Flat Spot On: ‘The Captain’ Takes Charge at Indy

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 22 2019
Team owner Roger Penske is now a series owner and an iconic speedway owner.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Roger Penske is not just the smartest guy in the room – including corporate board rooms. What makes him a racing fan favorite is that he wears his mantle of intelligence with the ease of a self-made billionaire and the down-to-earth attitude of a racer.

Back in the days of national sports magazines, I wrote a story comparing Penske’s approach to business and racing with Caesar’s approach to important battles, always riding to the trouble spot on the battlefield, a red cape flaring, to inspire the troops and survey what needed to be done. An entirely accurate analogy, it also sounds a lot more interesting than a command style that has one charismatic man at the top and everyone else directly reporting to the boss.

Penske finds time to lead a dizzying variety of enterprises simultaneously by relying on second-in-command lieutenants. He specializes in turning around major companies and winning the Indy 500.

When Penske met with the media on camera for the announcement that the Penske Corporation had purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series from the Hulman-George family, I was reminded of two things. First was the Caesar image, because the overwhelming response to the news was that Penske, riding to the point of attack, would re-establish the glory of Indy car racing and the Indy 500.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway belongs to Roger Penske.

On the day of the announcement, I also recalled the day when Penske revealed he had sold his race track interests in Michigan, California and North Carolina to the France family. But here he was, nearly two decades later, in the right place and time to purchase the world’s greatest racing facility, one that rivals the France family flagship in Daytona Beach.

The purchase of IndyCar also brought back another memory. When the team owner-operated concept known as CART started to go bust, it was Penske helping to lead those team owners back to the Indy 500. Here he was two decades later announcing that he owned both the Indy 500 and the IndyCar series.

We should all be so lucky to have such immaculate timing. Everybody in the racing business, of course, feels lucky about Penske’s latest moves. There seems to be little doubt this new development will be outstanding for the business of not just the Speedway and IndyCar, but all of motor racing in both the short term and long run. It’s easy enough to see the long run. That would be Penske’s son Greg eventually replacing his octogenarian father at the helm. The short term is the development of a Top 10 list of things to do going forward in this new, deftly guided Penske regime at the Speedway.

Everyone has direct access to the boss with suggestions, starting with fans, who have joyfully supported this change with enthusiastic wish lists and suggestions. It’s as if the ever-savvy Penske has added fans and racing media to the list of those who report to him, a 12th man in football parlance. The situation reflects the good guy-ness that is very much part of the ingenuity, if not genius, of a man known as “The Captain,” who is just as often called Roger or RP. A guy who gets things done, breaks some glass.

Beyond Greg Penske, the people with the most access and influence on RP in this deal are longtime righthand man Bud Denker and Mark Miles, who oversaw Indy and IndyCar for the Hulman-George family. Leaning into the huddle regularly will be Jay Frye, the longtime NASCAR participant who has helped Miles rebuild excitement about the Speedway and the IndyCar series.

The challenge for journalists – if they can set aside the patent conflict-of-interest of a team owner running a series where he competes – is figuring out which ways this deal will go forward. The clear priority is the Speedway, from which the fruits of new ideas will flow—not only to the new ownership and fans of the track or IndyCar, but also in ways that create ripples elsewhere.

Bringing the track up to current standards for fan amenities and convenience will be high on the list. But I don’t think cutting back on capacity (as seen at the Daytona International Speedway) will be one of the items. Since 2016 and the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500, the joint at 16th St. and Georgetown Rd. has been full on the last Sunday in May. There may be, however, some grandstand re-configuration as part of the upgrades.

On the revenue side, the track will need to have more appeal for racing series that use it. Penske mentioned Formula 1, among others, in his comments. If Miami is in the running for a second U.S. Grand Prix, then surely the timing (and price) is right for the Speedway to get into the mix now that a U.S.-based owner of F1’s marketing rights, Liberty Media, is looking to leverage its investment by appealing to more American fans.

Given the need for capital, the best source would be a more popular NASCAR race weekend—but not one that competes with the Indy 500 as the world’s greatest racing spectacle. What if the Brickyard 400 became two races—one 200-mile event on the oval and one 200-mile event on the road course? That might sell more tickets—and would require the track to figure out how to convert from one layout to the other more quickly. Another usage idea would be a joint weekend on the road course with the Indy Grand Prix and NASCAR appearing together on the current stock car date.

Make no mistake, there are fundamental concerns that Penske will address to protect the long-term viability of the track and his investment. He articulated in his initial remarks that safety of the fans is a priority. In this light, Penske has an opportunity to introduce a new approach to fencing and/or grandstand configurations that could help revolutionize safety for drivers and fans in other stadia and street courses as well—much like the Indy-backed SAFER barriers has done.

How much would this cost? Well, the Daytona remake was priced by the track owners at $400 million, which was a private investment. Indy has already spent $100 million in public money and apparently needs another $300 million. Can the new owners take a page from Fenway Park/Boston Red Sox owner John Henry and leverage sponsorship at Indy to help carry a note like that? Besides events and sponsorship, there’s not much in the way of revenue sources.

On the IndyCar side, the one key change that could go a long way to dampen conflict of interest criticism would be effective cost containment. Penske is the one team owner who can pay whatever it takes to win. If he helps create a more level financial playing field in a manner that is transparent and effective, the new owner’s “report card,” as he put it, on the conflict of interest would be a good one. This goal could include team owner franchises as part of the sweetener for playing by new financial rules. Penske certainly knows how the franchise system has worked in NASCAR and probably has some ideas on how to improve such an approach.

As for conduct of events, the track may get wider, which could help NASCAR as much as the Indy cars. The aprons were taken out of play due to safety concerns, specifically the angle of impact with the outside walls in crashes. With the SAFER barriers, it might be possible to safely bring them back into play.

As for wild cards, why not a dirt track race for sprint cars in an infield stadium that could be built and taken down quickly. Pay $1 million to win and seat 60,000 fans. Why not a revised IndyCar schedule that includes more international events at locations that cannot afford F-1 races? 

It’s about money and ideas. Penske has access to plenty of both. No wonder everybody is so excited.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram is a 43-year veteran of reporting on racing and the author of six books. CRASH! How the HANS Helped Save Racing, has just been released. For more information, see www.jingrambooks.com.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 22 2019
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