NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Ford Ecoboost 400
Roger Penske Open Interview
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Roger Penske (Chairman, Penske Corporation) Q. Could you just talk about the performance of your race teams this year and in particular the No. 2 car who is points leader heading into the season finale? “Well, obviously we’re thrilled to be in the position we are here the last race at Homestead. I think when we look back on the season, I guess it’s been a building season from the very starting point with Brad three or four years ago when we first got together.
“I think as I sum it up, he’s earned the respect of the garage area, of the drivers, the crews, the officials, and certainly he’s gained a lot of fans. And for me basically it’s been consistency, and I think he’s a great athlete. You’d have to put him right at the top from the standpoint of what he’s been able to accomplish over the last several weeks.
“It’s his chance on Sunday to get to the top rung that he’s been trying for for many years. Obviously his parents have supported him as many of these great drivers who come out of families who have racing backgrounds, and he’s certainly done that, and to me we’re very fortunate to have him part of Penske Racing. He’s made us a better team.”
Q. In your long career in Motorsports you’ve had so many drivers from Mark Donahue and Rick Mears and dozens and dozens of others. Of whom does Brad Keselowski remind you? “Well, I’d have to say, digging down deep, a lot like Rick Mears, really understated but someone that when it was time to dig deep and make it happen, the consistency, and obviously he’s a winner, and I’d have to put him in that category, which is a pretty special class as far as I’m concerned.”
Q. Most people know open wheel is really your true love, but you’ve dabbled here for 40 years now. Why did you keep coming back, and what is it about this — when did it change where this really became a focus? Was it after the first Nationwide championship? Was it just Brad in general? What really made you guys dig in and put your emphasis here on NASCAR? “I think I’m a goal-oriented person, and there’s no question that winning a NASCAR championship at the elite level is something that everybody in racing wants to accomplish, and we hadn’t done that. And I think we spread ourselves through many different series with great success, but we’ve never quite gotten to the top obviously. In ’93 and ’94 we were second and third with Rusty (Wallace). And then we really have not had the results, but to me, this is about an opportunity.
“It’s not about how much money you have and what you can buy on the racetrack. It’s about the people. It’s about the human capital that we’ve been able to put together.
“As I said to Paul Wolfe and certainly to Brad and Tim and Travis Geisler and Mike Nelson, I said you folks are attracting some great people to our organization. This business has changed. It’s a little more technical now, it’s a little more in our bailiwick, and to me we’re executing. And with a leader like Brad who really cares about the team, it’s not just about Brad Keselowski, I want to let you know that. He is every day trying to make our team better. So that’s motivating me, and this is a great opportunity obviously.
“When you’re racing — I call it the gold standard, the best in the business. Rick Hendrick is a great friend of mine, I have a lot of respect for him both on the business side and certainly on the racing side, and Johnson is a cool cat. He knows how to get it done. He’s gotten it done five times. So just being in the league with them, it’s the final day, you’re teeing up the last 18 and we’re in the same foursome, so that’s a pretty good day.
Q. Brad has been very clever, he’s been very light. He seems to — we’re all looking for a crack. We haven’t seen it. Jimmie was sort of trying to get into his head yesterday and saying the pressure really gets in your head when you get on the track. What have you seen in Brad? Do you really believe that he’s handling all this the way that we’re seeing it, and how much do you think that all of this is going to affect him in one moment before this race is over? “Well, I think that he’s been training over the last 13 or 14 weeks to get where he is. Obviously when you look at the consistency, starting 24th and many times during that race he let people go by because he knew where he needed to be ready to go with 100 laps to go, last week, certainly the race at Texas. You know, he’s a calculating driver. He’s smart. I think his windshield is much wider than many of the drivers’. He’s seeing what’s going on, and I think he’s rehearsed it with Paul, things that can happen. He’s done it with the team, and he’s a student. And I think today we’ve got a great athlete, a great race driver but also someone that’s thinking. He’s a thinking-man’s driver, which is very important in today’s sport.”
Q. Just looking back in September, the situation with Will Power, wondering what kind of advice you’ve given Brad and that team about what happened in that race and how you’re using that experience to kind of help them this weekend. “We haven’t even talked about it. It’s not even a factor as far as I’m concerned. You have Will Power, who is the best on road courses trying to get his feet under him on ovals. This is a case we’re at a mile and a half track, a place that Brad has excelled this year. So to me two different circumstances. Not a discussion item as far as Penske Racing.”
