I don’t like thinking about ‘what ifs’ in motorsport. There are so many variables and little things that affect race results, and the performance of teams and drivers. For instance, what if Mark Webber didn’t crash at Korea in 2010, would he have won the championship? However, there is one ‘what if’ that I often think about, not because I wish it didn’t happen, but because I think it is one of the most influential events to shape motorsport. Let me explain:
This is Roger Penske. He was a racing driver in the 1960’s, first doing hill climbs and then began racing Porsches. He competed in two Formula One grand prix and won a NASCAR Late Model race, becoming a well-known racing driver. In 1965, he got offered a rookie test for that year's Indianapolis 500.
However, he instead turned it down and retired as a racing driver, turning to business with Chevrolet at a dealership in Philadelphia. This change in venture would help Mr Penske start his own race team, entering the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in 1969. By 1971, Penske were working with McLaren on the M16, a next generation car. By 1972, Team Penske won their first of many Indy 500’s with the dominant McLaren. Team Penske would soon start building their own cars and would win their first IndyCar championships in 1977-78 with Tom Sneva and 1979 with Rick Mears. Mears would also claim his first of four Indy 500 victories in 1979. Penske would continue to be the team to beat into the 1980’s, winning the championship with Rick Mears (1981, 1982), Al Unser (1983, 1985) and Danny Sullivan (1988). They also would win an extra 5 Indy 500’s during this time. After two more wins in the 500 in 1991 and 1993, Penske would build the PC23, one of the most dominant open wheel race cars in history. Not only that, but they had a top-secret ace card up their sleeve for that year’s Indy 500. With the leadership of Roger Penske, a loophole was found for the PC23 to run the powerful Mercedes 500I engine for that race only. And it again dominated. Team Penske have continued to be the most successful team in American Open Wheel Racing, winning 16 championships and 18 Indianapolis 500’s. But IndyCar wasn’t Rogers only foray. Debuting his NASCAR team in 1972, it would only take a year for them to get their first win with Mark Donohue. Team Penske would win the Cup Series Championship for the first time in 2012, and again in 2018 whilst they would claim the Xfinity Championship (the second tier series) in 2010 and 2020.
Since Roger Penske started his team in 1965, he has also delved extensively into sports car racing. Throughout the team’s history they would compete in Trans-Am, the United States Road Racing Championship (where they would claim the championship in 1967 and 1968), and Can-Am, winning the championship in 1972 and 1973. They would also try their hand at Endurance Racing, competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and surprisingly winning the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1969. With Porsche, Penske would claim the American Le Mans Championship from 2006 to 2008. More recently, they have competed in the IMSA championship with Acura and the World Endurance Championship. Roger Penske would also lead a team into the world of Formula between 1974 and 1976, scoring one victory. Recently in 2015, Penske would team up with Dick Johnson Racing in the V8 Supercars championship. They would dominate, winning three straight championships in from 2018 to 2020 with Scott McLaughlin, and would claim the 2019 Bathurst 1000 crown.
Now, Roger Penske is the owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series, and I couldn’t imagine a better person for the job. His legacy and influence in motor racing is of mammoth unmeasurable proportions, and has built one of, if not the most successful team across all motorsports. All this because he turned down the rookie test in 1965 to focus on business with Chevrolet. Imagine if he hadn’t.
But that is only half of the ‘what if’. Because guess who replaced Roger Penske at that Indy 500 rookie test in 1965.
You could know absolutely nothing about racing, and you still would have heard the name… Mario Andretti.
The Italian-born American is one of the most versatile and successful drivers in motorsport. His career spans half a century. He was awarded U.S Driver of the Year in three different decades, was the first driver to win IndyCar races in four decades and the first to win in any motorsport category in 5 consecutive decades.
Mario and his twin brother Aldo began their American racing careers on the dirt tracks of Pennsylvania. Across 1960 and 1961, Mario Andretti would grab 21 wins across 46 in modified stock cars. From 1961 to 1963, he raced in midgets and would make his IndyCar debut in 1964 whilst also racing in sprint cars at the same time. His long IndyCar campaign would truly begin when the aforementioned Roger Penske would turn down the rookie test for the 1965 Indy 500, allowing Andretti to take part instead. He would finish third in that year’s race, earning him rookie of the year honours. He would also claim the IndyCar Championship in 1965 and 1966. In a year-old car, Andretti would claim his only Indianapolis 500 crown (1969) and that year’s championship. During this time, Andretti would compete in 14 NASCAR races, and would win the 1967 Daytona 500.
Beginning in 1968, Andretti would drive part time in F1, as well as the Can-am series for three years. He would also have a go at American endurance racing, winning the Sebring 12 Hour three times and the Daytona 24 Hours once in 1972. 1975 would be the first year competing full-time in F1. With help from Colin Chapman and ground effects, Andretti would dominate the 1978 Formula One World Championship. He would return to IndyCar in 1982 and would win the championship again in 1984.
Mario Andretti had multiple attempts at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with his best finish being second overall in 1995, although it is important to note Andretti and his teammates finished first in their class.
However, his legacy is more than just his wide foray of wins and the many categories of motorsport he has competed in. The Andretti legacy continues in the form of sons Michael and Jeff, grandson Marco and nephew John. As drivers, they had varying degrees of success. Son Michael would be very successful in IndyCar, winning the championship in 1991.
Michael Andretti’s team would begin as Andretti Green Racing in 2003. They are one of the top teams in IndyCar and have won the championship four times and the Indianapolis 500 five times. At the end of 2009, a restructure led to the team being renamed Andretti Autosport.
The team expanded to the American Le Mans Series for 2007 and 2008 with Acura. Andretti Autosport would also compete extensively in junior categories on the ladder to IndyCar. They have now expanded to V8 Supercars with Walkinshaw, Formula E and various Rallycross championships. Andretti are also interested in setting up a Formula One team by 2026.
So, you see, Mario Andretti’s legacy is more than just his versatility behind the wheel of a race car, it has spawned a family of racing drivers and an internationally successful team.
I wonder what would have happened if Roger Penske took the rookie test and entered the 1965 Indy 500? How much different both Andretti and Penske’s careers would be. One thing I’ve learned after watching so much motorsport, is that one small decision or occurrence can have a massive impact.
In this case, I don’t think Team Penske would exist or have been successful if Roger Penske had continued to race. The same goes for Mario Andretti. Would he have been able to have such a long and successful racing career that would eventually lead to another widely participant race team? I doubt it. But, because Roger Penske retired from racing and changed to business, giving Mario Andretti his big chance, the rest became history, and we are only left to wonder, 'what if?'