The rising sun reflected off the spotless sides of Penske Racing's two black-and-stain less steel tractor trailers. The big rigs stood like fortress walls on opposite sides of Penske Racing's work space at the Road America race circuit in Elkhart Lake, Wis. A white nylon awning hung between them, shading the concrete slab that Roger Penske has had poured just for the three days each year his team spends on this spot.
A few steps away from the Penske Racing work area sat a black-and-stain-less steel custom-built coach, outfitted like a 747 and spit-shined like its owner's shoes. The three service vehicles alone cost more than a million dollars; nearby were four Indy cars worth another million and a half or so, plus a few hundred thousand dollars in tools, parts and spare engines. And don't forget the black-and-stainless steel fuel truck parked over in the pits.
The Penske crew, crisply dressed and clean-shaven, was hard at work at daybreak this Saturday in September. Some of the crew had been at it all night. The previous evening Penske had sent one of his two Lear jets back to the team's home base in Reading, Pa., to pick up special driveline parts for his Penske-Chevy Indy Cars driven by Danny Sullivan and Rick Mears. Those parts might save a few 10ths of a second during qualifying later this day, and winning the pole position for the Road America 200 would be worth one point toward the Championship Auto Racing Teams ( CART) title. It cost maybe $12,000 for the Lear to make the 1,300-mile round trip, but it was worth it; that afternoon Sullivan got the pole and the point. Five weeks later he would clinch the 1988 Indy Car championship.
This has been the best year of Sullivan's career. In 15 races he has earned the pole nine times and won four races. Mears has sat on the pole four times and won twice, including the Indianapolis 500. Together Sullivan and Mears have set 12 track records in 1988.
All of which adds up to perhaps Roger Penske's best year in Indy Car racing as well. The 1988 Indy 500 marked the 20th time he had entered a team at the Brickyard, and he celebrated the occasion by monopolizing the front row with his three cars, the third being driven by 49-year-old Al Unser Sr. Mears's victory this year gave Penske his seventh Indy win, making him the most successful car owner in the 72-year history of the race. Over the past two decades, his team has also won eight Indy Car championships, 55 races and 74 pole positions, all records.
There are people, including some in racing, who think that Penske, 51, with his fistful of dollars, has simply spent his way to the top. After all, they say, isn't motor racing really money racing? Just a matter of buying a top-line driver and the fastest car? True, Penske had the best car this year, the Penske PC-17, and true, he had it because he could afford it. But Penske didn't just order the car from the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue; his team developed it at considerable effort and financial risk. The PC-17, built at Penske Cars in Poole, England, is the successor to two noteworthy failures: the PC-15 of 1986 and the PC-16 of '87.
As for the Chevy V-8 engine, which was in the winning cars in 14 of 15 Indy Car races this year, Penske owns 25%, and is one of the directors, of Ilmor Engineering, the Brixworth, England, company that makes the strictly-for-racing powerplant. Penske's involvement with Ilmor presumably gives him considerable say in who gets the limited number of engines that are made each season. This year, for instance, only Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. enjoyed the same horsepower advantage that Penske Racing had. Penske got that advantage only because he agreed to help develop a powerplant that showed promise of outperforming the Cosworth V-8, an engine that at the time was on its way to an 81-race winning streak.
"Listen, everybody's got the same chance in racing," Penske says. "Any other owner could have done what I did. I certainly try to deal with my hands on top of the table. I play absolutely by the rules and would challenge anybody to say I don't."
That challenge isn't readily taken. Sports marketing consultant Jim Melvin, who was CART's first president from 1979 to '80, when he was also general manager of Michigan International Speedway, a track owned by Penske, says, "Roger has long arms, so not too many people ever say anything bad about him, because they know it might come back to haunt them."
One man unafraid of those arms is David Atlas, Penske Corporation in-house counsel during many battles and deals from '79 to '86. Atlas, who now has his own practice (specializing in motor sports), took part in the successful defense against a $22 million lawsuit in the death of Mark Donohue. It was Donohue who won Penske Racing's first Indy 500 victory in '72. Then, three years and a brief retirement later, Donohue died following a crash while practicing for the Grand Prix of Austria in a fledgling Penske Formula One car. Says Atlas of Penske, "For seven years, I studied that man as intensely as anything in my life, and I remember every word he said. When it comes to business, using and manipulating people, the guy is so talented it isn't funny. But when people talk about this choirboy who walks on water.... Well, not as long as I live and breathe. I've seen his genius, but I've also seen his dark side. He has a ruthless, aggressive streak."