Q. You move to Ford next year, but can you speak to the commitment Dodge has provided you this year and your relationship with them, and it’s strange, they could have a championship and then they’re leaving the sport, you’re moving over to Ford. But the relationship between you and Dodge? “Well, Dodge obviously has been a great partner. We’ve been with them for 10 years. The support they’ve given us over this last 12 months has been doubled up. In fact, the fact that they knew early on, and when you make a move like we had to, they had to know, we had to know that this change was going to be made.
But I would say it’s all hands on deck. We have a great relationship. We represent them in the retail auto network, so we’re a big supporter of their products. To me it’s just one of those things, timing maybe, budgets and other things that really made the difference.
But I hope that they’ll be back in 2014 and maybe our results might help accelerate that for them to get back in the sport on a full-time basis.
Q. You see a lot of young drivers out there that never get a break, never get a chance. A lot has been made about Brad getting that one chance in Ted Musgrave’s truck back in 2007 and Jimmie was talking yesterday about had he not hit the wall at Watkins Glen that Jeff Gordon may not have paid a lot of attention to him or put a face with the name. Is that just a product of the sport that there are a lot of those guys like Brad and Jimmie out there that can do what they’re doing but that just need those breaks? Have you seen guys just get overlooked? “Well, I think if we go back and look at our team over the last say 20 years, we might not have looked deep enough into the drivers that are out there. I think we’re doing that now. Obviously working with Justin, working with Parker, Ryan Blaney, and I think we have to have these younger drivers on our radar screen because it takes time. You just cannot jump into this sport overnight and be at the top. It takes trucks, it takes Nationwide and then obviously Cup.
“And I think there’s a lot of young talent out there. But again, you’ve got to know how to win, so we have to look for drivers who have won in a series or multiple series. I think there has to be today because of technology has gotten to be so much of a part of what’s going on, this feedback, this feedback between engineering and the crew chiefs and the driver, and also then of course the main thing is we’ve got to have sponsors. So we have to have a commercial-oriented driver to a certain extent.
“So when you look at all these different attributes that you have to have by any particular entity as a driver, you’ve got to build those. They might come with one, they might come with two. But to me we’re always looking now for people — Lewis Hamilton I guess at McLaren, I understand that Ron Dennis hired him when he was just a young man driving go-karts.
“To me I think everybody in this garage area is looking at the young talent to try to build their team.”
Q. I think because of all the success you’ve had in auto racing in general, some people still find it hard to believe that you haven’t won a NASCAR Cup championship yet. Rusty told me yesterday he figured that you guys would have won four or five together when he was driving with you. What was the difference now? What clicked? What made it happen for you guys now after all these years? “Well, we’ve been close. We’ve won a lot of races. We haven’t had the number of chances because when you look at our statistics the number of starts that we’ve had on the team. And basically there’s been some super competition out there when you look at the great teams that we compete against. I think that what’s happened, we’ve been able to have a focus, and one of the things that probably that people maybe haven’t even thought about is we’ve gone to two cars, and I can tell you that decision to run two cars where we’re focusing, and if we’ve got something good we can get it on both cars, and I think the fact that we had a little bit of a bumpy start with AJ, AJ did a good job for us and I’m a big supporter of his going forward, Sam jumping in and supporting the opportunity to help Brad. But I think the two-car team has helped us. I think from an engineering standpoint we’ve stepped up our game.
“If you look at our roster of people, we’ve probably added more people from the engineering side of our business, our wind tunnel program, the guys that are building our cars now, the support we’ve had from Dodge.
“I think it’s a multitude of things that has made a difference. The business was a lot different in the ’90s. We didn’t have the technology, and to me today the cars are so tight with the templates and things you have to do, and we’ve got a great driver. I think today Brad is young, and he certainly hasn’t — he’s not on a plateau, that’s for sure. Every race he gets better. Just watching him last week, I watch him from the spotter’s stand. I know when we’re good and I know when we’re bad.”
Q. Penske Racing in the last 14, 16 months has gone through the split with Kurt, the episode with AJ and the ramifications, the need to reshape your 2013 agenda. How does this equate to the normal ebbs and flows of this business for all the years you’ve been in it, and how has this impacted you personally, if at all? “Well, I think — I work in the business world every day, and when you read the newspaper you know something is happening, and every day isn’t a good day. And I guess that I’ve decided every day is not a good day in racing, also.
