For Roger Penske, the streets of downtown St. Petersburg have been like his driveway. He has pretty much owned them. His team has won the Indy Racing League's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg three of the past four years, most recently with Ryan Briscoe in 2009, and returns with a powerful three-driver team for this year's edition Sunday afternoon. But Penske is pretty much the king of every road. His team has amassed 317 major race wins, 145 of them in IndyCar, including the Indianapolis 500, one of sports' transcendent events, 15 times. "The Captain," as he's called, is to auto racing what the New York Yankees are to baseball: the gold standard. Sure, he has the financial wherewithal to fuel a winner; Penske Corp. is a multibillion-dollar operation. But his roll is a result of more than his bankroll.
His personality is the driving force.
"It's his determination and his will to win by setting an example that sets him apart from anybody I've ever worked with or for," said Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing. "And it's his appreciation for the people (around him) and his understanding of how important the people are to making everything successful."
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Anyone who has spent even a few minutes with Penske will tell you about his consuming attention to detail.
Rick Mears, a longtime driver for Penske who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, recalled sitting next to his boss on an airplane ride shortly after Penske Corp. joined General Motors in remaking Detroit Diesel more than two decades ago.
"He started telling me how the injectors are made, what size millimeter the holes in the injectors are, about the nuts and bolts and rods," said Mears, a Team Penske adviser. "He understood that. It's not just the business end of it; it's the product also. The more you understand your product, the better it is for business. Anything he gets involved with, he knows inside and out."
Penske has been no different when it comes to racing. He started driving professionally in 1958 and was named the Sports Illustrated driver of the year in 1961. Although at the top of his game, he shockingly announced his retirement in 1965 so he could move to the next stage of his life.
It surprised no one he soon began racking up wins as an owner.
"The extreme amount of attention and focus that goes into his racing organization is absolutely amazing," said Rusty Wallace, a former standout driver for Penske on the NASCAR circuit who is now a team owner in the Nationwide series and an ESPN analyst.
"Roger's always got a plan, and he's always got a backup plan. He'll practice scenarios, crazy things you don't think will ever happen in a race, but if they do, they'll know what to do."
Penske, 73, embraces the adage, "Chance favors only the mind that is prepared."
"In racing and in life you have to prepare as hard as you can and be ready for the unexpected," he said. "I learned that lesson early on in my racing days, and it is something that we continue to focus on with all of our race teams and all of our businesses. When you prepare, work hard and execute, good things tend to happen."
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Penske's most-often-mentioned strength is his fierce loyalty to those who have earned it.
In 1984, Mears was severely injured in an accident. Both his feet were mangled, and the initial diagnosis was that he would lose them. Even when doctors saved his feet, he didn't know if he would walk again, let alone be able to handle a car at 200 mph.
"Obviously, you think, 'Am I going to be able to do my job? Am I going to be able to keep my job?' " Mears said. "Other teams, I would have been sitting on the sidewalk. Roger came in and said, 'Relax. Do what the doctors tell you. The seat will be there when you're ready.' You talk about a relief. That's him. That's Roger. Whatever it is.''
Mears did return, all right, and won big, including the Indianapolis 500 again in 1991.
"I have always valued loyalty as a trait with our team members, and that is certainly a two-way street," Penske said. "We are loyal to our drivers and our team because we believe in them and we trust in them. When you make that kind of investment in someone, it has been my experience that they work hard and dedicate themselves to succeed for the team."
Consider Helio Castroneves, the successful, popular Brazilian driver and winner of TV's Dancing With the Stars in 2007 who was facing tax evasion charges a year ago this time. Penske stood steadfastly by him, and in mid April, a jury acquitted Castroneves.
"Last year with my situation, with my trial, (Penske) certainly proved to not only be an incredible person but an incredible friend as well," Castroneves said. "He's loyal. I do believe that loyalty, it brings out the best of each person."
That was seen in May when Castroneves won the Indianapolis 500 for a third time for Penske. As for the driver who filled in for Castroneves during his trial and was given the promise that if he worked hard and performed, he would have a job in 2010, Penske stuck to his word.
That driver was Will Power. He won in Brazil to open this year's IndyCar season.
"He's a very honest, genuine person to deal with," Power said of Penske. "He does exactly what he says. You work out quickly that he's the best guy you'll ever work for."
Said Briscoe, "Everyone is loyal to Roger and would do anything for him. He's just such a classy and honorable guy, and I think that makes a big difference. Obviously, the team has had the right resources over the years to perform well, but it comes down to doing it the right way."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.