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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.