The Name of the Game is Winning — The Roger Penske Story — Part 2
From the book The World of Automobiles, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Motor Car, Who’s Who
Just over a year later, in 1966, Penske was back. He entered a Chevrolet Corvette in the Daytona 24-Hours which won the GT award, and he persuaded the Sun Oil Company to sponsor a Lola T70-Chevrolet sports car to be driven by Penske’s protege, a shy motor engineer aged 29, Mark Donahue.
Donahue proved a wise choice, winning the Mosport round in the new Can-Am Challenge Cup series and taking an eventual second place on points to John Surtees. Soon, Donahue began to work full time for Penske, preparing the cars as well as driving them. Racing Penske’s Lola T70-Chevrolet, Donahue won the 1967 US Road Racing Championship sports-car series. The programme escalated the following year: with an ex-works McLaren M6A-Chevrolet, Donahue won the US Road Racing Championship for the second year running and was third in the Can-Am Challenge Cup behind the works McLarens of Denny Hulme and Bruce McLarens. In the Trans-Am Championship, a manufacturers’ series for 5-liter saloon cars, Penske renewed his acquaintance with General Motors’ Engineering & Development Division by campaigning Chevrolet Camaros. Sure enough, with Donahue doing the lion’s share of the driving, Chevrolet triumphed in Trans-Am in both 1968 and 1969, taking twenty victories from 27 starts.
In 1969, Penske withdrew from the Can-Am series to concentrate on winning the Trans-Am, plus a new venture: an entry in the Indianapolis 500. Donohue, at the wheel of the four-wheel-drive Lola T152 Offenhauser, gualified fourth fastest and finished seventh, also gaining the Rookie of the year award. In February, Penske entered a Lola T70 Mk 3B-Chevrolet coupe in the Daytona 24-hours, Mark Donohue/Chuck Parsons steering it to victory despite several problems. This was to have been a prelude for a Penske-masterminded, General Motors-backed attack on the Le Mans 24 hours in June. Indeed, four works Lola’s were entered for the race, but in April the project was cancelled. Another link with General Motors was the testing of a stock-block Cheverolet-engined Lola at Indianapolis, but it proved uncompetitive.
In October 1969, Penske dropped a bombshell on the racing world. He announced he would be running American Motors Javelins in the 1970 Trans-Am series. Penske had arranged a lucrative deal with American Motors and used his teams engineering expertise to transform the Javelins into race winners. In the 1970 series, they were second to Ford, but in 1971 the title was theirs!
During 1970, Penske once more attempted Indianapolis, this time Donohue managed second in a Lola T153-Ford. A brief, end-of-season flirtation in Formula 5000 saw Donohue winning three races in the prototype Lola T190-Chevrolet. 1971, though, was a more ambitious year. Penske was prosperous and it showed in his business and motor-racing activities. By now he had Chevrolet dealerships in Allentown and Detroit as well as Philadelphia. He was involved in a major Hertz rental franchise, in insurance, a chain of Sunoco petrol stations and Goodyear dealerships. He was an automotive consultant to Sears, developing and endorsing a line of high performance parts, accessories and equipment sold as Penske High Performance Products. He was elected a director of the United States Auto Club, was director of the Ontario Motor Speedway and vice-chairman of the board of Atlantic City Raceway.
On the racing front, however, apart from the Trans-Am series win, plans fell flat in 1971. With Kirk F. White, a Philadelphia foreign-car dealer, Penske entered a superbly prepared Ferrari 512M in the Daytona 24-hours, Sebring 12-hours, LeMans 24-hours and Watkins Glen 6-hours, but each time niggling problems let down drivers Mark Donohue and David Hobbs. At Indianapolis, Donohue appeared in a McLaren M16-Offenhauser (Penske switched from Lola to McLaren, undertaking the Colnbrook company’s pre-race development programme) and led the race until his gearbox failed. Later, another car smashed into the stranded McLaren, while Penskes’second entry of the old Lola driven by David Hobbs was also written-off in a accident. As consolation, Donohue won the Pocono 500 in the rebuilt McLaren later in the year. Penske also tested the Formula One scene, hiring a works McLaren M19A-VFord for Donohue to drive in the Canadian and United States Grands Prix. The car was thoroughly tested prior to the races in typical Penske tradition and Donohue was a superb third in Canada; he was unable to start in America owing to a postponed USAC event and Hobbs drove into 10th place.
