It was 1969 and Ryan Hunter-Reay had not been born. He was, in fact, minus 11 years of age. Roger Penske, however, had been born and had already retired as a successful sports car driver, turning instead to managing a racing team. His driver, Mark Donohue, had achieved a brilliant reputation as a sports car racer, and in 1969 Penske decided to try the big time at the Indianapolis 500.
Penske-Donohue did not win that day, but they made a great first impression. They broke down late in the race while in third place. The winner was Mario Andretti. Penske at the time estimated it would take him three years to win Indy. He was off by a year. Mark Donohue won the race four years later. Three years after that, he was dead, killed in practice in Graz, Austria.
Our story, “Mr. Clean and Captain Nice at Indy” wasn’t bad, considering the author had never seen an auto race in his life and had little idea what he was writing about. He learned a new word – magneto. That is what killed the engine late in the race. Penske (shown above in 1969) got the name “Mr. Clean” from his immaculate garage and racecars. He was already famous for his attention to detail, and his striving for “the unfair advantage” – a faster racecar.
Penske went on to win Indy a stunning 15 times, with a number of great drivers: Rick Mears, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Al Unser, Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi, and most recently, Helio Castroneves. His once dark hair had only a touch of gray. But now, in recession and turned to snow, Penske was going for a 16thSunday. Blocking his way was the name Andretti, and Michael Andretti’s driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay. It was an event to get your attention for more reasons than one.
We were on the grid that day in 1969 when Penske made his debut. We were working for Philadelphia Magazine and it was a good local story. Penske had begun getting attention as a sports car racer while still in college at Lehigh University, north of Philadelphia. Ten years later, he owned a Philadelphia Chevrolet dealership, and his racing team was headquartered in suburban Newtown Square. His sponsor was Sun Oil Company, which was located just around the corner from Philadelphia Magazine.
And now, into the modern area, and we still have a home team. Hunter-Reay lives in Fort Lauderdale and was on Gold Coast’s cover in 2012. We also covered Helio Castroneves more recently. He also lives in Fort Lauderdale, although the TV guys did not seem to know it. We had this story coming and going. It was like the end of Sunday’s race, with Hunter-Reay and Castroneves passing each other on the closing laps. It was a race won by who passed last.
That was Hunter-Reay. Helio Castroneves, by the way, was driving for Roger Penske. His unfair advantage was only the length of a racecar short.