In 1996, open wheel racing in America forever, irreversibly changed.
Prior to the ’90s, open wheel racing was racing to most of the country. CART, and prior to it USAC and AAA, was seen as the most prestigious sanctioning body in the country to race for, and while that definitely wasn’t the case in the Southeast, at the very least the Indianapolis 500 was hailed as the biggest race in the western hemisphere.
Daytona International Speedway, Darlington Speedway, Ontario Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway were all heavily influenced by Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with both Daytona and Darlington in particular being built with the exact purpose of being the Indianapolis of the South. But none of them had and arguably still haven’t beaten been able to be bigger then the granddaddy of them all.
In 1994, IMS president and CART team owner Tony George formed the Indy Racing League. The league was formed for a number of different reasons, but the most noticeable was because of the belief that CART had drawn international talent and focused too much on road courses instead of running at non-IMS ovals, while the international drivers prevented young American drivers such as Jeff Gordon from moving up through USAC. Thus the split began, and open wheel racing in America (along with Indianapolis) fell far behind NASCAR.
Sure, the Indianapolis 500 is still an institution, and Danica Patrick was a gigantic mainstream star before ever stepping foot in a stock car. But even after CART and IRL reunited in 2008, IndyCar TV ratings and attendance past the 500 are only just now beginning to be competitive with the NASCAR Xfinity Series races, especially on the ratings side.
Last year, there were plenty of rumors and discussion on the prospect of the France family cashing out and walking away from NASCAR, selling the sanctioning body off along with the racetracks under its domain. While nothing substantial has come out of the rumors, there have been steps toward a potential merger with the now-privately owned Speedway Motorsports Incorporated. But at the end of this year, in a complete surprise, Hulman and Co. decided to sell off their assets, including IndyCar and IMS, to the Penske Corporation.
IndyCar CEO Mark Miles had just said last year that the track wasn’t for sale, so apparently plans change quick. And the fact that such a large-scale transaction was able to happen and not be leaked to the press until the day of the announcement is pretty insane to think about.
We’ll probably never know how much Penske paid for the series and track. It’s clear, however, that the most important factor in closing the deal to sale by Huleman and Co. was the legacy of everything involved. Could it have gotten a much better price by leaking to the press and starting a bidding war? Probably.
But Roger Penske has been around forever, has been successful forever as a team owner and had been successful as a track owner in the past. Remember, it was Penske who turned Michigan International Speedway into one of the biggest tracks on the NASCAR circuit and built Auto Club Speedway, probably the best racing facility on the West Coast today.
— Josef Newgarden (@josefnewgarden) November 5, 2019
Of anybody involved in racing who would build onto both IMS and IndyCar, making events bigger and bigger while improving the bottom line without screwing over the racing fan, Penske was the best choice. Even individuals who have criticized the move for other reasons will admit that this was the best choice George could have made to preserve the legacy of both institutions.
— Chip Ganassi (@GanassiChip) November 4, 2019
Penske’s plans are big for the track, and they’ve been the most visible. Penske wants to hold more races there, namely a 24-hour sports car race. He’s bullish on the idea of adding lights but did seem at least a little interested. As far as the series itself goes, Penske seems a little more hands off. However, Penske hinted in his introductory press conference that he’s looking at adding a race up in Canada, making IndyCar international once again. Penske as a NASCAR Hall of Famer and team owner is definitely a great connection in opening the doors to a potential double-header in the future between IndyCar and NASCAR.
All of this seems good. But as right as the transaction seems to be, there is one huge problem with it — namely, Team Penske continuing to operate in IndyCar. Conflicts of interest in racing is nothing new; George himself co-owned Vision Racing from 2005 to 2009. But in this day and social media age, where everybody is under a much larger microscope than they were even 10 years ago, it’s just impossible to try to sweep such an obvious conflict of interest under the rug, especially when the person at the center of this controversy is the most famous non-driver motorsports figure in the country.
What’s going to happen if the Penske cars just come out and are a second faster at a race next year than the rest of the competition? Then after the IndyCar inspectors find “nothing wrong” with the cars, the Reddit police finds something really stupid and obvious to anybody watching those cars closely? Obviously that’s an extreme example, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility when somebody owns a race team in a series they individually own.
Penske has long been in support of guaranteed spots in the Indianapolis 500, basically allowing full-time teams to be locked into the race instead of only the fastest 33. It’s a very controversial topic, and if Penske decides to make a power play for that to happen, that’s not going to be good for anybody involved.
Maybe the problem with Indianapolis is that there’s too much racing that happens there?
Back in the golden years, Indianapolis was a very special place to race because only 33 individuals could claim to having done so every year. There wasn’t an Indianapolis GP, or a 24-hour race, or a NASCAR Cup race, or a Formula 1 GP, or an Indy Lights race or especially not an Xfinity race. Maybe the thing that made Indianapolis such a sacred site until the mid-’90s wasn’t necessarily the split, but rather just how many drivers now have the honor of racing there?
It’s not like NASCAR, where the appeal is, to quote Ken Squier, “Common men doing uncommon things.” Not just anybody could strap themselves in an IndyCar or walk through Gasoline Alley. But yet, the idea of just adding more and more racing events to the speedway just seems to cheapen the value of it, from a TV watching perspective.
IndyCar is in a safety crisis. After a decade when two drivers passed away due to injuries suffered in accidents during IndyCar races, another one still cannot walk a year into therapy, and the series’ most decorated champion in the last 20 years retiring after a horrible catchfence crash, IndyCar cannot afford another decade with that level of brutality. One of Penske’s biggest concerns coming into this position will have to be safety, and because the best answer to those safety concerns (no more big ovals on the schedule) cannot be done thanks to the series’ biggest asset.
This is all not to rag on Penske or poo-poo the sale. But rather, these are just some of the obstacles Penske is going to have to overcome in his tenure as owner of both the sanctioning body and the track. IndyCar is in a very delicate position right now, and all of this is not even getting into the unknown financial situation of Hulman and Co. or just where IndyCar will fit when the current TV deal with NBC expires, which is going to decide a lot of things very quickly from a financial viewpoint.
Regardless of what happens, much of the motorsports world has faith in Penske, at the very least, maintaining what he’s buying. Open wheel racing probably isn’t going to die in America. Maybe Penske Group builds IndyCar up to once again be competitive with NASCAR in TV ratings while also creating a great enough relationship with NASCAR to produce those double-headers. Maybe team owners band together once again after Penske makes a bad decision and form their own series, creating yet another split.
In the 2020s, the plight of open wheel racing in America may very well end up being the motorsports story of the decade. And thanks to Penske’s stewardship, at the very least, there’s no doubt that the Indianapolis 500 will stay as its biggest race.