A Well-Deserved Honor

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This past Thursday, Roger Penske was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Trump. It is considered the highest national honor to be bestowed on a civilian.

The official release from the White House says that the award seeks to recognize individuals that have made “…an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the Unites States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors”. One does not need to be a US citizen in order to receive this honor.

Reading various articles about Thursday’s award ceremony in the Oval Office, I learned that the award was created in 1963, by President Kennedy. Honorees are either selected by the president or recommended by the Distinguished Civilian Service Awards Board.

Past honorees have come from all walks of life – Science, Politics and Diplomacy, Military, Sports, Business and Economics, Philanthropy, Literature, Music and Entertainment are just a few of the many fields that have had people awarded the Medal of Freedom. Past recipients include Walt Disney, Bob Hope, James Stewart, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Carl Sandburg, Irving Berlin, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, Thurgood Marshall, Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson, Jonas Salk, Chuck Yeager, Colin Powell (twice), Bill Gates, Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Paul “Bear” Bryant, Richard Petty, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Pat Summit and Michael Jordan.

As you can see, this partial list contains individuals who are recognized as absolute giants in their field. Some could represent two to three fields. While doing my research, I found a few notable exceptions to this list. Paul Newman could have been awarded for either acting or philanthropy (although we IndyCar fans think he was an excellent car-owner as well). AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti should also be on the list if Richard Petty is.

Thursday was Roger Penske’s day to be honored. He was surrounded by his children, and his wife of forty-seven years – Kathy. In presenting the award, President Trump acknowledged Penske’s reputation as a businessman, philanthropist and of course – his success as a team owner in motorsports. Upon receiving the award, Penske said it meant more to him than any business success or motorsports trophy.

That says a lot. Penske has built the Penske Corporation into a $32 Billion empire. His NASCAR teams have won multiple championships and the Daytona 500 twice. His IndyCar teams have more championships than I can count and his collection of Indianapolis 500 wins currently stands at eighteen – but he has won the past two 500s and three of the last five, so that is likely to grow.

Roger Penske is eighty-two years-old and will turn eighty-three before the next IndyCar kicks off in March. But the man shows no sign of slowing down. He serves as Will Power’s race strategist and still has his fingerprints all over the team that bears his name.

Longtime readers know that I am a fan of Team Penske. That’s not because of the drivers that have come and gone, or the team personnel (although Tim Cindric is pretty easy to root for) – it’s because of Roger Penske himself. I will do my best to not turn this into a Penske love-fest; but since I was a kid, I have always admired the way he approaches everything – and I mean everything.

There’s a reason the phrase “Penske Perfect” came into being. That’s because the man leaves no stone left unturned in his relentless pursuit of perfection. When Penske first showed up for the Indianapolis 500 in 1969, he brought a new attitude to the paddock. While most teams just dealt with the dirt and grime that came with working on the cars inside the cramped old and historic garages, The Penske team kept their garage floors spotless and they made sure all the wheels stayed polished. While most mechanics still worked in T-shirt behind the garage doors, the Penske guys were all in neatly pressed apparel.

At first, the other teams laughed at their neat ways. But before long, after they started posting consistent results, it wasn’t too long before their professionalism became a way of life within the paddock.

I witnessed that attention to detail firsthand a few years ago at Barber, while I was roaming in the pits. The command had already been given to start engines. And the field was about half a lap from taking the green flag for the start of the race. With his cars about to embark on a two-hour race, Roger Penske spotted a case of full water bottles just behind the pit stand that were partially covered. He immediately motioned to get the attention of one of the crew guys up on the stand with him, and instructed him to cover them up. He got down off of the stand with The Captain watching him and covered up the water bottles and tucked it in, to make sure it didn’t blow back off. Once Penske saw that it was done, he turned his attention back to the race just as it was about to go green.

I walked away thinking about the uncovered water bottles. At first glance, it might come off as the act of an overly obsessive control freak. But then I got to thinking – it’s that attention to detail that has set Roger Penske apart from everyone else all of his life. That’s why his teams and businesses succeed.

Anytime Roger Penske is noted for any accomplishment, he always deflects the praise for himself and instead gives all of the credit to the people that work I his organization. He did that again Thursday at the White House. Roger Penske is very loyal to those that get on board and do things his way. That’s why Rick Mears has been employed with Penske since 1978. Those that think that their own way is the best, usually find themselves going a different direction with a different employer.

We all know Penske for all of his success in the racing world. But his accomplishments in the business world are just as impressive. After a solid racing career when he was named SCCA Driver of the Year in 1961 by Sorts Illustrated and driving in the 1961 and 1962 Formula One US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, Penske was faced with a choice – either pursue a racing career or a business career. He knew he couldn’t do both. He chose business and opened a Chevrolet dealership in Philadelphia.

That dealership spawned what would later become the Penske Corporation, a conglomerate that includes car dealerships, commercial truck leasing and logistics, residential truck rentals, his race teams and Ilmor Engineering. The Penske Corporation currently has consolidated annual revenues of $32 Billion, operates in 3,660 locations and employees almost 65,000 worldwide.

With his sustained success at the race track and in the boardroom, some might take such an opportunity to bask in that limelight. Instead, Roger Penske seemed humbled and very appreciative by this enormous honor. That’s why I have always admired him.

Roger Penske has some detractors within the IndyCar community, and that’s putting it mildly. They feel he drove up the price of racing with his seemingly unlimited checkbook. They also feel that he was to blame for the owners having so much power in CART, which ultimately led to their downfall. He is also credited with or blamed for the formation of CART, along with Pat Patrick and Dan Gurney.

I don’t agree with everything he has done. He sometimes wields his power to make things happen that I don’t care for. I was incensed this summer, when he suggested that there be reserved spots in the Indianapolis 500. There have been a couple of other things he has done over the years that I didn’t agree with, but you cannot argue the man’s passion or commitment to IndyCar or the Indianapolis 500.

But for most of my life, I’ve been familiar who Roger Penske is, and I’ve see a lot more about the man to admire than to criticize. Thirty years ago, before my father died – we were all asked a question at some corporate function about who would we most want to have dinner with. A few said their deceased mother or father, some said Ghandi, Mother Teresa or someone of that nature. My answer? Roger Penske. People looked at me like I had two heads and most had no idea who he was. Now that my own father is deceased, he would top the list, but I’d still like Roger Penske to be a guest at the table.

I think Roger Penske’s is a fascinating and actually underappreciated story, in every facet of his life. We all know and appreciate his racing accomplishments, but few know much about his business acumen – except that he is a billionaire. I’m glad that those outside of racing now recognize his accomplishments. His receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom is a well-deserved honor.

George Phillips

2 Responses to “A Well-Deserved Honor”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Mother Teresa probably would not have turned down dinner with Roger Penske, but I would consider doing so if he picked a sushi place…

  2. There is no doubt he is an amazing and astute businessman, having built a major business empire from the ground up. He is so good at it, I wish he had spent more of the last 40 years paying attention to it rather than influencing Indy open wheel racing. He might have $64 billion today.

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