KRAVITZ: 51 years later, The Captain, Roger Penske, remains the boss of motorsports

Team Owner Roger Penske watches his team work during practice for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April 2017. (Chris Owens Photo)
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Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Roger Penske is the smartest man in the room. By extension, he’s the richest and most successful man in the room. It’s not just his intelligence and grace under pressure that makes The Captain the most dominant team owner in the history of open-wheel racing; it’s his essential humanity.

Consider the story of Rick Mears, the legendary driver who won four Indianapolis 500’s. He not only owes Penske a portion of his four Indy 500 victories, he owes Penske his livelihood and the fact that if not for The Captain, he would have had his feet amputated after a horrendous crash in a Canadian race back in 1984.

“He saved my legs, my feet,’’ Mears told the Detroit Free Press in January of last year. “Absolutely, he did. The doctors wanted to cut both feet off. Roger stepped in, said we are not going to settle for that. Roger got me in a helicopter – something out of a M*A*S*H episode – and then flew me in the plane to Indianapolis…My feet were just bits and pieces. He got me out of the hospital and down to Indianapolis and on the road to recovery. All the time, he said, `Relax, do what the doctors tell you. Your seat will always be there when you come back.’’

Mears recovered and Penske kept his word, and Mears, who continues to pay Penske back as a consultant and spotter for Team Penske, went on to return 10 months later and eventually win four Indianapolis 500’s.

It can be argued quite easily that Penske is the greatest current owner in sports. Who compares? I mean, in any sport? Last year, his 50th season leading Team Penske, the team earned 10 wins, 11 poles and swept the top three in the point standings. Fast forward to this year, they’ve won all five poles heading into this Indianapolis 500 qualifying weekend, and have won the last three races in a row. Indy? Nobody owns Indy like Penske, who has seen his teams win The Greatest Spectacle in Racing 16 times with 11 different drivers. His drivers are not slowing down. Penske himself is not slowing down. Retirement seems an unlikely option.

He was once a race-car driver himself, but moved on to business and ownership and eventually became both a billionaire and a motorsports icon.

“I say it many times in our normal business, I want it to be tough to join our organization, but I want it to be tough to leave,’’ Penske said Friday. “And I think that’s why you see the same people with the same white shirts and black pants on year after year at these races…We’re going to pay our people to do the job from top to bottom…When I go to our dealership or go to a truck location, I don’t go in a conference room and look at a bunch of numbers. I go out and talk to the people.

Team owner Roger Penske and Helio Castroneves chat along pit lane prior to the final warmup for the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May 2017. (Joe Skibinski Photo)

“I think that’s something my dad taught me many, many years ago: 'Remember the people that work for you.' If you’re worried about what’s going to happen to yourself, you're probably not going to make it. Think about the organization you work for, and I’ve taken that kind of mission statement throughout the company for many years."

Josef Newgarden, who is a rookie on the Penske team after spending time with Ed Carpenter Racing, adjusted quickly to working for the most successful team in motorsports.

“With Team Penske, you have a lot of people around you, a lot of amazing people,’’ he said. “As Roger speaks to, people are what really make this team what it is. Everyone from the top to the bottom, from the bottom to the top. It’s amazing the amount of people that you get to work with and how detailed and talented they all are..."

Earlier in the day, Penske had talked about “human capital,’’ and that’s what it’s been about since he established his motorsports team. He has high expectations. The people who work for him have high expectations and are paid to meet those expectations. Sometimes that means saying the right words. Sometimes, it means saying nothing.

At one point, Penske’s drivers (Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud) were asked if Penske has any pet sayings to inspire his charges.

Mears chimed in. “All he has to do is look,’’ he said.

The car driven by Josef Newgarden hits the wall in the first turn during a practice session for the Indianapolis 500 IndyCar auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Thursday, May 18, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Kirk DeBrunner)

Think Newgarden might have gotten a look, or even THE look, after his mishap during Thursday’s practice session?

“I lost some sleep last night over it, for sure,’’ Newgarden said. “I think it’s unfortunate to have an incident like that. You know, I think we prep probably the best race cars on the planet here at Team Penske, so for me to have a mistake is tough to swallow, but it’s one of those deals where I think you have to learn from it....It lingers for a bit; I won’t lie to you, but you’ve got to get back on the horse pretty quick and get going because this place doesn’t wait for you.’’

For Penske, it comes down to the details, the little things that turn into very big things. Prior to and during the Detroit Super Bowl in 2006, an event that Penske organized, The Captain went out in a car every morning and surveyed the city to make sure every little thing was in its proper place. He would see an area of disrepair, make a call and get it fixed. He would see something that required a bit of a paint touch-up, and he would make a call and get it done.

The result was, Detroit looked better than we could have imagined Detroit looking.

Everything The Captain touches, it seems, turns to gold. Or, in the case of the Indianapolis 500, it turns to sterling silver.

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