Roger Penske is not known to be sentimental. He is firmly focused on the future, rarely wanting to use his precious time reflecting on the past, no matter how successful it may have been.
At 85, Penske is still going strong, presiding over a transportation services empire with 67,000 employees and $37 billion in annual revenue. He jokingly refers to his racing team as his golf game or fishing weekend, but Team Penske has always been serious business, setting the standard for teams in every arena in which it competes. This is currently the case for IndyCar, NASCAR and IMSA, where Porsche Penske Motorsport will field a pair of Porsche 963 Hybrid Prototypes in the new GTP WeatherTech SportsCar Championship class in 2023. Porsche Penske’s effort also includes a two-car attack in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
Porsche is one subject that tends to persuade The Captain to take a trip down memory lane, as he did recently when asked to comment on an essay in a new book titled Spyder racing which is expected to be published by Progresso 33 in early 2024.
Penske and Porsche have a remarkable 65-year history, dating back to 1958 when he purchased the 550 RS from Bob Holbert, Pennsylvania Porsche dealer and racer and father of future IMSA star (and stalwart Porsche spokesman) Al Holbert.
Between 1958 and 1964, Penske was one of America’s most promising future drivers; he won the SCCA President’s Cup in 1960, ’62 and ’63 and was named Sports Illustrated Driver of the Year in 1961. It is known that he retired from driving after the 1964 season to focus on his business interests, turning down an opportunity to audition for the Dean Van Lines IndyCar seat that went to the unknown Mario Andretti.
Much of Penske’s early success was achieved behind the wheel of a Porsche, particularly after he teamed up with Karl Keinhofer, an Austrian immigrant who was a factory-trained Porsche mechanic capable of servicing the rare Type 547 ‘Fuhrman’ engine. Keinhofer’s relentless ‘spit and polish’ philosophy was a perfect fit for a perfectionist like Penske; he would become a founding member of Penske Racing in 1966, remaining with the team until his retirement in 1997.
“I’ve been a Spyder mechanic since the beginning — transmission, transmission, engine, everything,” Keinhofer said. “I think I was the only one on the East Coast who knew how to work a Furman engine. In many ways he was a little ahead of everyone else.
“Roger quickly realized that I could help him. He only had a station wagon, a trailer and a race car. I was the guy who cleaned and cleaned and cleaned and he appreciated that. It became a trademark.”
Penske has fond memories of those early days when he often rode with Keinhofer as they towed the race car to road race venues across North America. Penske raced Porsches until 1961, scoring major victories in the 550 RS, 718 RSK, RS60 and RS61.
“We had a great run at that time,” Penske said. “I personally enjoyed driving Porsche racing cars. The first Porsche I ever raced was a 550 RS and we raced that car in 1958 and 1959. Our first victory with a Porsche came at the Springtown Hill Climb in April 1959. We liked what we were able to do in terms of performance and it gave us the confidence to continue building with Porsche.
“I believe I have won 28 races in my career driving Porsche and it really marked the beginning of a strong partnership together.”
Penske’s next association with Porsche came in the early 1970s, when George Vollmer and Mark Donahue won back-to-back SCCA Can-Am championships in the fearsome 917-10 and 917-30. During the same era, Penske co-founded the International Race of Champions and Donahue won his first title in one of the identical Porsche 911 Carerra RSRs he designed for the All-Star Series.
Fast forward three decades, and Team Penske was hired by Porsche to enter a pair of RS Spyders in the American Le Mans Series. Built to LMP2 specification, the nimble Porsche often gave theoretically faster LMP1 rivals a solid run for their money, taking overall victory at the 2008 12 Hours of Sebring and several other sprint races.
Now, 65 years after he first raced the 550 RS, Penske and Porsche have teamed up for an even more ambitious feat, culminating in a four-car attack to celebrate the centenary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For all his success as a team owner, Le Mans is one of the major races where Penske has never won overall.
Even as the newly minted owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s clear that Porsche’s latest connection is especially important to Penske. Over the past six months, he has attended several tests during the development of the car.
“I personally started in sports cars, and the success we’ve had over the years with Porsche really started with me driving an RSK Spyder in my early days,” Penske said. “This has led to a relationship with Porsche that we are very proud of. I remember testing the 917 at Weissach with Mark Donoghue when it was just a track and a shed… you go there today and it’s like a small town.
“Porsche has such a great tradition and special heritage in racing. Their commitment to winning has always aligned well with our goals and objectives. We’ve had a great relationship with the Porsche team in Germany as well as here in the U.S., even when we haven’t raced on the track. We are proud to have grown together on and off the track.
“When we were going to return to permanent sports car competition and build the program according to the new global formula, it made perfect sense to work with Porsche in a new alliance for the future. Rekindling our relationship is very special and we are certainly excited about our new opportunity to work together.”