As racing mogul Roger Penske celebrates his 50th anniversary in the sport, the team owner will revisit one of his hallmark feats this weekend when NASCAR returns to Fontana.
Penske’s company built the 568-acre Auto Club Speedway complex, originally called California Speedway, which hosts Monday’s fifth race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, the Auto Club 400.
Nothing would please Penske more than to have one of his two Cup drivers, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, mark the occasion with a victory on the two-mile (3.2-kilometer) speedway.
“It would be amazing” to score another win in Fontana, Penske said. “To have it there would be a real thrill. One of the biggest things we did was to build the California Speedway.”
Penske’s team rolls into Fontana among the favorites. Keselowski, the former Cup champion who drives the No. 2 Ford, is the defending winner of the Auto Club 400, and he also won two weeks ago in Las Vegas.
“I’m feeling very confident we’re going to be in the hunt in California,” Penske said.
Nicknamed “The Captain,” Penske, 79, oversees teams in NASCAR stock-car racing and in the Verizon IndyCar Series. His IndyCar team also is off to a fast start this year.
Penske driver Juan Pablo Montoya won last week’s IndyCar season opener in Saint Petersburg, Florida, and Montoya will defend his Indianapolis 500 win in 2015 when the series holds the 100th running of the legendary race in May.
A former race car driver, Penske also runs an automotive empire that’s earned him a net worth of $1.5 billion, according to Forbes.
His Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based Penske Corporation has interests in car dealerships, truck rentals and transportation logistics. It generates $23 billion in annual revenue and employs 50,000 worldwide.
Penske built the Auto Club Speedway for $120 million in the mid-1990s and later sold the track to its current owner International Speedway Corporation, the entity controlled by the France family that also controls NASCAR.
Attendance for NASCAR and IndyCar races at the track has risen and fallen over last 20 years. The speedway opened with 72,000 seats, expanded to 92,000 and, in response to the recession and a leveling off of NASCAR’s popularity, cut its capacity to the current 68,000.
Penske, though, has never lost faith in racing’s popularity in Southern California.
“Even though there are so many different opportunities for how people spend their spare time” in the region, “the fan base is loyal, there’s no question,” he said.
Penske’s drivers will face stiff competition on Monday’s race, of course, starting with six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who also is the only five-time winner at Auto Club Speedway.
Other front-runners are Kyle Busch, last year’s Cup champion, and Matt Kenseth, the 2003 series champion. Each has three Cup wins at Fontana.
Two of the longtime favorites of the Southern California crowd, former champions Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, won’t be racing. Stewart is recovering from a preseason back injury and Gordon retired as a driver after last season.
Brian Vickers will substitute for Stewart on Mounday in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.