In 1972, following visits to Italy, Japan and Germany to talk to Ferrari, Toyota and Porsche, Penske returned to Can-Am to compete with works-assisted, turbocharged Porsche 917-10Ks. Sponsorship came from L&M cigarettes, and the cars, raced by Donohue and George Follmer, proved almost unbeatable. Follmer won the series, while Donohue, after missing four rounds owing to a mid-season accident, was fourth. Donohue also won the Indianapolis 500 in a Penske-entered McLaren M16B-Offenhauser. An American Motors Corporation Matador was prepared for NASCAR racing, but with a 6-liter engine opposing the opposition’s 7-liter engine it was outclassed. Nevertheless, with an imminent change in the regulations it was good groundwork in this very different style of American motor racing. Donohue annihilated the opposition in the 1973 Can-Am Challenge Cup series, this time driving Penske’s Porsche 917-30K, one of the most powerful racing cars ever built, featuring a turbocharged 5.3-liter engine which could be made to develop over 1000 bhp. In effect, this total domination killed Can-Am. Donohue was not so lucky on the USAC trail, however, his Eagle M5-Offenhauser suffering engine failure on every outing, while on the NASCAR front Donohue won the Western 500 in an AMC Matador at Riverside California! In Formula 5000, a special Lola T330 with an American Motors engine proved uncompetitive when matched against Chevrolet-powered machines, although Donohue managed two seconds in the series and AMC reaped the technical benefit.
During the winter of 1973-74, Penske promoted a series of races, the International Race of Champions series, for the top drivers in all spheres of motor sport. The winner was … Mark Donohue following a hectic series of events in Porsche 911 Carreras.
At the end of 1973, news leaked that Penske was to build his own racing car, a Formula One machine. He bought the small, ex-McRae factory in Dorset, England, so as to design and build the car in the hub of Grand Prix racing, Europe. Ex-Brabant designer Geoff Ferris combined his own ideas with those of Penske, Donohue, and Don Cox, Penske Racing Inc’s director of engineering, and the result, which appeared for the first time in the 1974 Canadian Grand Prix, was a conventional machine using the ubiquitous Ford DFV engine and Hewland gearbox. It was sponsored by First National City Travelers Checks and driven by Mark Donohue, who had just emerged from eight months of ‘retirement’, for after the International Race of Champions series he had supposedly quit and been promoted to president of Penske Racing Inc. Donohue also agreed to drive in 75.
The 1974 program also included selected NASCAR events (Bobby Allison won in the Penske AMC Matador (toro toro!) at the end-of-the-season Times 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway) and USAC racing. Over the winter of 1974-75, there was another International Race of Champions series, this time with Chevrolet Camaros, the winner being Bobby Unser. In 1975, the Penske Matador became a strong threat in NASCAR racing, Bobby Allison winning at Riverside California and taking second place in the Daytona 500.
Roger Penske’s serious and analytical approach to motor racing made his team one of the most successful in the world. He raced to win; indeed, he expected to win. For an American team to enter the basically European Formula arena was a major step. Penske had begun cautiously, knowing he lacked experience of this type of racing, but his aim was to win in the end.
Who’s In Charge Here? March 1969 Alan Girdler, Car Life magazine
Factory performance equipment are accessible if you’re fast and famous. If you’re just an enthusiast, even finding parts numbers can be maddening. Some automotive factories plan it that way, others don’t know any better.
General Motors is not in racing. Neither as a corporation nor as separate divisions does GM own, enter or sponsor racing cars.
General Motors is a business. By a definition the process of building and selling things people want, to the people that want them. The customers, in significant numbers, want racing cars. Two GM divisions Chevrolet and Pontiac, produce cars that can be raced, and sell them to racers.
This isn’t an evasion of the famous ban. The GM edict prohibits sponsorship, ownership, or entry, by the corporation or divisions. A dealer is free to race. GM, in fact, couldn’t stop him. The divisions can’t get into the ring, but they can serve as trainer, or second. It’s fair to say the divisions are fulfilling an obligation to their customers. Especially when it pays off in more customers, and fulfills GM’s obligation to its stockholders.
One Chevrolet official feels, rather wistfully, that racing would be a better world if all of the factory’s devised cars and components, then sold them to the racers. Maybe so. That’s how they do it at Chevrolet. Where the rules work in favor of such an arrangement, Chevrolet wins.
The Tran-Am sedan racing series is a good example. The rules require that competing cars be certified; that the engines used have factory equipment; that a specified number of engines be produced; and that the car’s shape and dimensions aren’t changed. The entrant can’t do it. His car must have the proper papers, and the factory must file them.
Right. The Z28. Chevrolet catalogued a Camaro with a full-house, short-stroke engine and every component they could think of, and filled the papers.
Here’s where the factory leaves off. The Camaros that won this year’s series were prepared and campaigned by a Chevrolet dealer. He specializes in performance cars. His promotional budget had room for a racing team. Then he arranged for sponsorship by a oil company. More money still, without factory help. With a good starting package, money and skill to develop it, and one of the best drivers in the country , Camaros ruled.
The important lesson for the customer is that he can buy the same package, right off the dealer’s showroom floor. He can buy the same equivalent package with a AMC Javelin, but it’ll come in pieces. From Ford, for 1968, anyway, he got promises. Chevrolet doesn’t own racing cars. It sells them.
