Home / Beside the Rising Tide / Beside the Rising Tide: 4790 W 16th Street, Indianapolis IN
(Photo: Mike Harding/IndyCar Media)

Beside the Rising Tide: 4790 W 16th Street, Indianapolis IN

I live in somewhat of an alternate universe most of the time. Automobile racing dominates my interest, time and attention to a far larger extent than the general public. Thus, sometimes breaking news in the realm of motorsport that I find fascinating or even shocking that I share with friends who aren’t race fans is often met with those glassy-eyed stares that all but scream, “Yeah … and … ?” Put the words, “World Cup soccer” in a sentence and you can watch me react the same way, though I realize to a huge number of sports fans around the world it is in fact a very big deal, even if the news only involves a player changing brands of sneakers. 

But today (at an unfortunately early hour of the morning), racing news broke that grabbed headlines on the mainstream media sources and had some of those non-fans widen their eyes a bit and ask, “Say what now?” The news that Roger Penske will acquire not only the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but the entire IndyCar series was a complete surprise. Some colleagues may have been just a bit hyperbolic in declaring the news as “the biggest story in auto racing this year if not ever.” While those of us on the NASCAR-centric side of the business have a hard time accepting it, around the globe there are three racetracks and three events that define motorsports to the uninitiated: LeMans and its annual 24 classic, the Monaco Grand Prix, which is racing in the street in the tiny principality, and the Indianapolis 500 at the Brickyard, first held in 1911. Because I’ve always been considered a bit difficult, I’d add the 1.33-mile oval at Darlington and the Southern 500, but bring up “The Lady In Black” and “Too Tough to Tame” anywhere in Asia or Europe and likely they’ll think you’re talking about a leather-clad hooker. 

Recall back in 1911 when the first Indy 500 was run, most folks’ basic transportation was still one horsepower, and they sat looking at the ass-end of the horse in their buggies while commuting. 500 miles was an almost unfathomable distance for most families. Given the primitive nature of and unreliability of the first cars sold to the public, the idea of one lasting 500 miles and approaching velocities of 60 mph, a speed only the stuff of science fiction was in fact a very big deal. Having operated a planetary transmission-ed 1915 Model T, I can vouch at 15 mph you feel like you’re flying … toward a very painful and bloody death if there are any downhill curves ahead. 

The Brickyard originally had a tar and gravel surface when it opened in 1909. After two fatal accidents at the track, the owner of the facility, Carl Fisher, had the track paved with 3.2 million bricks, earning the track its nickname. Ray Haroun won that first Indy 500 on what was then called “Decoration Day.” (It’s since been renamed Memorial Day.) Fisher hosted many races at the track in the earliest era of its history but found crowds became increasingly smaller as the amount of events increased, so he decided to focus on that one race a year, the Indy 500, instead. In 1927, American World War 1 flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker bought the track. The Great Depression and World War II derailed his plans to improve the facility. There was no Indy 500 in 1942 to 1945 as young Americans faced an even bigger challenge in fighting for freedom and democracy. 

The track fell into disrepair during that period with weeds and grass growing up through the track surface. A story is told that the first time the front gate was opened after the war, it promptly fell off its hinges. It seemed likely the track would be demolished rather than repaired after the war, but Tony Hulman stepped in and bought the track in 1945 and re-opened the renovated facility the following year. Two years later in 1951, a child named Roger Penske attended his first Indy 500 with his dad. He must have taken a shine to the joint because he’s been back countless times since, 18 times as the winning car owner. On Monday, a member of the Hulman family that saved the track from destruction after the war sold it to the 82-year-old man who had once been the 14-year-old kid first on hand for that 1951 500. Somewhat ironically, Penske and Tony George, patriarch of the Hulman family, once went to war over the future of open wheel racing. Penske was a dominant team owner in CART and Hulman started the rival Indy Racing Car league. The Indy 500 became an IRL race, and Penske actually sat out Indy from 1996 to 2000. Some years the CART stalwarts tried staging a rival event to the Indy 500 at the (Penske-owned) Michigan International Speedway. The first one was a disaster with most of the field wrecking during the pace laps before the racing even commenced. Given that there was an open and hostile debate about which series featured the best drivers and teams, that wreck was a huge embarrassment. The rival race never really amounted to much. What the open wheel split did do was to destroy open wheel racing in America for a decade. In the fans’ minds, the fault lay with Tony George and his new series, and they felt the way stock car fans feel about Brian France. But back in that era, the open wheel split was a bonanza for NASCAR as it became the biggest ape in the gum-gum tree in American auto racing with dump trucks full of cash being unloaded daily at its Daytona headquarters. 

