June 10, 2014 at 1:00 am

Roger Penske's impact on Detroit

Penske Corp. chairman Roger Penske, in front of a Grand Prix Chevy Indy Car, was a believer in Detroit when few people were. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Every once in a while, you have to give credit to a community leader for the extraordinary impact he’s been able to make across generations.

I had that sense after attending the Grand Prixmiere charity gala and Grand Prix on Belle Isle and seeing the incredible event footage from the island on television.

The historic Scott Fountain was once again strikingly lit and flowing, the island was tidy and lush, the sun shone brilliantly and TV cameras beamed footage of incredible sunsets, a glowing skyline and boats moored in clear blue waters to the whole world.

The Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix was a big win for Roger Penske, the hometown business and racing legend whose racing team delivered him new trophies and who drew applause for putting together yet another world-class event.

But like anything Roger’s involved in, it was all about Detroit.

Detroit is special — and fortunate — in that it has cultivated such a rich sense of civic duty among its native sons and daughters. That holds true up and down the economic spectrum. We consistently rank among the top charitable-giving regions in the country.

Detroit is a city of incredible character, full of people willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty for a good cause.

But among our ranks are people who have achieved remarkable success over their careers — Mike and Marian Ilitch and Compuware founder Peter Karmanos Jr., of course, and also people like Dan Gilbert, Gerry Anderson of DTE Energy and Cindy Pasky of Strategic Staffing Solutions.

They could go anywhere in the world, but instead chose to put down ever deeper roots and give back to the city that gave them their shot at greatness.

I met Penske as an executive at Blue Cross when he was spearheading preparations for Super Bowl XL, which the city hosted in 2006.

Everyone across the country thought that event was sure to be a disaster — a Super Bowl in Detroit? — yet the game and all the attendant festivities were widely considered to be phenomenally successful, thanks to his leadership.

And I got to know him better after becoming CEO and serving on the Downtown Detroit Partnership board, which he founded.

Penske is the kind of person whose passion, commitment, execution and ability to make things happen rubs off on people.

The fact is, when you’re around him, the talk usually runs along the lines of, “What are we doing for the city? What should we be doing next?”

When he commits to something, it gets done.

And that can-do attitude has inspired others throughout the region.

Penske’s support and persistence was critical to our own efforts several years ago when Blue Cross first began considering bringing thousands of employees to Detroit from the suburbs.

He is one of the key people who helped us get downtown.

And it was his spark and leadership that brought business leaders together last year around the idea to donate $8 million for new police and EMS vehicles to bolster public safety.

I could go on.

Last weekend, after his drivers Will Power and Helio Castroneves swept the Indy Dual events on Belle Isle, Penske, a member of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, could easily have gloated.

Instead, in typical deflective style, he replied, “the big win was for the city of Detroit.”

Roger Penske sets the bar high for the rest of us. And the city and region are better for it.

Daniel J. Loepp is president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and chairs the Executive Committee of the Downtown Detroit Partnership.