GRR

The car that gave Roger Penske his first NASCAR win

15th August 2021
Adam Wilkins

Team Penske brought no fewer than 11 cars to the 2021 Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard. Cutting quite a different dash to the low-slung single-seaters and sportscars was this Pontiac Catalina stock car. Generously proportioned and finished in gleaming black, it looks every bit as intimidating as you’d expect of a period NASCAR. It’s a faithful recreation of the car in which Roger Penske claimed his first saloon car win, at the Riverside 250 in 1963.

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It was built around 15 years ago and is most usually found at the Penske Museum in Scottsdale, Arizona. In fact, it has only left once before, for an appearance at Amelia Island. Until now, it has never been out of the United States. This is a very rare chance to get up close to it in the UK. “Roger wanted to bring it to Goodwood, he’s very proud of the win in this car,” said Team Penske’s Bernie King. “It’s kept as Mr Penske likes to keep his cars.” In other words, it’s utterly spotless inside and out.

Penske was no stranger to Riverside when he arrived for the NASCAR race. The previous year he’d won the LA Times Grand Prix. It was Dan Gurney, who was the winner of the first Riverside 500, who suggested he take up stock car racing. Speaking to the LA Times in 1963, Penske said: "Gurney told me it wasn't any tougher than sportscar racing and a heckuva lot safer. It really doesn't seem different than sports car or GT racing. It's amazing how well [the stock cars] handle.”

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The Catalina that Penske raced was owned by Chicago Pontiac dealer Ray Nichels. They’d led the Indianapolis race for 53 laps before a mechanical failure took them out of the race. The pre-retirement performance was enough to make Riverside promoter Les Richter very keen to have them at the California circuit.

Penske didn’t disappoint, bringing plenty of excitement to the 250-mile race. He still had a day job at the time, so was only able to spend two days at the circuit which limited his time to practice. He qualified 12th on the grid but, by the end of lap one, was down to dead last. An unavoidable tangle with a spinning Mercury Darel Dieringer saw him off the circuit. Speaking to the LA Times after the race, Penske said: "I just waited on that hill till everyone had gone by before I tried to get back into the race.”

He did just that, battling his way back into contention. Pit stops cost Dieringer the lead in Penske’s favour, and they battled for the win for the last 13 laps. There was less than a second between them as they crossed the line, and they were a full half-minute ahead of the chasing pack. This was despite brakes problems that meant Penske has to use the stoppers as sparingly as possible.

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The Catalina here lacks the Mercury shaped dent to the front wing and bonnet, but is otherwise a faithful representation of the car Penske used for that nail-biting victory. 

Photography by Pete Summers.

  • Pontiac

  • Catalina

  • Roger Penske

  • NASCAR

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