Naturally for the Hulman family, there is a lot of emotion attached to this decision after 74 years of tending to Indy. My guess is the decision to sell would never have been approved prior to the passing of beloved family matriarch Mary Hulman last November. It seems Roger Penske and Tony George have buried the hatchet. During the press conference, Penske offered George lifetime employment at the track, an offer George suggested he was likely to take up. He went on to say, “We have found the ideal steward of the company and its iconic assets,” according to the press release. “Penske Corporation  will bring tremendous energy.” So it would appear that IndyCar and Indy were not on the block to the highest bidder, but rather to those the Hulman family would continue to be the best stewards of the track and the series. George went on to say, “I think we all realize that as a family and as an organization, we probably had taken it as far as we can. I think that Roger, his structure, his resources, his capabilities that he demonstrates is only going to take this to another level.” 

Obviously there are a lot of questions moving forward after this announcement. The first one that came to my mind was, “Why would Penske even consider such a move?” He’s 82 years old and he’s a billionaire. Why not sit back and relax a while? Why not throw the golden retrievers in the back of the Mercedes wagon and go for a walk on the beach? It seems Penske’s passion for racing remains as bright as ever. He said that if he could find a way to expand a year beyond the current 52 weekends, he’d likely find a way to spend the additional weekends at the racetrack. 

While he’s widely known as a team owner, some people might not realize Penske used to race himself in the sports car series. He ran one of the factory Grand Sport Corvettes at Bermuda back in the early ’60s. Those Grand Sport Corvettes were great slobbering beasts of race cars many drivers considered uncontrollable, even measured by the terms of the Shelby Cobras it ran against in the era before Chevy shut its backdoor race team down. 

While he is best known as an IndyCar and NASCAR team owner, Penske has been involved with other circuits. He ran championship winning Trans Am series Camaros and Javelins during the golden era of Trans Am. He ran in the mechanized mayhem of the Can Am series in its prime as well. He still has sports car teams. Penske even made an abortive attempt as a team owner in Formula One, one of the few ventures he never succeeded at. Unfortunately, the F1 experiment cost Mark Donahue, Penske’s driver and close friend, his life. 

When the news broke, a lot of race fans’ primary concern was how the fellow who owned the racetrack and in fact the entire racing series could issue fair judgments while still owning race cars that competed in the series. To his credit, Penske faced the question straight on, saying there would have to be a bright line between his two roles, and he hoped his integrity over these many years would alleviate some of the other team owners’ concerns. Plus, if he strayed into the gray zone, he was quite certain the media would call him out of it post haste. 

It should also be noted that Team Penske has competed before at tracks that Penske owned at the time, including Michigan and Fontana. 

Another area of fan concern stems from remarks Penske made not long ago about full-time teams getting guaranteed starting spots for the Indy 500. Part of tradition at Indy has involved Bump Day and some drivers failing to get up to speed for the field of 33. It used to happen to more teams, but even after the last few years, some high dollar, high profile drivers have been bumped out of the field. Penske himself is well versed in the sting of that fate. Despite having won the previous year’s 500 and the series championship, all three Penske drivers failed to qualify for the 1995 Indy 500. We’ve seen how NASCAR’s charter system has basically killed any interest in qualifying and is routinely held in front of ghost towns in the grandstands. Hopefully there will still be Bump Day prior to this year’s 500. 

One change we will see is Penske will no longer be sitting sphinx-like atop a pit box during the open wheel races. That task will be turned over to Tim Cindric, who has been Penske’s right hand man for about forever. 