“I think we’re motivated. We’ve used racing, I’ve said it before, as a common thread through our company. And to me it shows the execution, the team work and the integrity, and I guess as long as we’re able to demonstrate quality on the racetrack and we have sponsors like Miller, been with us now over 20 years, people like Shell-Pennzoil, Discount Tire and the folks that are coming with us and are giving us long-term commitments, that’s giving us the ability to maybe some of the other teams haven’t had. But that to me is going to give us a chance to build even a better platform as we go forward.
“To me personally, it’s another day in the office.
Q. You said last week when asked why you haven’t won a Cup championship before, maybe your focus hadn’t always been over here. Has the addition of Brad made you focus a little bit more over here? Has he demanded more of your time? “There’s no question that Brad is in contact with me every day, and you know how (laughter), so — text. I’m not a tweeter at this point. Maybe that’s going to be next year. I don’t know. I don’t know what he’s got for me.
“But he’s passionate about the sport, and he wants me to be involved as he has the rest of the team, and I think that we’ve stepped it up. I’m very anxious to have Joey join. Joey seems to be the same kind of person, he’s on the phone and the kinds of things he wants to get done.
“I’d have to say that Brad has not only pushed me as an individual, he’s pushed the team in a positive direction, and he’s delivering. It’s one thing when someone is pushing you and they don’t deliver, but he seems to be able to give us that extra push but deliver on the race weekends, and that’s what we’re expecting him to do this weekend.
Q. You’re not known as a speculator, wild gambler – maybe years ago – but Paul Wolfe appears to have taken some chances with some very good pit calls maybe in connection with Brad. I was wondering what qualities do you see in Paul that you admire? “Well, I think Paul — the one thing about Wolfe, he was a driver. He’s had to build his own cars, and he certainly understands the business. Interesting, as you know, Brad works with Paralyzed Veterans, and after a couple of race weekends, in fact it was at Bristol, he has four or five of these paralyzed veterans come to the track and we have a two-seat car and he takes them for a ride. It was interesting that Paul Wolfe was on the track making some pretty fast laps. I said maybe I can hire you as a driver.
“But he’s got experience, and he’s been the glue. I think he’s been a good sounding board for Brad because he’s been a driver and he understands the cars completely, and that’s what it takes. He’s calm, he’s cool. There’s been a lot of comparisons with that relationship between Brad and Paul and Chad Knaus and Jimmie. Those guys are the best. And if we can just be in their shadow and in their draft and stay with them this weekend, we’re going to have a great season.
“But he’s been a big help to us. But Paul was out there. He had run in cars with different drivers back in Nationwide, and Brad and I saw him as someone we could bring him on board. So this team has evolved. It’s not something that you just overnight. It’s taken some time, certainly the championship in Nationwide was critical, and you think Brad has won now I think 13 Nationwide races, eight or nine Cup races just in three years. So when you think about that, many of those wins have been with Wolfe. So you’d have to say that he’s a key part of the formula of our team.”
Q. What attribute that Brad displays most surprises you now that you didn’t see when you made the decision that he would be a guy you would hire? “Well, I think the most important thing that’s happened, he’s gained the respect in the garage area, because early on there were — he was rough, he was bumping people. There was with Carl Edwards and other people. But I think that he’s emerged. He’s learned like a lot of the great drivers that have gone through that rough patch. He’s emerged, and I think to me, the speed that he’s come from where he was when he first started with us to where he is today, smooth, understanding the car, and ultimately being a winner to me is amazing. He’s done it in just 36 months with us.
“When you put those stats on the ground and see what he’s done, and he’s got a great future ahead of him, and we expect him to deliver for us over a long period of time.”
Q. A lot has been made of Brad’s upbringing in a racing family, and I was curious if you knew Bob Keselowski or knew that team at all before you ever met Brad. “Well, I knew the Keselowskis, Bob very well, because owning the Michigan Speedway, they were our local guys, and they’d come out there, and I remember, I didn’t really meet Brad specifically, but Ron and Bob were guys that I knew very well out at the track because they’d come out there and unload and race at the Michigan track. They’re our local guys.
“To me Bob, his dad, is a terrific person. Kay, his mom, they mortgaged everything for these kids to go racing, and I think people might not know that. The fact that Brad is really — he’s paying him back now because he’s not only been able to support them as a family but also with the success he’s had as an individual and also as a race driver.”