How Chevrolet develops its good stuff varies in degree. It originates at the factory. Walter McKenzie, of Chevrolet public relations, cheerfully admits that the factory likes to help racers, but he says there’s one catch: The product must have a future on the production line.
Take this years’ wonder project, the aluminum-block 427-cid V-8. The first examples weren’t even made by Chevrolet! The persuasive Roger Penske talked Chevrolet into lending him the pattern used for the iron blocks. Penske formerly worked for Alcoa, and he persuaded them to use the patterns and cast some aluminum blocks. Penske kept some, and other racers, notably Jim Hall, got some. They had teething problems, but were cured. Hall and Penske had the best engines around. Chevrolet and Alcoa had the benefit of some valuable experiments, cheap.
This year, Chevrolet cast its own blocks. The key point is that before the blocks got off the drawing board, Chevrolets division manager and the design engineer studied the possibilities and decided the lightweight engine could be produced, and would sell, in production cars. Corvettes with the alloy block were to have gone into productions Feb. 1.
McKenzie Said the division could, without much trouble, build lightweight, racing Corvettes, 1000 lb. less than standard, with terrifying horsepower to match. They would not be salable, or habitable, for the street, They won’t be built.
Concepts and designs come from the factory, but the Chevrolet does let some racers-the successful ones-help with field tests. Mark Donohue won the U.S. Group Seven Championship and was a contender in the Can-Am series with a McLaren powered by an aluminum alloy 427, months before production or even introduction.
The first engines oozed fluids from every seam. Rumors about oil coming through the pores were just rumor, Donohue said. The problem was that different metals expand at rates when hot, and special attention must be paid attention, and “They don’t leak anymore.”
A Chevrolet engineer serves as liaison man between the teams and the factory. Donohue and the other racers tell him what breaks and why, and the factory fixes it. Donohue understates, “They’re interested in what we’re doing just as we’re interested in what they’re doing.”
There are no racers in Chevrolet’s engineering section. Donohue thinks this is all to the good. The racing approach, he said, is to make things bigger and stronger, which doesn’t always mean better, especially from a production standpoint.
The first weak point in a new engine is usually the connecting rods. If a Ford engine flings rods , Donohue said, the Ford racers build super rods, each one a hand-crafted jewel. They work, but the price is more than rubies, and they are just about as hard to dig up.
“Chevy takes the engineering approach. They’ll try to build a better production connecting rod and sell it across the country.”
Chevrolet has been in the keen bits business longer than anybody. Starting with the great 1955 V-8, and spurred by the production-is-everything philosophy, the division has acquired a huge supply of bolt-on pieces. Every-thing Chevrolet has fits something else. The guy with the first V-8 in economy trim can thumb through the book and come up with the power-pack heads, manifold and four-barrel carburetor. If that’s not enough, he can get the ’56 Duntov Corvette cam shaft, and keep going, with wilder carbs, better heads, bigger engines that all but climb into the car by themselves. Anybody with a Chevrolet V-8, large or small, can get useful goodies for it, just by going to his dealer.
The surprising thing is that with the biggest selection, Chevrolet gives the would-be buyer the most trouble selecting parts. There is no high-performance catalog. There is no high-performance catalog. They have existed in the past; they may come back tomorrow; but they aren’t out on the dealers counters now.
Chevrolet has the big sales crown, and its executives are uneasy. The politicians, who would be out of business without emotion, roll their eyes skyward at the thought of ads that hint the buyer of a Chevrolet might be lured into buying a car that responds, that will hurl him past the giddy in speed of 65 mph. Chevrolet doesn’t want to offend these public servants. The right stuff is there, but if the buyer doesn’t know what to ask for, or doesn’t luck out with a salesman or parts man that knows his business, he’s in for a tough time.
There is, at the factory, a very knowledgeable man. His job is to know all about special parts. (Watch your language; say “high performance” to a Chevrolet employee and he’ll say “heavy-duty” right back.) He is, though, at wholesale level, keeping dealers up on what’s where. The top exec likes it that way.
“He’s very effective as it is,” Said one. “If we publicize him, he’ll get so work he’ll need two or three assistants. And he probably wouldn’t get them.
But there still is some hope. In 1969, questions about options, parts or interchangeability, could be sent to the Central Office Parts Dept., Chevrolet Division, 3044 W. Grand Boulevard, Detroit, Mich. 48202.
Excerpt from the book The World of Automobiles, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Motor Car, Who’s Who / Penske copyright 1974 by Orbis Publishing Limited, London distributed by Columbia House 51 West 52nd Street, New York, NY 10019 Chapter Who’s Who — Penske: The Name of the Game is Winning pages 1665 – 1668.
Excerpt from Car Life magazine, Volume 16 Number 2 March 1969, Special Staff Report, Who’s In Charge Here? Pages 26 – 32 copyright 1969 by Bond Publishing Company, Newport Beach, California.
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