Someone suggested converting a section of seats in the upper rows of the front-stretch grandstand to suites. Intrigued, Penske directed a full-scale mock-up be built for deeper consideration, prompting an aside from a smiling executive, “He’s forgotten he doesn’t own it yet!”
“His attention to detail and incredible bias toward action are unlike anybody I’ve ever worked with,” said Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment.
Penske’s full-throttle pursuit of excellence has defined his approach to business for decades — as an accomplished racecar driver in his 20s; as founder of Penske Corporation, a global transportation services company; and as the most successful team owner in Indianapolis 500 history.
It also has characterized his first 16 months as owner of the speedway and the IndyCar Series, mindful of a duty to preserve motorsports’ most historic venue while propelling it forward.
“Because of what we’re seeing at sporting events around the world, people expect Indianapolis to be at the higher end of the best,” Penske, 84, said in a recent telephone interview. “There is no way we can rest on our laurels.”
Sunday’s 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 will be the coming-out party Penske hoped to stage a year ago, before the pandemic bumped the 2020 race from its traditional Memorial Day weekend to late August and barred all spectators. At the direction of local health authorities, attendance will be capped at 135,000 fans, or 40 percent of the venue’s capacity. Even with the restrictions, it is expected to be the largest crowd at a sporting event since the arrival of the coronavirus.
In many respects, it is fitting that Penske, widely known as “The Captain,” now owns the famed Brickyard, where his race teams have won a record 18 Indianapolis 500s, including four with Rick Mears and three with Hélio Castroneves.
In large part, he built the Penske Corporation’s global brand on the record of excellence his race teams compiled at the track.
He is also an experienced track owner, having bought and overhauled Michigan International Speedway in 1973 and built California Speedway in 1997, which raised standards for racing venues. But Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a mammoth property, is its own realm — an iconic shrine to automotive engineering, skill and daring that encompasses a lake, golf course, museum and road-racing course inside a 2½-mile rectangular ribbon of asphalt.
It was built in 1909 primarily as a test track for the nascent automobile industry, a proving ground for car-builders to push vehicles’ limits. Its first 500-mile race was staged in 1911, won by Ray Harroun at an average speed of 75 mph. Shuttered for four years during World War II, it was a weed-covered reclamation project when Terre Haute businessman Tony Hulman bought it in 1945, sparing it from being repurposed as a housing development.
After seven decades of family ownership, Hulman & Company’s board of directors, which included four of the founder’s grandchildren, began discreetly weighing options for the venue’s future in 2017. According to Miles, then president and CEO of Hulman & Company and a principal in the closely held discussions, the speedway was never going to be listed for sale, much less auctioned to the highest bidder, but rather “placed” with a carefully considered owner.
Two interested buyers had been vetted when Tony George, chairman of the family-owned business, approached Penske about the prospect of buying the track and the racing series at the end of the 2019 season. Penske didn’t hesitate.
“The decision to buy it wasn’t made because of the economics,” said Penske, whose net worth is $2.4 billion, according to Forbes. “It was made for the love of the sport and knowing what we could bring to Indianapolis from our experience as a competitor, as a team owner and as track owners. With that, we thought we could even make the foundation more secure for many years to come.”
The news was made public in November 2019 and stunned the business and motorsports communities. Terms were not disclosed, but the deal was reportedly in the $300 million range.
Fellow IndyCar team owners welcomed the development despite the fact that Team Penske is among their most formidable on-track rivals.
“He has the backing of the owners because he is an owner,” said Chip Ganassi, whose driver Scott Dixon, a six-time IndyCar Series champion and the 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner, will start Sunday’s race from the pole.
“Roger understands the plight the car owner has — stuck between the sanctioning body on one side, sponsors on the other, drivers on the other, and they’re all sort of picking at you all the time,” Ganassi said. “He understands what the owners are dealing with. You can talk to him about the challenge of the business, and he understands.”
No time to waste
Penske was 14 when his father brought him to his first Indianapolis 500 in 1951. From the stands overlooking Turn 4, he watched awestruck as Lee Wallard crossed the finish line, his racecar without brakes after a punishing battle of attrition.
He has returned every year since, apart from 1996 to 2000, when open-wheel racing split into two factions — a decision he now considers unwise, acknowledging that it stalled growth for all involved. For Penske, it also underscored the inestimable value of having the Indianapolis 500 on a racing schedule.
Two months after the sale of the speedway closed in January 2020, the pandemic brought sports seasons across the country to a halt.
Penske’s response was twofold and seemingly contradictory. He directed cost-cutting where spending was no longer essential, such as advertising and promotion, while investing more in improvement projects that could still be carried out. Granular details of track amenities became his new fixation.
Throughout the pandemic, Miles said, Penske flew in every Saturday from Michigan to check on the progress. He inspected dozens of cinder-block restrooms and directed they be painted white, accented by bands of dark and light gray, only to tweak the scheme after reviewing a mock-up.
“There is no detail that is too small: where you place and how you affix the wastebaskets in a restroom,” Miles said. “Where the LED lights we’ve never had before should go. How you arrange the sweepers under the doors so leaves don’t blow in and on and on.”
Other upgrades include 30 LED video boards, renovated concession stands, 5G connectivity throughout, extensive landscaping and a massive media wall in Pagoda Plaza.
Meanwhile, the track did double duty as a drive-up clinic for coronavirus vaccines, and vaccines will continue to be offered at first-aid stations on race day.
“Roger is painting his masterpiece here,” Ganassi said. “This is the masterpiece of his business empire.”
Steering the sport
Penske launched his ownership of the speedway and the IndyCar Series at a critical time for motorsports. With the automotive industry gearing up for transformational change via the shift to hybrid and electric vehicles, the racing industry must prove its relevance as an incubator of new technology or face obsolescence.
That, too, is on Penske’s plate as owner of the IndyCar Series.
“There is no question that we need to be in step with that,” Penske said, noting plans to incorporate hybrid technology in the racecars’ powertrains in 2023.
Also on his to-do list: recruiting a third engine manufacturer to join Honda and Chevrolet and shepherding a new broadcast deal, with NBC’s contract in its final year.
Penske believes the depth and quality of IndyCar’s teams and drivers have never been better — another key metric of the series’s health. The field for Sunday’s 500 includes nine past winners and promising youngsters such as Colton Herta, 21, who won the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and will start second. And 45-year-old rookie Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion who jumped to IndyCar this season to run road-course and street races, will offer commentary from the NBC Sports booth.
Team Penske will have four drivers among the field of 33: 2019 winner Simon Pagenaud, 2018 winner Will Power, Josef Newgarden and rookie Scott McLaughlin. It’s also providing technical support to Paretta Autosport, the first majority-female team to contest the Indianapolis 500.
Even before Sunday’s green flag flies, though, Penske believes that, by purchasing the track, he secured a victory that ideally will pay dividends long after he is gone.
“Hopefully, 75 years from now,” he said, “someone will look back and say, ‘Hey, that Penske ownership — they were able to raise the bar.’ ”