Q. Over the course of three years, when you hired Brad and when you promoted him to Cup, Kurt was part of the package. After Kurt’s departure, are you surprised at how quickly he’s been able to rise to the level of leadership that he has and fill that void that existed when Kurt left? “Well, obviously that departure, we hadn’t planned on that, but as things worked out it happened, and when it did, I sat down with Brad and said, you’re going to have to be the leader of this team. He said to me many times when he was racing with Kurt, he said, I’ve got to get better so I can help Kurt. Interesting when you think about it. He said that to me not once but many times. Once Kurt left and he stepped into the leadership position, he’s just taken it over, and I think the whole team feels that when he goes to a test and when he’s dealing — whether it’s with Sam and they debrief, I think a lot of things we’ve come together. We don’t have two teams, it’s one team, there’s no question, because the interface, the way our shop is set up, the way we build our cars, where our crew chiefs sit, they’re all together, just like you are here in this media room. You’re side by side, not in different buildings, and I think that’s helped us, and Brad has been a big catalyst in that society.”
Q. You mentioned earlier your role as a spotter. I assume you’re doing that Sunday. Talk some about that. I know you have a lot of folks that you employ that probably could fill that role, but you obviously want to do it. Talk about your role there. “Well, I am kind of a coaching spotter. Joey Meyer, and I don’t know if you’ve listened to him, but I think he might be one of the understated guys on the team. He doesn’t set the car up and doesn’t drive it, but I can tell you one thing: You listen to that radio and what his insight — just last week when Jeff was in a mood to go after Bowyer, Joey saw it and he told Brad ahead of him, so he even saw Brad slow down a little bit as he got into 3. I’m up there because quite honestly I can always watch the cars go by the start-finish line. I like to see if we’re competitive, who’s driving, what’s going on out on the racetrack. We’ve got professional spotters for all the guys. I come over from time to time and I’ll make a comment to Brad when I think it’s appropriate, but I’m really — I guess I’m the backup guy if their battery goes down. That’s about all.
Q. You mentioned earlier talking about Brad, and it’s one thing to say something, but his ability to back it up and how much success he’s had in a short period of time. Talking to Paul Wolfe last week, he also said one of the reasons why we don’t get too bent out of shape when Brad runs his mouth is because he always backs it up, and I just wonder if you thought — I know he’s gained a lot of respect, but he still seems at times to rub some other competitors the wrong way. I wonder if you thought that was one of the reasons, not sense of jealousy, but how quickly success has found him? “Well, anyone that’s had the success that he has in a short period of time, people look up to drivers like that. But I think everybody — I think the quality that everyone would vote yes on, this guy is a race driver. All the other trappings, everything else you put on the Christmas tree only make it look better. But as far as I’m concerned, he’s consistent. I think he cares about the sport, he cares about the fans, and if you asked the officials, I think they feel that he’s playing ball, too.
“I can’t get into what people think about him. All I know is the people in the garage area, many people have come up to me and said this guy is really doing a job for you. And these are owners who today would love to have him drive for them. Those are my peers who are saying you’ve got the best in the business. That’s my report card, not what might be said by someone else in a different conversation.
“I think even Carl Edwards would say that this young man has really come a long way, and those guys had some real tough fights there for a while. I think that’s all changed.”
Q. As a measure of how much you want this thing Sunday, as a yardstick measurement, would you give up next year’s Indy 500 win for Sunday? “I was just going to use the top of the flagpole as my measuring stick how much I want it, top of the American flagpole. That’s a hard one to ask. Obviously this comes first, and something that we’ve never achieved as a company, as a team, and to me that’s the most important thing I have to deal with right now is Sunday afternoon’s race here at Homestead.
“I’ll answer the question about Indianapolis after Sunday.”
Q. Talking about how Brad talks to you daily and is so involved as a leader, can you give any specific examples? Is he talking personnel moves with you? Are you guys planning ahead for next year with Ford stuff? What sort of stuff is he in there? “I would say all of the above. We’re talking about personnel, we’re talking about — many times what we’re — he has a list, and I guess he and Paul, what I’ve asked them to do, it’s easy to say we want to do this, but generally they provide me with a list of the things that they feel we can make the team better and the car better. In fact to the point Brad thought we should upgrade our fitness center. Nothing to do with racing, but the team, human capital. So we go through that list, and I sit down with Mike Nelson and Travis and sit down with Tim Cindric, and we check those things off and I’m looking for the list because the list has made us a lot better. To me we’re talking about our sponsors and what does he need to do to make sure we’re delivering what the sponsors want.
