I had to hustle to catch Roger Penske on pit lane at Road America in June. As I asked him about the news that he would be receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I tried to catch my breath. Running to catch Roger is part of the job. He might be in his 80s, but he’s quick.
At the time, we hadn’t posted a story about his reaction to the news, which had been announced a few days before the race weekend, and Penske hadn’t said much about it publicly. When I caught him that day, he stopped walking and began talking, in earnest wonder, about the people who had received the award in the past.
And what a list it is.
Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Aretha Franklin, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Helen Keller, Elvis Pressley, Walt Disney, Walter Cronkite, Bob Hope, Warren Buffett, Johnny Carson. The list goes on and on. It includes seven presidents, 10 Supreme Court justices, eight astronauts and numerous actors, athletes, scientists, philanthropists, politicians, educators and military leaders.
“There are so many elite people that are in that group,” Penske said that day. “For me to be part of that is humbling. When you think about the fact that (Harry) Truman started it, and it became a President’s award with (John F.) Kennedy. Richard Petty received it, and Tiger Woods. There are so many great Americans who have received it.”
Add one more great American. Roger Penske received the award -- America’s highest civilian honor -- in a ceremony Thursday at the White House. It wasn’t front-page news. In terms of the daily national news cycle, it went nearly undetected. It shouldn’t have.
Penske was honored for his contributions to racing and the auto industry, putting him alongside previous recipients like Petty and Henry Ford. Penske’s story is uniquely American. He turned a single car dealership purchased in the 1960s into an automotive empire. Around the same time, he started a racing team that has become the most successful in American motorsports history.
More significant than what he’s accomplished is how he’s accomplished it. Everything in Penske’s realm is done precisely and properly. He has the respect of colleagues and competitors alike. Fellow team owners aspire to be like him, and racers want to drive for him. He’s often seen congratulating competitors after races, win or lose. He does what he does with grace and integrity, and he’s still doing it well at 82.
If you’re employed by Roger Penske, you don’t work for him, you work with him. That’s the secret to his success. He elevates and appreciates his employees. They aren’t underlings. They’re partners, each with an important role, each with the respect and support of the boss.
“People make a team and people make power,” Penske said at Thursday’s ceremony. “And I think the great thing, and I’ve had the opportunities to do, is to surround myself with talented individuals in my business. And we built Penske Corporation over many years, and to see the success is really due to our people.”
At the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January 2018, Penske stayed awake for the duration of the 24-hour endurance race. Afterward, as he climbed down from the team’s pit stand, none the worse for wear, he found the attention from reporters somewhat amusing.
“I love coming to these types of races,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is sit in a hotel room and watch the race and not be able to be here and see what’s happening. … I had no issue all day and all night, to be honest with you.”
A few feet away, Simon Pagenaud watched in awe. “I was very impressed when I saw he didn’t sleep,” he said. “I couldn’t do it. I had some sleep.”
In the pits at Elkhart Lake in June, Penske also was in awe. He’d known about the award for a few days, but he still couldn’t believe it.
“It’s such an honor for me and my family and the team,” he said. “I’m breathless when I talk about it.”
You’re not the only one, sir. Not by any means.