After taking the southbound Scottsdale Road exit off the Loop 101 Pima Freeway in Phoenix, travelers see a thoroughfare of high-end resorts, restaurants and shopping venues. But as they pass the Scottsdale 101 Autoplex, probably few are aware that behind the shiny array of exotic car dealerships is the Penske Racing Museum.
The museum chronicles the extraordinary history of Roger Penske and his racing team. Penske, a former racecar driver heads an auto and trucking business with $16 billion a year in revenue and has created an auto-racing dynasty. In 42 years of competition, Penske Racing at last count had racked up 326 racing victories, 22 national championships and 389 pole positions. The wins include 15 victories in the Indianapolis 500.
The museum’s Phoenix location, next to a Jaguar dealership, was originally conceived as a car delivery area for all the dealerships in the center. When construction started, Roger Penske and some of his key executives soon realized that this wasn’t the best use of the space and a museum for racing fans was born.
No matter whether your favorite racing thrill is NASCAR, Indy cars or Formula One, they are all represented in the rotating collection that is visited by fans from as far away as Japan and Germany. On any given day, the 9,000-square-foot display area behind two-story high glass walls has between 10 and 12 Indy 500 winners on view, and nine to 11 other significant Penske cars available for inspection; including Indy 500 Pace car replicas and a replica 1963 Pontiac Catalina commemorating Roger Penske’s victory in the 1963 Riverside 250. Upon seeing the Pontiac Catalina, visitors are stunned by the car’s bare-bones appearance compared with today’s sophisticated and safety-oriented NASCAR entries.
Significant racing cars on display include:
• Rick Mear’s Cosworth Ford DFX V8 that set the closed-course speed record in 1986 of 223 mph at Michigan International Speedway. In 1987 in this same car Al Unser Sr. won his fourth Indy 500, giving Team Penske its sixth Indy 500 victory.
• The 1985 Penske March 85C that was driver Danny Sullivan’s famous “Spin and Win” car. On his way to his Indy 500 victory, he lost control seconds after overtaking Mario Andretti and spun 360 degrees through the short chute between turns one and two.
• Mark Donohue’s Porsche IROC RSR driven to victory in the inaugural IROC race in 1973.
• Driver Tom Sneva’s 1977 Penske PC-5, the first car to set a single lap qualifying record at the Indy 500 of over 200 mph.
• Ryan Newman’s 2004 NASCAR Dodge Intrepid that won two races and led the Nextel Cup with nine pole positions.
The museum’s motor sports specialist, Patrick J. Hozza, says many people who visit the museum consider it a walk down memory lane. “We get people who are race fans and people who tend to stumble upon us and they all go ‘Wow.’ They were at an Indy race and remember the car here on display and the feeling when they saw it win. And then you have people who only see races on TV, never realizing the cars were so big or that the tires had no grooves.”
Hozza encourages visitors to reflect on the evolution of racing during their visit. “A lot of it has to do with safety and seeing how the cars have developed over the years,” he said. The newer cars, for instance, have Kevlar roped tethers on the wheels and the rear wing “where in an accident the tethers prevent all the energy from a tire being flung off the car and going into the stands or into another car.” And a driver’s feet are better protected in an accident now with the addition of an extra bulkhead, and moving the driver back about 15 inches.
“The wings best exemplify the evolution of race car design,” Hozza said. The big rear wings on 1970s cars have been replaced by small rear wings that reduce force in order to keep speeds down.
Hozza, speaking from actual experience as the air jackman for the Team Penske #3 Indy car, enjoys explaining the different technologies to visitors. “Visitors definitely learn things about racing because of their visit,” he said.
Race drivers in town for the NASCAR race drop by the museum and let Roger Penske know back at the track how much they enjoyed seeing the history. And, according to Hozza, new drivers for Team Penske “are impressed to see cars from all the wins.” For them, seeing is believing. Hozza said they develop “a greater appreciation for what they are stepping into. They began to understand, because of the winning history represented here, the expectation that Team Penske is about winning.”
The museum is more than car displays. The extensive collection of trophies from around the world includes a beautiful Tiffany replica of the Vanderbilt trophy awarded at the first automobile race held in North America at Long Island in 1904, sponsored by William K. Vanderbilt. The original cup is displayed at the Smithsonian. Other interesting trophies include the 2000 Houston Grand Prix trophy, which is a silver-plated real Texas cowboy boot on a crystal pedestal representing Team Penske’s second-place finish. The 2006 Japan Indy Car trophy is an exquisitely detailed exotic gold-plated mini Shogun battle helmet.
Racing’s earliest era is represented by a long strip outside the museum’s south door of original Indianapolis Speedway bricks—remember, it’s still called the Brickyard.
What’s the next historic car destined for the museum? According to Hozza, it should be a rare 1969 Lola all-wheel-drive racer sporting an Offenhauser engine. Currently being restored, it was the first car Penske took to Indianapolis and Mark Donohue’s rookie car.
Penske Racing Museum is a destination for all ages. Whether you attend races or watch on TV, you’ll better appreciate racing’s colorful history. Admission is free. RV parking is available on the street.
The museum is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For information, call (480) 538-4444 or visit penskeracingmuseum.com.
Kent R. Davies is a writer who lives in Phoenix, Arizona.