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Washington — President Donald Trump on Thursday gave Metro Detroit billionaire businessman and auto racing legend Roger Penske the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Penske, 82, is owner of Team Penske who founded Penske Corp., headquartered in Bloomfield Hills. He is considered the most successful auto racing team owner in history, having won a record 18 Indianapolis 500 races, along with 16 IndyCar “National Championships,” two NASCAR Cup championships and two victories at NASCAR's storied Daytona 500.

Trump hailed Penske as one of the most successful businessmen in America and he said the two have shared a long friendship. 

"I'm delighted to present our nation's highest civilian honor to a giant of American industry, entreneurship and auto racing, the legendary Roger Penske," Trump said at the White House ceremony. "He's been a friend of mine for a long time. We go a long way back." 

"No detail is ever too small or great for Roger," he added. "He's relentless, I can tell you that."  

Penske expressed gratitude to Trump for the recognition, saying it is "hard to believe" he was being given the nation's highest civilian honor. 

"It's a wonderful honor to receive this award," he said. "It's amazing to be here today...Winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom is very special, and to me it means more than any business success or motor sports trophy." 

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

In Michigan, Penske is known for promoting the Detroit region and being an ambassador for Detroit. He brought the 2006 Super Bowl to the city and helped bring IndyCar racing back to Detroit's Belle Isle.

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Of the 2006 Super Bowl, Penske said: "It was an opportunity for me as an individual to get the public and private sector together to start developing a plan for the renaissance of the city Detroit."  

Trump has previously given the honor to economist Arthur Laffer, golfer Tiger Woods, Elvis Presley, Babe Ruth, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and retired Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.  

Penske was first a racer who had success in the early 1960s before retiring in 1965 to focus on his business.

He showed a talent for racing and won driver of year awards, Trump said.

“You know I didn't know you were that great of a driver...," the president said. "What do I know?”

This year, he celebrated his 50th year at the Indianapolis 500 and 53rd year in racing.

Penske Corp. manages transportation businesses that employ more than 64,000 people around the world and generating consolidated annual revenues of $32 billion a year. The umbrella company runs car and commercial truck dealerships, sells car and truck parts, operates rental truck fleets and provides transportation logistical services. 

klaing@detroitnews.com

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