ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin -- Roger Penske had no idea he was about to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom until the phone rang last week.
Penske, the 82-year-old racing and automotive magnate, was told to call the White House. When he did, he was connected to President Donald Trump.
“We talked about a few things, and then he told me, ‘Look, I want to give you an honor that you probably don’t expect,’” Penske said last Sunday on pit lane before the start of the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America. “He said, ‘The Medal of Freedom will be presented to you. I’ll send you a formal notification.’ That was pretty much the extent of the conversation, other than me not knowing how to thank him for the honor.”
The award, given at the president’s discretion, is presented for “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."
Among previous honorees are Mother Teresa, John Wayne, Johnny Carson, Aretha Franklin, Warren Buffett and Tiger Woods, who received the award in May. Penske is just the second person connected to auto racing to receive it; Richard Petty was honored in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush.
The award has been the topic of conversation within Team Penske leading up to the NTT IndyCar Series race and the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series race at Sonoma Raceway.
“It’s obviously such a great honor,” Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud said after Sunday’s pre-race drivers’ meeting. “Not many Americans have had the opportunity to receive that medal. I’m honestly super proud to drive for him. I’m proud of his team. It’s really phenomenal.”
After Pagenaud won the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge last month, Penske and his INDYCAR team were invited to the White House to meet Trump. In May, Penske visited Trump at the White House to honor the team’s 2018 NASCAR championship with Joey Logano.
Penske is one of the most prolific team owners in the history of American motorsports. His team has won the Indy 500 a record 18 times, along with 13 Indy car championships and two NASCAR championships.
Penske’s automotive empire is equally impressive and influential. His Penske Corp. operates Penske Automotive Group, one of the nation’s largest chains of auto dealerships, and Penske Truck Leasing, a nationwide truck sales and leasing operation.
Penske has been inducted into nearly every auto racing hall of fame, including the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But he never dreamed he’d receive the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“There are so many elite people that are in that group,” Penske said. “For me to be part of that is humbling. When you think about the fact that Truman started it, and it became a president’s award with Kennedy. Richard Petty received it, and Tiger. There are so many great Americans who have received it.”
News of the award was well-received throughout the INDYCAR paddock, especially among Penske’s peers.
“He is this sport,” team owner Dale Coyne said. “It’s well-deserved. Roger Penske has been this sport. Everything we’ve done here since the day I walked into that first owners’ meeting at O’Hare Airport in 1983 has been about him. He’s always been our leader. … He’s worked hard to build his empire and everything he has. It’s a phenomenal thing.”
In 53 years of operation, Penske’s race teams have won more than 500 races, more than 600 pole positions and 34 championships in a variety of disciplines, and more than 200 wins in Indy cars.
“He deserves this very much with everything he does for racing and everything he does with the empire he’s built in the automotive industry in the U.S.,” Pagenaud said. “He employs 65,000 people all over the world. That’s pretty impressive. His contribution to society is amazing.”
As Penske talked about the award Sunday on pit lane, fellow team owner Chip Ganassi stopped by to congratulate him. Still stunned by the news four days after he first heard it, Penske said he didn’t know quite what to say in response.
“It’s such an honor for me and my family and the team,” he said. “I’m breathless when I talk about it.”+_