Roger Penske’s last professional outing in a race car came in 1964 in the sunny Bahamas as Thanksgiving transitioned into early December. Closing out his driving career in style, the 27-year-old Penske and co-driver Hap Sharp won the big close to Nassau Speed Weeks in a Chaparral 2A, leading home Bruce McLaren with a dominant victory at the Oakes Field Course.
The rest of Penske’s story in the sport as a team, track, and series owner is well known, but his roots as highly talented driver are often forgotten among the many accolades for Indy 500 wins and championships across multiple series. But last Wednesday, in a nod to the past, Penske made a return to the cockpit at Michigan’s M1 Concourse, coming the day after the new Porsche Penske Motorsport IMSA LMDh team was announced.
In fitting style, Penske celebrated the reunion with Porsche by donning his period-correct Team Penske American Le Mans Series firesuit – the one he wore on timing stands from 2005-2008 – and adding a helmet and the rest of the gear to turn some laps in his championship-winning Porsche RS Spyder.
Strapped into chassis 9R6 802, the 84-year-old was transported from his era of tubeframe cars and the battery serving as the biggest piece of electronics to a bevy of modern technology as he experienced a number of firsts piloting a carbonfiber chassis with carbon brakes, paddle shifting, and thousands of pounds of downforce.
“Well, it’s a special car because it’s the one that won the Sebring 12 Hour race,” he told RACER. “I hadn’t driven the car, and just figuring out how to get into it and get out was a was the first part of business. And then, the M1 concourse track is three minutes from my office, so we were able to bring that car out to out there.
“In the old days you had you know the Birdcage Maserati, even the Porsche RS and RSK, and the Ferrari we had at Le Mans, these were big cars with big open cockpits and never had the downforce, and certainly it was almost claustrophobic for me when I first got in. And I got a chance to make 25 laps in it just to understand all the buttons and get myself comfortable with a seat fitting, so at least I’ve been in it and drove it. It’s an amazing car, and was fun to play with.”
Penske eventually figured out the various systems and driving techniques that best suited the 2008 LMP2 chassis powered by a high-revving 3.4liter V8 engine. Getting to that point of comfort with the RS Spyder also provided a few laughs.
“It was great, but I forgot you didn’t you don’t have to push the clutch in every time you shift,” he said. “I wondered why I couldn’t shift gears at the beginning, and it’s because I kept using the clutch, but the clutch pedal is only for taking off. That was interesting… And then I got used to how fast the gear shifts were, and how hard it braked with the downforce.
“We wanted to get a couple sets of tires scuffed in, and by the end, we were ready to go. I was gifted the car by Porsche, and we had taken it back to the shop and completely restored it. I guess everybody calls the best car a 100-point restoration. The guys did a great job on it. We’ve got some of the same team members that were involved as key people during the championship run working on it now.”
There was a purpose behind the outing, which also included Ford CEO Jim Farley driving a DJR Team Penske Ford Mustang Australian Supercar. With an invitation to participate in the July 8-11 Goodwood Festival of Speed, Team Penske used the M1 Concourse visit to prepare its driver and the car he’ll pilot up the hill.
“I was asked by the Duke of Richmond to come to Goodwood, and he’s asked me many, many times, but just because of the racing schedule, we haven’t been able to accomplish that,” Penske said. “So I said we would go this time and we would bring a number of our clients. We have eight or 10 of our key cars from the history of the team that will be in tow. It’s going to be special.
“So I needed to get ready, and Jim Farley is going to drive the McLaughlin Supercar over there at the same time, so he was there also with us and he had a chance to exercise the Mustang. I figured that if I was going to drive anything, I would drive the RS Spyder. I’ve driven the Porsche 917/30 a long time ago at the Lime Rock Porsche Rennsport event, but this car’s new to me. It was a lot of fun.”