“Obviously we’re talking a lot today about younger drivers that we can bring on the team. He’s a big supporter. And we’ve had conversations about how to make his truck faster. So it’s a myriad of topics. But they’re all focused on our team and racing.”
Q. You mentioned young drivers. What are the plans for Ryan Blaney for next year? “Well, right now I know there’s some people asking me some questions when I walked in. We’ve signed Sam up to drive the No. 12 car, Alliance car in Nationwide next year. We have a commitment for a number of Cup races on a third car, which Sam will be there to run those races. And Blaney at this point, we’re considering him to be — to drive the truck. Haven’t announced it yet. It’s not a done deal. But we’d like to see him in the truck, and also we’ll provide him some Nationwide rides.
“We started with him maybe running two or three this year, and I think he’ll end up with seven or eight. We think that he’s a fine young man, and he’s got a lot to learn like they all do, but I think he’s certainly coming from a family that’s been racing, and he seems to have the talent. There’s a lot of good young talent out there today, so we certainly want to support him.”
Q. With all the great accomplishments at Penske Racing, how would you compare and rate chasing the Sprint Cup championship in 2012? “Well, we’ve talked about it, Tim Cindric and I have, and our people. This is the pinnacle of achievements that we could get in motor racing. This NASCAR Sprint Cup and the competition, the 38 weekends, I heard Jimmie Johnson or someone say it’s a war out there, and it is. And to be standing at the end with the American flag in your hand when it’s all over and be the champion is something real special, and we’ve not achieved it. I said I was goal oriented earlier, and one of our goals is to win this championship. I kid these guys and say I don’t want to sit down in the front row anymore, I want to be up on the stage so I see who’s at the party.”
Q. Detroit is a stick-and-ball town, and a lot of the sports stories up there are about the Lions and the Tigers and the Red Wings, but where would you rate this as a story if Brad can win on Sunday for Detroit, for Michigan? It would be a first for a Michigan-born driver. “Well, obviously I’ve been in business in Michigan for a long time, lived in Michigan. When we bought the speedway back so many years ago. Motor racing, we come to the track and race two times a year, so it’s not like 100 games in baseball and so many football games that they have with the Lions. But I would say this, that if we could bring back to Michigan and to Detroit the NASCAR championship, I think it’s a big deal. And for the state, for the city, and obviously for Rochester Hills, for Brad. He’s a big Detroit supporter, and if I could do that, it would be a great time for us, and I’m sure that everyone that loves racing will say, hey, it’s about time.”
Q. Your advice is always well-respected. What would you suggest Dodge do for 2013 or 2014? You’ve talked with those people for 10 years. What would your advice be to them for NASCAR? “Well, I’ve talked to Dodge about what might be available. We’ve got, what, 16 Nationwide cars and probably 60 engines, and I said that it might be a good idea if there’s some young people out there, people you want to support that you take the things that we have, we’d supply them, and they could take them and run them.
“But I think there’s a big interest. But as you know, we’ve got to step back a minute. Chrysler has come out of bankruptcy, they’ve done a great job in their market share. They’re focusing on their retail business. SRT is just one of their lines of business. But I think Reid Bigland, who’s attended the races along with Beth Paretta and Ralph Gilles, I think there’s a strong interest to get back in.
“I think they looked at what was available to them going into ’13 with just a year’s notice and they weren’t able to put the combination together maybe that they wanted. But I see them very interested in the sport and will support the sport, and I know that Viper is a big program for them that they have in GT going forward. But I hope to see them back in ’14. But we’ve got some parts and pieces that might be pretty good for someone. That’s a sales call I just made.”
Q. What do you think of Brad’s fine for having a phone in the car? Did you support him having the phone in the car? He got a lot of publicity for NASCAR at Daytona. “Well, I would say this, I probably shouldn’t, I don’t know if it was a Verizon phone or a Sprint phone. (Laughter.)
“No, on a serious note, Brad has got to work that out with NASCAR. I’m just the car owner. If he’s got to pay a fine, that’s his fine. I’ve got to pay mine, he’s got to pay his. I think it’s all fine.”