Who will be the next ‘Captain’ of motorsports?

Roger Penske
Roger Penske

Nearly three hours had passed since Brad Keselowski captured team owner Roger Penske's first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, bringing the boss down from the spotter's stand at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November just three months before his 76th birthday. Penske climbed the steps of his pit box, where he hugged and kissed his wife and lucky charm, Kathy.

Two hours earlier, the reserved white-haired billionaire reveled as instigator, handing Keselowski fresh cans of sponsor brew Miller Lite to refill a monstrous — and now infamous — pilsner glass from which he intermittently imbibed or slung over the throng standing below a television stage at the start/finish line.

One hour earlier, Penske had completed his last post-race interview session of the 2012 NASCAR season with print media and choked down a slice of congealing pizza before another series of radio and television interviews. He then trudged back downstairs for more sponsor and NASCAR commitments.

Does it take much to suggest that even a goal-oriented baron of industry and one of this sport's most gentlemanly combatants would grow weary eventually? There are mountains to climb, finish lines to cross first, championships to win, and when you have done it all — this elusive NASCAR title being Penske's Holy Grail — the question must be asked: When is the pursuit of victory enough?

As he pushed through a glass door, passed a mound of empty pizza boxes and turned toward the second-floor hallway where another radio interview awaited, he turned to one of his sons, Greg. The latter had been within arm's distance most of the night, from the spotter's stand to victory circle; his father confided for the first time that he was finally tiring.

When it comes to Penske, "tired" is a relative term, but it is important because historically he never seemed to tire, much less age. His reputation for stamina is world-class, the stuff of legend and business awe. Penske is known to work 20-hour days, seven days a week, not just surviving but thriving on little sleep. When Penske greets employees for the first time, he's known to hand out coins he's had minted that on one side reads "Penske" and the year, and on the other side reads, "Effort Equals Results." Talk to close co-workers and it is sport to see who can appear for an offsite event first; if Penske says he will meet at 5:30 a.m., you'd better be there at 5:15 because chances are he'll be standing there in his signature blue blazer and charcoal wool trousers, tie immaculately fit.

And so it is true of him at this high-speed place of business. Within a few hours of adjourning his motorsports commitments in South Florida, he and his closest circle of family and lieutenants — including executive vice presidents Walt Czarnecki and Bud Denker — were aboard a private plane that touched down in Pontiac, Mich., around 3:30 a.m., giving him plenty of time for a dollop of sleep, a shower and change to fresh clothes before he was back at his desk. Refreshed enough, Penske needed to address pressing matters pertinent to the other aspects of his mostly transportation-oriented business empire, which produces annual revenue in excess of $16 billion and employs more than 36,000 people.

Though his legion of faithful employees and disciples are loath to even give thought to the possibility, there will eventually come a time when the man known reverentially as The Captain and familiarly as RP will no longer helm his empire. That eventuality was thrust abruptly to the forefront of family and corporate matters in 2005 when doctors diagnosed Penske with bladder cancer that forced the removal of one of his kidneys.

But there is a plan. With Penske, there is always a plan. Especially with a privately held company as Penske Corp. is, the plan is essential for a smooth future. With trusted officers, most of them groomed internally and in place for substantial time periods, Penske hopes the company can perpetuate success in its next crucial guise, whenever that might occur.

That includes his ultra-successful race teams — winners of 15 Indianapolis 500s, a Daytona 500 and 12 IndyCar championships — thanks to a close-knit cadre of young executives including Penske Racing president Tim Cindric, 44, vice president of operations Mike Nelson, 40, and competition director Travis Geisler, 32.

"You don't plan for retirement. At least I'm not," Penske said. "I'm planning to stay active both in my business and on the racing side as long as I'm healthy.

"From a racing perspective, Tim Cindric is a partner of mine in the race teams. He's certainly developed leadership skills and I think has the authority and discipline, and I think from the standpoint of the rest of the people on the race team feel he is a great leader and would support him if I wasn't here now.

"Obviously, the decision in the future, if I'm not here, that'll be a different discussion, but that's one we try not to have to prepare for at the moment. Things happen, but we have a good management structure with our companies, key leadership people who know the business and help build it, because you can't go by yourself. My experience on other boards of directors and how we set up for that, I think we're well-positioned. From a racing perspective, the guys you see today are the guys you'll see tomorrow. I just hope I can be a part of that for a long time."

The conundrum for Penske Corp. — the holding company overseeing Penske's many ventures — is that, even with a well-orchestrated succession plan, companies — notable among them Walt Disney, Starbucks, Microsoft and, arguably, Apple — often stumble after the departure of their founder/innovator/spiritual force. For instance in racing, Dale Earnhardt Inc. was absorbed into Chip Ganassi's race team eight years after the death of its founder (not to suggest that DEI was as prepared as is Penske Racing for what is an eventuality of succession).

"In some ways, the worst job for a CEO is to follow a Walt Disney or a Steve Jobs because it's almost impossible," Ed Lawler, director of the Center for Effective Organizations at USC's Marshall School of Business told the Los Angeles Times in an Aug. 26, 2011 story. "Often these people are iconic because they're irreplaceable."

Cindric, whom Penske credits with bringing his NASCAR and IndyCar shops together in 2006 to stimulate "cross-pollination" of thinking and a better use of resources, appreciates that his boss provides the teams "a means of which to make a decision" during his visits to Penske Racing's massive Mooresville, N.C., facility.

