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.