Detroit area. Currently a contributing editor to both Car and Driver and Popular Mechanics, he previously worked at AutoWeek magazine in various roles including Executive Editor, Senior Editor for Special Projects and as a columnist. He has served as a judge at many automotive art shows, car shows and concours, and is chief judge for the annual Ypsilanti Orphan Car Show. He lives in Waterford, MI with his wife Toni in the same home where they raised their three sons.

1 COMMENT

  1. I grew up in Indianapolis, IN. My father worked for GM (Anderson, IN Delco-Remy plant) all his life, street/drag raced, and along with my uncle ran Sprint and midget dirt cars.
    Mr. Penske has been a personal hero of mine since my ’60’s boyhood- along with the Unsers, Kinsers, Foyt, Andrettis (Godspeed, John) and the Hulman family.
    Without these worthies, but particularly Mr. Penske, the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” wouldn’t have been nearly so spectacular. I look forward to his ownership of the IMS and hope he remains healthy and involved for another six decades. Maybe get rid of the spec-car aspect, let ’em run what they bring as in the ’60’s/early ’70’s- even electric (!).
    If anyone in racing deserves the awards, it’s Mr. Penske.
    Cheers!

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