My 2014 Sportsman nominee: Racing team owner Roger Penske
This essay is one of more than 20 nominations for SI's 2014 Sportsman of the Year. You can see all of this year's nominees here.
This has not been a banner year for the professional sports owner. His special club, a place so exclusive that even the fantasy experience requires a steep investment, has suffered from a series of scandals.
Last March the Indianapolis Colts’ Jim Irsay was jailed on suspicion of DUI, an arrest that found him with $29,000 on his person and enough prescription pill bottles to start his own drug store. A month later Donald Sterling was caught on tape forbidding his mixed-race mistress from fraternizing with the men of color who orbit his L.A. Clippers -- a population that, incidentally, included most of the players in the locker room and, on one notable occasion, Magic Johnson. All the while the Baltimore Ravens’ Steve Biscotti stood by Ray Rice until closed circuit video of the running back KO’ing his fiancée in an elevator surfaced in September. Overall, it was an abdication of leadership that gave fresh meaning to the phrase high society.
Blessedly, there was an exception to those rulers and the scads more who receive government welfare -- most notably, in the form of tax dollars for stadium projects -- while claiming to be sovereign. He not only stands out for his virtue, but also for demonstrating it outside of the clubhouse -- in the garage. I’m talking, of course, about racing team owner Roger Penske, my nominee for Sportsman of the Year.
Over the past half century the 77-year-old Shaker Heights, Ohio, native has become as towering a track fixture as the very pylon inside the circuit. He’s about as recognizable too, as the tall man with the perfect cotton white hair, crisp white shirt, creased black slacks and polished shoes. It’s a pride of presentation that traces less to his billion-dollar net worth than to the three summers he spent at military camp in adolescence. The meticulous streak also extends to a racing operation that pioneered many of the practices that have become standard procedure for race teams today -- like having everyone on the team dress alike (as in stick-and-ball sports) and keeping the cars and the race shops they are built in immaculate.
Still, looking good only ticks half the box for Penske. Doing well is just as important. In 2014 his franchise was at its best. In August he watched ace IndyCar pilots Will Power and Helio Castroneves finish 1-2 in the driver standings. In mid-November he saw NASCAR’s Brad Keselowski cross the start-finish line first in the Nationwide series finale at Homestead and seal the team’s second straight owners championship -- an achievement that Keselowski conspired with four other drivers to capture. One of them, Joey Logano, nearly added a driver’s crown to the company trophy case a day later in the Sprint Cup finale, but a series of late snafus proved his undoing.
Had Logano prevailed, Penske would have been the first owner in history to lay claim to the IndyCar and Sprint Cup titles in the same year. The football equivalent, winning the Super Bowl and the Premiership, isn’t even being threatened by Shahid Khan, the owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and the EPL’s Fulham FC; or and the Glazer family, which presides over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Manchester United. Through Week 12 of the NFL season the Jags and Bucs alone were a combined 3-19, while Fulham was relegated to a secondary EPL division.
Meanwhile, Penske’s teams have won 22 races -- a single-season record that pushed the franchise over the 400-victory mark altogether. The success is as much a testament to Penske’s decision to corral his many racing teams under one roof in Mooresville, N.C. (a move that has been a boon to Team Penske’s relatively small Sprint Cup division) as it is his practice of calling in-race strategy from the pit box. The latter responsibility in particular offers the sort of hands-on high that overactive owners like the Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban and the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones -- who, just a couple months ago, was caught up in a scandal involving strippers -- can only dream of. What gives Penske the license to thrill? Well, before he was an owner, he was one of the world’s top sports car racers -- so good, in fact, that he was named Driver of the Year by none other than SI in 1961. There aren’t many areas of racing where he can’t eke out an unfair advantage.
Also, there aren’t many areas of the country he cares more about than Detroit, a pet project since 2005, when he was appointed chairman of the host committee for Super Bowl XL -- maybe the smoothest run NFL title game ever contested in a cold weather city. After seeing it hit hard by the contraction of the auto industry and sink into bankruptcy during the global credit crunch, Penske has dedicated himself to bringing the city back to its Motown heyday. He contributes to an initiative called Clean Downtown, which tasks 50 people with straightening up 200 city blocks each day. He donated 100 police cars and 23 EMS units to the city. He helped transform Belle Isle -- a floating state park on the Detroit River between the city and mainland Canada -- from an eyesore to a leisure center. And he’s spearheading an effort for a light rail system that would connect the city to the suburbs.
They are acts of noblesse oblige that distinguish Penske even from charitable peers like Tony Stewart, who couldn’t uplift the less fortunate in his sport -- its dirt track operators, promoters and racers -- without accidentally killing a guy in the process. What’s more, these acts don’t just burnish Penske's reputation, which has long been above reproach. They give his fellow sports owners a standard to which they could and should aspire. You can’t ask much more of a Sportsman than that.