During the press conference, Penske renewed his commitment to NASCAR. He will continue to field his stock car teams, and as the new owner of IndyCar, wants to take a look at a possible NASCAR/IndyCar weekend in the future, possibly even at Indy. Penske remains committed to the Brickyard 400 moving forward. Quite frankly, I thought that event’s days were numbered, but Penske wants to keep it. If he can turn that mess around, Penske will be more of a magician than a business owner. Penske said he’d also be interested in having Formula One return to Indy as well as possibly a 24 hours endurance race of some sort. And you thought Texas dragged on forever on Sunday? All parties involved expressed an interest and even a desire to have a new engine manufacturer get on board with IndyCar. Over the years, Penske has run teams that ran cars from the Detroit Big 3 (as well as AMC) and most of the Japanese and European manufacturers as well. Penske doesn’t seem afraid of making some bold moves in the future. According to Penske, “Look, we’ve got to break some glass on some of these things, don’t we? We’ve got to try some of this. I’m prepared to take a risk. No risk, no reward in many cases.”

I was surprised by another question I was asked frequently today. Penske pledged his o-going support to the museum at the track, which is one of the finest automotive related museums I’ve ever been privileged to visit. 

I will admit to a degree of affection for Penske Racing. Approximately 25% of Americans live within a mile of a 7-Eleven. I did, and Penske’s race shop was closer than the 7-Eleven. It sat there right at the intersection of PA 252 and Winding Way in Newtown Square, PA. That building would be considered suitably sized for a chain tire store these days but not for a mega-race team liked Penske’s. 5,000 employees? There ain’t 5,000 parking spaces in all of Newtown Square. The building and what parking there was were surrounded by a chain link fence, and I spent countless happy hours hanging from that fence watching what was going on in the compound and listening to an occasional race car roar to life. It was all pretty magic. As an added bonus, one of my neighbors was a longtime friend of Mark Donahue, so occasionally she’d arrange to drive her son and me over to the shop to have a look at what magic lay beyond the fence. Thus I got to meet Donahue (and in passing, Penske) and sit in the dark blue 1969 Camaro Trans Am champion car, and later the 1971 winning Indy car. Given that I was 10 when I sat in the Camaro, I was not offered a test drive. I did get to see Mark fire it up and do some doughnuts in parking lot, which had to cause some consternation in the dental office next door. 

I seldom get to the “Business” section of the newspaper after reading the “Classic Cars for Sale” section and the funnies, but even before today’s big announcement there’s been a lot of financial racing news lately. The ISC bought NASCAR (they were both run by the France family anyway) and took it private. Bruton Smith did the same with his empire of race tracks, SMS. In 2017, Liberty Media bought Formula One lock, stock and barrel. How these racing series will complement or compete with each other remains to be seen, but reading between the lines it seems the bigger deal is how auto racing is going to be televised (or otherwise disseminated in a new world of media). It sort of makes me long for the old days of only three TV broadcast networks and hanging on chain link fences. 

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About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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9 comments

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    Matt, in the early ’70’s, I lived in Newtown Square about three miles from the Penske shop and worked as a maintenance guy at a condo complex. I would go to the True Value store across from Penske and often would see a Penske Crew Guy also buying supplies. I marveled at how neat it would be to work on a Race Team and buy supplies for racing. I have now been doing that for 45 years. Here in Mooresville, every time I see a Penske Crewman in a store, I stop him and tell him that story and urge them to remember how powerful wearing that Team shirt is to young kids dreaming of getting involved. My only regret is that it never occurred to me to approach the shop and ask to get involved at the time. The path I ultimately took was a life experience that got me here now…

