Robert W. Banning was named chairman of the Maryland (Thoroughbred) Racing Commission last week by Gov.Marvin Mandel. The appointment was for five years -- to June 1, 1982.

Banning knows all about horse-power, after 30 years as one of the area's most successful automobile salesmen. He owns three automobile dealerships, all in Prince George's County. But horse racing? That's something else, generating revenue for the state, excitement for the fans and, occasionally, controversy and trouble for the politicians.

"As far as the actual operation of the racing business is concerned, I know very little about it," Banning admits. "I've no direct involvement with the sport. I've never owned horses. I've gone to the races only on occasion; not as an every-Saturday bettor. The track I went to the most often was Marlboro. I used to slide down there with friends to have lunch. Since Marlboro is closed I haven't gone to the races as much."

Why then, was Banning appointed to the state's top racing post?

"I guess Mandel's thinking probably went something like this," Banning replied, "First, he already had a great many people out of Baltimore presently on the (five-man) commission. And he wanted to name someone who had a business orientation.

"There are important decisions to be made concerning racing in Maryland and I think it's going to be helpful to have an open mind. I'm business-oriented. The automobile business is money. A new salesman can come in and tell you wonderful thing about this and that but the bottom line I have for him is, "Do you have a deal?"

Banning, a Democrat, was elected to one term in the House of Delegates, then was defeated in bids for a Senate seat in 1970 and 1974. His aspirations for political office are over, he says, the chairmanship of the racing commission representing enough of a challenge.

"I plan to give it a good shot for a year, then see," he said. "We have to face some real, real hard situations. There is more and more competition from neighboring states. I remember back when I was in the legislature, as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, the racing bills reflected that fact even then.

"What I hope to achieve is to keep Maryland competitive and to provide a good show."

Banning succeeds Newton Brewer, a Kennogton investment banker, as chairman of the board.

"Not having the needed expertise, perhaps I shouldn't make a judgment, but It's my feeling Mr.Brewer did a good job during his 12 years," Banning said. "During 12 years no one is going to call all the shots right, but I believe Brewer was right much of the time."

One of Brewer's problems near the end of his last term, which ended Wednesday, was the political involvement confronting an appointee of the governor. When Mandel went to trial over his alleged improper influence in state racing matters, Brewer's position came under sharp scrutiny.

"I don't intend to be going off half-cocked on this subject," Banning said. "Except to say I know Marvin Mandel and I believe he is entitled to the right of being considered innocent until proven guilty. I know nothing about what happened or didn't happen.

"The racing commission has a state-operated regulatory function, but petty politics would be a deterrent to the industry's health. Politics should be removed from racing as much as possible. However, it would be unrealistic not to realize the commission represents state regulation and, as such, is political by nature," he said.

Banning has five children ranging in age from 11 to 29. The family sails a boat, the "Pudding Head", on which Banning might take a cram course on the intricacies of Maryland racing at Pimlico, Bowie, Laurel and Timonium. A separate commission authorized by the legislature is about to be formed to regulate the state's three harness ovals.

In the meantime, Banning is not about to take aback for his inexperience in racing matters.

"I'll extend no apologies for my lack of knowledge," he said. "If I know the answers, I'll tell you. If I don't know the answers I'll find out and act accordingly."