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Novelists are naturally more confident of the decisive moments in their characters' lives than biographers, but it is not too great a hazard to relate that the turning point in the life of Roger Penske, who has become one of the world's most accomplished racing drivers while devotedly working five days a week as an aluminum salesman, came when he was 10. That year—it was 1947—Roger was growing up in Shaker Heights, the fashionable Cleveland suburb. One day, momentous only in retrospect, like the footprint in the flower bed, he asked his father for a new bike. Instead of buying it for him, which he could easily have afforded, J. H. Penske (it is German and pronounced Pen-ski) told his son he would have to get one on his own hook. At the time Roger was a carrier for the Cleveland News. The News was offering a bicycle to any boy who could get 20 new subscribers on his route. "I got 40," Roger recalled the other day. "I could have had two bikes. Then I thought it was easy, but it gave me confidence. Anything you want you can get if you work at it."
Although Roger's feat was not enough to save the News—it was sold in 1960—it taught him some firm precepts that are no less valid for being the catch phrases of a peculiarly American approach to success. "I have always felt, believe me, that nothing is impossible," Roger says, rather grimly. "I mean nothing. If they say it's impossible it only turns me on. The guy who puts the most work in gets the most results. You never get anywhere unless you do something. The guy who's sitting back will get passed while he's waiting. Everything I've said we're going to do, I've done. If it has to be done, I'll get it done somehow."
Due in large part to an unrelenting allegiance to these slogans, Roger Penske has made phenomenal progress in the four years he has gone to the races. In 1961 he won his class—D modified—in Sports Car Club of America competition and was selected as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Sports Car Driver of the Year. In the final months of 1962 Roger won the Riverside ( Calif.) Grand Prix and the Pacific Grand Prix at Laguna Seca, Calif., two of the richest and most prestigious sports car races in the world, and wound up the year by winning twice more: in the Grand Prix of Puerto Rico and in the Bahamas Tourist Trophy Race in Nassau. All told, in 1962 he won $34,350 racing sports cars—a record sum. He was North American champion and was chosen by both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times as Sports Car Driver of the Year. This unparalleled succession of triumphs established Roger without question as the finest road-racing driver competing exclusively in America. Since he has confined himself chiefly to sports cars and has not participated in the Grandes �preuves abroad, which are contested in Formula I cars, he cannot be compared with ranking American drivers: Dan Gurney, considered by many, including Roger, to be the best in the world, and Phil Hill, world champion in 1961. As Stirling Moss forthrightly put it when asked to evaluate Penske and Gurney: "Bloody silly!"
This is not to say that Moss intended to slight Penske. After Roger finished ninth in the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, N.Y. last year, Moss sent him a postcard. It read: "It's none of my business, but I wanted to tell you that I thought you drove a damn good race. Intelligence is a rare ability.... P.S. My first fan letter for years."
Gurney thinks highly of his young rival, too. "Considering the time he's been able to spend at it," Dan said at Daytona Beach last month, "he's done extremely well. He's got a real good idea of things equipmentwise, preparationwise. And he gets the best men to help him. If I were running on a team, I'd want him on it. He can sum up a situation. He realizes it's not worth taking a chance until he has eliminated a number of the variables, safetywise. His attitude and his approach from all angles is the best. Chances are he has what it takes to achieve whatever goal he has set out to achieve in racing." As Penske sauntered within earshot, Gurney added, "He's got the money in the bank and everybody hates him."
"My ideas in everything are so much bigger than anyone else's" is another of Roger Penske's tenets. His boldest and most profitable idea is the controversial Zerex-Duralite Special, in which he won the Riverside, Laguna and Puerto Rico Grands Prix. It is a hybrid: a sports car body on the restored frame of a Formula I Cooper wreck.
Still another tenet of Roger's is: "There are some things I can't do, but I know people who can do them for me." Roger's mechanic, Roy (Axle) Gane; Bob Webb, a body man from Indianapolis; and Harry Tidmarsh, a local body man, built the Special in 11 weeks. "A guy that can take good people, put them together, gets results," Roger says.
"I had to do something to beat those other guys," Roger says, referring to the Special. "After I did it a lot of people came up to me and said, 'Gee, I thought about doing that.' If it was so easy it should have been done long ago, but I was the one who did it and I won the races."
The disputed design feature of the Special was that Roger's seat was in the middle of the car, as in Formula I's; the passenger's seat required by sports car specifications was outside the frame.
The Special passed inspection and no one protested it in any of its three races, but the critics began to complain. "Some of the gloss was taken off his wins," wrote one critic, "by his non-sporting Zerex-Duralite F-1 disguised as a sports car." But as another pointed out, "Roger made two mistakes: he won and he was from the East."