From Mark Donohue to Simon Pagenaud and every driver in between, Team Penske has set the standard for excellence at the Indianapolis 500 for more than 50 years.
From the first time Penske Racing arrived in Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1969, there was a sense that things were about to change.
“The other teams at the Speedway called us the crew-cut college boys with the starched shirts,” team owner Roger Penske said.
At that time, Team Penske had already earned acclaim in sports car racing. Penske was a former race driver who became a team owner after he started managing a Chevrolet dealership in Philadelphia in 1965. To run the dealership, though, Penske had to give up the wheel of his race car.
Donohue was an extremely bright and innovative driver who understood the importance of engineering to the race car. Together, Penske and Donohue became the “Dynamic Duo” of racing.
After achieving tremendous success in Can-Am, Trans-Am and other forms of sports car racing in the mid-1960s, Penske’s dream was to compete in the Indianapolis 500.
It all began for Penske when he was a 14-year-old boy who came to the Indianapolis 500 with his father in 1951. One of Penske’s favorite stories describes how they stopped by a house near the Speedway for lunch as the start of the race approached. Penske and his father were guests of one of the elder Penske’s business associates. There was a show car on display, and young Roger recalls how he climbed into the car, put on a racing helmet and had his photo taken inside the car.
“That is when racing was injected into my bloodstream,” Penske said.
From his time as a cadet at the prestigious Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana, to his college days at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Penske remained driven to succeed. He was one of the top sports car drivers of his era and was named Sports Illustrated’s Driver of the Year in 1961. He was also an incredibly driven and innovative businessman.
Famed racing mechanic and car builder Clint Brawner offered Penske a rookie test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1965. Penske was already involved with the Chevrolet dealership in Philadelphia and turned down the one opportunity he had dreamed of since that day in 1951 when he climbed into the show car and put on the racing helmet for the first time.
The rookie test went to another young Pennsylvanian, an Italian kid named Mario Andretti from Nazareth.
In many ways, Penske’s decision changed the face of racing and spawned the beginning of Penske Corporation.
Penske built his business and racing empires simultaneously by understanding the value of marketing, competition and partnerships. As a salesman at Alcoa Aluminum, he put the company name on his sports car, underlying the importance of marketing and sponsorship.
That opportunity for business-to-business connection has been maximized by Team Penske time and time again over the last 50 years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Connecting sponsors with other sponsors at the biggest sporting event in the world has created tremendous growth for both the Penske Corporation and Team Penske.
Penske brought the Sun Oil Company to the Speedway in 1969 when Donohue won Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honors with a seventh-place finish. Four Indy 500s later, that famed Sunoco blue-and-yellow McLaren was in Victory Lane after Donohue won the 1972 Indianapolis 500.
It was the first of a record 18 wins in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
From Donohue’s first win for the team to Pagenaud’s victory in the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge last May in the neon-yellow Menards Chevrolet, any time Team Penske wins at Indy, it’s a part of history.
Rick Mears won four Indy 500s for the team, only the third driver in history to win the legendary race four times. Al Unser won his fourth Indy 500 in a Team Penske car in 1987, a late-month replacement for the injured Danny Ongais.
Ironically, Unser’s winning car was a year-old show car that was on display in a hotel lobby in Reading, Pennsylvania. Both the car and Unser were summoned to the Speedway after Ongais crashed the primary car and was unable to compete because of injuries.
There was Bobby Unser’s controversial third Indy 500 win in the Norton PC9B in 1981. Danny Sullivan’s famed “Spin and Win” in 1985. Also, Emerson Fittipaldi’s second Indy 500 victory in 1993 and Al Unser Jr blowing away the field in a Mercedes-Benz pushrod 209 engine known as “The Beast” in 1994.
There have been many highs and a few lows for the team since it arrived at Indianapolis in 1969. The team failed to make the field at Indy in 1995 just one year after Al Unser Jr. and Fittipaldi dominated the 1994 race. That began a period of six consecutive years away from Indianapolis for the team that seemed to only fuel Penske’s fire.
Helio Castroneves gave Team Penske a triumphant return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a win in 2001, which also brought the team’s first 1-2 Indy 500 finish as Gil de Ferran came home second.
Castroneves became the first driver since Al Unser in 1970 and 1971 to win back-to-back Indy 500s as he claimed victories in 2001 and 2002. De Ferran’s win in 2003 gave Team Penske three Indy 500 victories in a row, the only time that has happened in team history.
Sam Hornish Jr. captured his only Indy 500 win when he passed race leader Marco Andretti just a few hundred feet from the finish line in 2006. Castroneves became a three-time Indy 500 winner in 2009.
Six years later, Juan Pablo Montoya edged Team Penske teammate Will Power for the 2015 Indy 500 win. Power earned his trip to Victory Lane for the team with an impressive drive in the 102nd Indy 500 in 2018, and Pagenaud won a dramatic duel against Andretti Autosport driver Alexander Rossi in the closing laps to win the 103rd Indianapolis 500 in 2019.
Team Penske has also brought some of the most legendary sponsors in sports history to the Speedway, including Miller Brewing, Shell/Pennzoil, Verizon, Menards and Marlboro/Philip Morris USA.
Through the decades, the team has been the epitome of class. It does things the right way and serves as a model for other racing teams to emulate.
That may be its greatest legacy.
It all began in a small garage in Newton Square, Pennsylvania, where Donohue slept upstairs in the nearby bungalow.
After Pagenaud’s Indy 500 win in 2019, Penske remembered Donohue as the cornerstone of the team, a man who was his friend and his partner who helped establish one of the greatest winning traditions in all of sports.
“Mark Donohue was special,” Penske said. “We came here in 1969, and our goal was to win the race. Mark was an engineer. I think we brought a lot of different thoughts to the Speedway as far as technology and aerodynamics. We won it in '72 and then Mears in '79, and that kind of started us.
“When it comes to our success here, it's not me, it is all the people that we work with day in and day out that makes it so good. We like to say that our human capital is our greatest resource, and there is no greater example of that than what we have been able to accomplish at Indianapolis.”