Roger Penske: ‘Once you’re in NASCAR and it bites you, you can’t let it go’

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Roger Penske doesn’t know how the “Penske Way” of doing things evolved. But he thinks the origins of the mindset that has led to 430 auto racing wins in 50 years are in his time in a military school.

“I had to start at the back of the platoon before I got up front,” Penske said during the NASCAR Media Tour two weeks ago. “Once I got up there, I didn’t want to go to the back.”

The owner of Team Penske has been to the front a lot. Since 1966, when Roger Penske Racing was founded, the Penske name has won in nearly every major form of auto racing with 85 different drivers. He holds the record for Indianapolis 500 winning efforts with 16.

Penske, 78, dipped his toes into the NASCAR ownership waters beginning in 1972 and won five times through 1975.

“Once you’re in NASCAR and it bites you, you can’t let it go,” Penske said during a Q&A session devoted to the team’s 50th anniversary.

But Penske didn’t go all out as a NASCAR owner until 1991, when he joined forces with Rusty Wallace. The two had first worked together for two races in 1980. Those were Penske’s last NASCAR races for 11 years.

“I think it takes the driver, it takes that team, and I think (Rusty Wallace) brought something,” Penske said. “His own personal commitment. He’d work on the cars. He’d drive the truck if he had to, and once you’re in how do you get out?”

In the 25 years since re-entering the sport, Team Penske’s NASCAR operation has earned 88 of its 93 Sprint Cup wins, won the Daytona 500 twice (2008 and ’15) and finally earned a Sprint Cup championship in 2012 with Brad Keselowski.

Penske now has a two-car team and a new partnership with Wood Brothers Racing.

The team owner has no immediate plans to step away from his role that has lasted half a century.

“I don’t know when I’m gonna leave the sport,” Penske said. “It will probably be very abrupt when I do, but, anyhow, I’m counting on this legacy will continue on. My sons and our family love this sport. It’s the backbone, a common thread through the company, so there’s no reason not to be involved. I think if we can sustain the sponsorship and the key people stay with us and will continue to help us, we can go on forever. I don’t see any reason we can’t do that.”

Penske addressed many topics during his Q&A session. Below are some of the highlights.

On the Joey LoganoMatt Kenseth feud

“That’s water over the dam. It’s like in business, you have a bad quarter or a bad year you just move on, you have to get better. I think Joey handled it like a professional. We tried to do the same as a team. There was a lot of noise about it, but I think our best position was to be, ‘Let’s think about the next race and go on to 2016.'”

Thoughts on the proposed charter system

“All I know is the RTA, the car owners are sitting down with NASCAR to try to work out a long-term, viable situation where we can be in partnership for the rest of many of our lives. I think by doing this it will make the sport stronger.”

On his absence from NASCAR between 1980 and 1991

“Our plate was full. We were doing IROC. We were doing Can-Am. We were doing IndyCar racing and some sports car stuff. To me, I think it was at that point we thought we had too much on our plate and the costs were escalating. If we didn’t have the sponsorship, we couldn’t keep up. But then as we were able to settle down and have more success we put our marketing department together. We were able to have the opportunity to access some of the sponsorships with some of the key people that wanted to be teamed with our company.”

What’s on his racing bucket list

“We’d like to be able to win at Le Mans if we can. We’ve raced there, but have never had the success that we wanted. Maybe at some point here we could put something together, but we’ve got a full plate right now and I think with the NASCAR Series and what takes place in ’16 and IndyCar with four cars and what we’re trying to do out in Australia, we’ve got a real full plate.”

Penske once tried to buy Atlanta Motor Speedway

“I remember when (Bruton Smith) was buying the Atlanta track. I was negotiating in the other room and (NASCAR vice chairman) Mike Helton was running the track at that point and (Smith) put a number on the board that was so above mine that I said, ‘It’s yours,’ and I moved on.”