    • Matt

      Well OM its a small world though one filled with intriguing possibilities once you wait 15 minutes to get through the traffic light at 252 and 3. I take it you went to Marple Newtown? I went to Radnor because we lived on the edge of town, off of Mallin Road right at Earles Lane by the lake. I don’t venture over that way anymore too often myself but trust me you wouldn’t recognize Newtown Square anymore. True Value burned to the ground in a fire you could see from Harvertown. The only bigger fire was the Androssen Dairy barn off of Darby Paoli road back in that era. All the cows were saved as duly noted in a banner headline in the Suburban. The old Penske shop is now owned by Don Kelley who owned the Mobil Station on West Chester Pike next to the Gulf and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’m told he still has that grabber blue 428 Cobra Jet Mach One I tried to buy from him for years.
      There’s now more traffic lights between 3 and Goshen Road than there used to be from Newtown Square to Upper Darbyl, The old Sunoco property was sold off and developed into a mega-center where they say you can live, work and entertain. Sure, as long as you don’t mind sitting in gridlocked traffic a half hour to get to the Wawa. You might have heard that John duPoint got himsel in a bit a scrapee with the law murdering that Olympic Wrestler. His property was sold off and he was sent to prison where he died. Dude was flat out crazy anyway. Malvern Prep now is on the old Dupont property.
      It occurs to me there weren’t a lot of condo communities back then more apartments than condos back then. You diidn’t happen to work at Greene Country Villlage off od Earles Lane, did you? That property backed up to my parents. And if you were in maintenance there you must have been the guy who drove the “Little White” 60s Camaro. That guy was all the time chasing me on my Honda XR75 as I cut across to get to the trails above the lake. Or perhaps you worked at West Mawr at Bryn Mawr Avenue and the PIke? Lived there myself while in college…..party central.
      Anyway I’m glad someone chased and found their dreams beyond the Square. Back then I either wanted to be a racer or a writer and now I write about racing, a fair enough deal given my woeful lack of talent at driving race cars.
      Matt

      • Avatar

        Now that’s bizarre… Yes, I am the guy with the Little White 68 Camaro with the blue Grumpy Lump hood scoop. It was a 6 cylinder but I was infatuated with Grumpy. His shop was up the street at 147 Pennsylvania Ave, in Malvern. I would go and sit across the street and just wonder what was going on inside. Just like I do now at the Mooresville Drag Park with Greg Anderson. The closest I came to actually meeting him was sharing the urinals at the Berwyn Tavern.
        When I was in Sigma Phi Epsilon at Cornell, our house party car was a red 67 Ford convertible we called “Big Red”. Cornell, etc.,, therefore my car was little white.
        Penske’s Dan Luginbuhl was supposed to give a program at our condo clubhouse and I was keen to ask how to get involved. But he cancelled and I was crushed. I eventually found my way to SoCal and visited many shops. I made a connection at All American Racers and met Vern Schuppan. He suggested I go out to Ontario and check out this new series called IMSA. I volunteered to polish wheels, met Peggy Bishop and was bitten. Monday morning I drove non-stop to Indy and the first thing I came upon was Dan Gurney signing autographs. I breathlessly told him what Vern had said, “too bad you aren’t in Indy, it’s the month of May and Dan might find you something to do.” Dan gave me his crew chief’s phone number and I called, but got no where.Years later, after becoming friends with Dan, I told him how we had first met.
        I spent the next years volunteering and within 3 years, I was IMSA Technical Director. This led to Peerless Racing, the Dole Fresh fruit Fiero, the Levi Garrett GTO Camaro, Budweiser GTP, C&C Berettas, Newman Sharp Trans-Am, AER Sunoco Camaro and for the last 20 years, I have been Bob The Driveshaft Guy in NASCAR. And I still have the Little White license plate somewhere…Bob Gosch

        • Matt

          Yes, that is officially beyond bizarre. I was going to say something about the Camaro having a mailbox for a hood scoop but I realize that was very much in fashion as the pro-street look gained popularity. A six banger? No wonder you could never catch me! Sorry about that. I was a monster at that age! I was a huge Grumpy fan myself as well as a fan of Jungle Jim Lieberman in his funny cars. Jungle eventually died on West Chester Pike in East Goshen (about four miles west of Newtown Square towards West Chester) when he lost control of his street Corvette, jumped the curb and slammed head on into a SEPTA Bus.
          Yours sounds like a life well lived, taking chances and chasing dreams. Despite the rather tortured road to get there it sounds like you ended up where you wanted to be. Congratulations. Matt

  2. Avatar

    And we all know The Happy Hooker is a tow truck. I saw the picture.

  3. Avatar

    when i read this yesterday i was amused. hopefully penske has seen the good and bad from the france family circus.

    interesting that you mentioned penske said tony george would have a job. first job that came to my twisted mind was working in the parking lots, then a restroom attendant.

    all this money.

  4. Avatar

    Didn’t Roger and Pat Patrick divide American open wheel racing by forming CART after finding their wallets weren’t deep enough for F-1? That set open wheel back a long way here IMO. I remember that first CART race though. Demo derby!

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