Brant James
Wednesday April 9th, 2008

Being Roger Penske seems like a pretty good deal. If only he would offer some clues. Indulge us. Other than a suppressed smile or a few fleeting moments of glee at yet another milestone, the distinguished 71-year-old appears in a constant state of setting the next goal, assessing the next situation. Where's the rose-smelling?

The head of Penske Corporation, the all-seeing eye of a multi-billion-dollar transportation and manufacturing empire, he began making money as a kid in Shaker Heights, Ohio, buying junker cars and selling them as refurbished prizes. A decorated race car driver, his retirement in 1965 was seen as a surprise, but he quickly went about building business and racing empires. His open-wheel teams have won 134 races, 12 championships and a record 14 Indianapolis 500s. Ryan Newman gave him his first Daytona 500 win in February, making him the first owner to capture North America's two most prestigious races. This spring he became the first to win the Daytona 500 and 12 Hours of Sebring American Le Mans Series in the same year.

His jet contrails ring the world for dinners at Porsche headquarters, meetings with sponsors or the opening of another monstrous Toyota dealership. When it comes to funding, he's goes where the cash, not the public image, is. His IRL teams are sponsored by Phillip Morris -- though its Marlboro branding has been removed except for the subliminally effective red and black striping -- and one of his NASCAR programs is backed by ExxonMobil, the world's largest and most profitable oil company. Another, Miller Lite. Live and let live, baby.

When his team officially announced last November in Phoenix that Sam Hornish Jr. would shift from Penske's IndyCar to its NASCAR operation, he chartered a squadron of helicopters to ferry sponsors and media over snarled traffic from the race track in Avondale so they could make the press conference on time at his high-end dealership in Scottsdale. Hornish is the IRL's all-time leader in wins (19) and titles (three) but said that part of the reason he decided to switch to NASCAR was Penske wanted him to ... and "he's always right.'' Oh, and "The Captain" helped Detroit land a Super Bowl for goodness sakes.

But he still has time to jump off the war wagon and extinguish a crewman that's caught on fire, like he did for refueler Chris Seaman at Nazareth, Pa., in 2004, and occasionally for a little chat about racing and the motorsports business. About Roger Penske, not so much.

SI.com: You're accomplished and certainly goal-oriented and we never really get an emotional response out of you -- please feel free to cry or whatever you want here -- but what was it like to become the first owner to win the Daytona 500 and 12 Hours of Sebring in the same season?

Team president Tim Cindric looks up from his laptop inside Penske's coach, reclines in his chair. "Call me, will you? I want to be there when that happens,'' he laughs. No tears today, though.

RP: I'm the last guy that's going to break down and cry. When we win those races, I get out of town as fast as I can to be sure it's true. I want to read the paper the next Monday morning to be sure it's going to be true. No, those two wins, you know, Tim is the guy that's the CEO of our racing business and has the responsibility of bringing it all together

SI.com: So Indy is the easy part of the Triple Crown, right?

RP: My goal now is to win the Indy 500 in the same year, if that's possible. There's always another goal. I don't think we think about that -- we're focused on each race. We want to be competitive. I think the Cup guys are doing a great job. Sam, it would be great to see him be able to migrate from here into the Cup side. It would be a real plus for us.

SI.com: What of the thought you could swap points with Sam Hornish Jr. and Kurt Busch again to assure the No. 77 Dodge keeps making races?

RP: Whoever talked about that ... we don't do that. We'll let him qualify like everybody else. The good thing is he is not out of the top 35. He had two wrecks. He probably would have been solidly in the twenties but he got collected in that wreck at California with [Dale] Earnhardt [Jr.] and [Casey] Mears, but I am very comfortable with what he is doing. Look, it's a long season, but to me, the progress he is making is great.

SI.com: What are your thoughts on open-wheel unification, reunification, amalgamation, or whatever you chose to call it?

RP: From a businessman's perspective, I would say that we had pressure on us from our sponsors that the league, we were losing some momentum, even though we were getting some decent crowds, we had some new venues. The negativism that was around the sport, specifically as there were two leagues, probably was beginning to pay a toll, we were paying a toll for that. On the other hand, when it goes back together, they said there's no excuses now.

SI.com: Is motorsports healthy?

RP: We understand that the U.S. economy is under pressure because of the sub-prime, high oil prices, which keeps many of our fans out of the racetracks because maybe they don't have the money to go travel across the country. We're racing in all these series and what we've been able to do over time because we've been consistent with our sponsors, we have long-term relationships with them, we've been able to sustain them. Now, do they have an appetite for larger budgets? The answer is no. We always kid ourselves "speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?''

That might not play very well with the sponsors. I think its going to be tough. When you still go here you still have the first three or four races, they still have four or five cars in NASCAR trying to qualify. I think in this series, we've got real opportunities. My son Jay is going to come to Indy and put a sponsor together for a couple of races. He's all excited and he'll be out there, hopefully not knocking on the same doors I am, that's the only problem with him.

Penske's youngest son, Jay, a multimedia entrepreneur, rare books enthusiast and proprietor of emergency cellphones for children, finished ninth in his first Indianapolis 500 as an owner last season, in equipment leased from his father and a driver -- Ryan Briscoe -- that replaced Hornish Jr. this season. The Luczo Dragon team was named for his rare book store and last name of his partner.

SI.com: How gratifying was it so see your son not only have an interest in racing, but to do well last year in the Indianapolis 500?

RP: You've got to know Jay. He's an entrepreneur at heart. We kid him all the time. I say, "When we come down I want you to get that yellow [Luczo Dragon] car to move over.'' We kid him all the time, Tim and I do. But it's great. It's good for him.

SI.com: So now the real question: did you really sell the Detroit Eagle?

RP: Yeah.

SI.com: For a bigger one? How can we be expected to live vicariously through you if you sold the yacht?

RP: Not yet, no. It was time to sell it.

It's good to be the Captain.

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