"He's a great motivator," Cindric said of The Captain. "His motive to come here … [is] he wants to be there when we need him. His presence is always useful, even if there is not an agenda. He's a person we want to have here as much as possible. All of our work lists get longer when he is here, but that's a good thing. He's always pushing to do more, but the main thing is we are all motivated to help him succeed, because we know that's something we can't buy and something he genuinely gets satisfaction from, and we all get satisfaction from being part of his success. Anytime you can do something that's the first for him, that's even more gratifying."

Cindric said after winning the 2012 Sprint Cup title, "I don't think we have any more have-to-do's. I think we have more things we would like to do, but that was the last thing we had to accomplish, of the things we know of now in life."

That is not to imply, he said, that Penske or the organization will not find goals to pursue doggedly.

As with all successful companies, they look to the future and lay out a tentative, ever-fluid map of where they want the business to go. In that respect, Penske Corp.'s succession plan is unknown outside of its board of directors. It is something of a sport to consider and speculate.

Greg Penske, who runs Longo Toyota in El Monte, Calif. — one of the country's most successful car dealerships — said he would be interested in succeeding his father, if asked. Still, Greg considers his siblings and other company executives extremely capable. He does not assume the job would automatically pass to offspring.

"We have people … who have been running these businesses for a long time, and they have a lot of runway left," Greg said.

Roger Penske said both Greg and son Roger Jr., who owns Penske Honda of Ontario and other dealerships, have "supported the racing side."

"Greg was instrumental in building the California Speedway. He was president of our speedway company, so he might be closer at the moment because of [that]. But at the present time, the only son of mine that is really directly involved [in racing] would be Jay with his IndyCar team.

"I think [Greg] has got his hands full with his businesses," Penske said. "Of course he, like I do, loves to go to the races. He's a big supporter of the team and I think … if we were going forward, [Greg and Roger Jr.] would certainly go in the direction to keep the company in the racing business as long as we could afford it."

Penske, who said he has received "a clean bill of health" in each of his twice-yearly checkups following his cancer and kidney surgery, keeps "extending his runway" with a daily fitness routine and immersion in the day-to-day business that so seems to invigorate him.

As if the racing wasn't enough, Penske has done much to revitalize his current home of Detroit. He brought a Super Bowl to the city in 2006, and as promoter of the IndyCar race on Detroit's Belle Isle, he has made an enormous commitment to polish the gem that is America's largest urban park. And as evidenced by his NASCAR switch from Dodge to Ford for 2013, he, as noted by driver Sam Hornish Jr., "always has a seat at the table."

"I do know Roger tries to take care of himself very, very well as far as his health and trying to make sure he can do all the things he wants to," said Hornish, 33, who won an IndyCar title and the Indianapolis 500 with Penske in 2006 before transitioning to NASCAR. "He has more energy [after] 70 than a lot of people my age do. There are people in line [at Penske Corp.] that would step up and try to do the best they can. … You don't know who that person is until it happens. They don't even know at times if they can do it."

Similar to the conversations now swirling around Formula One honcho Bernie Ecclestone, there is growing sport in race paddocks around the country trying to determine who will succeed The Captain when he finally wants to hand over the keys. It is the same "Silly Season" speculation that posits what driver goes in which race car between seasons.

Rusty Wallace has a strong opinion. Never one to fear making a bold statement, the former driver of the No. 2 Penske Dodge in which Keselowski claimed his Cup title, is adamant that Greg will eventually run the corporation.

Greg Penske
Greg Penske

"Greg. Absolutely," Wallace said. "Greg's my best friend. He and I go on vacations together. Great guy, smart as shit. He was right there next to the old man on the spotter's stand in the pit area. He's all over. He runs the world's largest Toyota dealership. He's a car guy. He gets it. [It's] definitely going to be great.

"The old man is going to be around forever, but if the old man's not around forever, and he decides he don't want to do this no more, I think he says, 'Greg, take my position.' Roger Jr. is really smart, but Greg is more the car guy, in my opinion. So I think it would be Greg taking the team over. I think Greg would take the team over and everything else would stay in place. Tim Cindric is a wonderful guy. He's smart. Mike Nelson over there is good. Roger has put a group of new-age, now-type guys in there."

Greg, one of five Penske children, sounds and speaks like his father. Their propensities for diplomatic discourse spiked with point-driving catch phrases are strikingly similar; in phone conversations it is easy to lose track of which one is speaking, until the father circles back on a point, emphasizing his vision. Greg is a ubiquitous figure at IndyCar and NASCAR races. He presents the image of a son learning at the hand of the master, but both are careful to assert the Penske Corp. board's power to select a successor.

Greg's insistence that a last name should not be a determining factor in picking a successor — a point about which Cindric disagrees — seems in keeping with a company whose founder ended a good racing career to become a businessman because the long-term prospects were better.

Cindric doesn't believe Penske could ever leave racing as long as he is healthy, and Penske admits that while he enjoys a round of golf or a fine day of skiing, racing is his "weekend fishing trip."

Walking away from sport does not come easy to such competitors. Ask Brett Favre or Michael Jordan. Seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty, the titular head of a race team co-owned by an investment group, said in November 2012 that despite the sport's challenges he would remain in it "as long as my toes are turned up, I guess. I never thought about it. If I stopped doing what I'm doing, I've got to start a new life and I don't think I'm gonna do that. It's just a way of life."

It's a way of life the legions of well-groomed, well-spoken Penske partisans hope not to see end.

"I don't know what will happen when Roger is gone and I don't want to find out, either," Hornish said. "I hope that by the time that happens I am somewhere enjoying my retirement. I hope I don't actually go through that transition." Brant James/Autoweek

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