Finally, Roger Penske gets first ‘real’ Indianapolis 500 as the man in charge

This year marked the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. To celebrate, the drivers were presented with gold jackets and drivers’ trophies. Roger Penske, however, was not among them. This was due to the fact that he had retired from the race in 1994. Roger’s first race as the chief executive officer of the team was the 2014 Indianapolis 500, which was won by Dan Wheldon.

It’s a big deal and it’s not going to happen again. After a two-year hiatus, the Indianapolis 500 is finally back on the schedule. And it’s no accident: it was Roger Penske, who has been running the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1996, that made it happen. That’s right—the same man many people thought was done with Indy car racing is back to reign over the greatest spectacle in American motorsports.

In a bold move, Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced on Monday that Roger Penske will take over as the sole owner of the Indianapolis 500, the prize race that defines the sport of auto racing and all that it stands for in America. Penske is a former auto racing driver, and one of a select few owners of the famed ‘triple crown’ of auto racing, the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500, and the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix.. Read more about indianapolis 500 and let us know what you think.INDIANAPOLIS — Best smartwatch and pedometer makers: I don’t want to tell you how to run your business, but you’re missing a sponsorship opportunity during Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. And I’m not talking about the bumper sticker on the 33 cars going around the track at 230mph.

Their production would have to proceed at a much slower pace, at the pulse and counting of the steps of a distinguished gentleman in a starched shirt, who could be seen endlessly on the stands of that stretch and on every floor of the 13-story pagoda that rises above it and in the offices and workshops where these cars are assembled and tuned….. and in the bathrooms where the men and women who assemble and tune these cars spend their time between practice laps and wrenching.

I’ve been coming here since I was 14, says the 84-year-old, looking 14 again as he speaks. I thought I knew every square inch of this place. But I didn’t. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it’s a great place.

That child has become Roger Penske, the business giant and racing enthusiast who has owned and managed this place and this race he loves since that Sunday in May, 70 years ago. This Sunday, exactly 70 years ago, he sat in the stands with his father and watched Lee Wallard’s roadster drive into the winner’s circle.

This was the 35th Indy 500 race. This Sunday will be Penske’s 105th race and first true 500 as chief. Last year, COVID-19 deprived him of his first Indy 500 in May when the race was moved to August and held without a single fan in the stands.

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Penske will now have the chance to experience his first Indy 500 as a main man – in May – with the fans. Even with a 40% limit imposed by local pandemic regulations, the sold-out crowd of 135,000 will be the largest gathering of people on Earth since the planet closed in March 2020. This number was achieved as Penske and his team met repeatedly with local and state health and government officials. A few weeks ago it looked like there would be no fans in May. Under pressure from Penske, a compromise was reached.

These are all steps in the right direction, steps to open up not only this place, but America, says the man who has won a record 18 Indy 500 races as a team owner and will drive four Team Penske cars on Sunday (as Big Boss, he won’t be in the pits, but in the race management). It’s about going back to what feels right, to what feels like your life is back where you want it to be. To me, it’s a return to a full crowd enjoying all the events that make the Indianapolis 500 such an important part of so many people’s lives, and it’s not just the race – it’s every part of the experience for every fan.

The billionaire chuckles. That goes for me too. After all, I am a racing fan first and foremost.

Penske has missed few races since the first 500K in 1951, and most of those absences were political in nature – and much of it, he admits, was self-inflicted. The mid-1990s saw a rift in American open-wheel racing between the IMS-owned family and most of the race teams, most of which were run by Penske. She pushed him so far away from 500 that he feared he would never be able to return.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the 26th. May 1996, when Indy had to do without Penske and only welcomed him back after five years. In those dark days, of course, he could not know that one day he would not only return to racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but that he would also become the owner of the property that had been sold to him by the family with whom he had fought so bitterly 25 years earlier.

Descendants of Tony Halman, the man who saved the dilapidated racetrack from the wrecking ball after World War II, once called Penske the face of the enemy. But when they secretly approached him in 2019, they did so because they knew the man known as The Captain loved Tony Hulman Raceway too much to not do what was best for him.

The deal, worth $300 million and encompassing the entire IndyCar Series, was finalized in the first week of 2020, when this year was still full of promise and hope but not yet, you know, 2020. Even before the deal was done, Penske had begun scouting the area and issuing marching orders for capital improvements. He spent $20 million on everything from high-definition video screens in the ventilation areas to LED lighting in the bathrooms.

Did you know that if you replaced flat-top bins with live edge bins, it would drastically reduce the amount of trash that accumulates because people can’t put it on the bins? Penske learned this when visiting Disneyland and how the happiest place on earth is kept so clean.

Anyone who has worked with him or raced for him or even against him knows that nothing can escape Roger, said Will Power, the longest-serving of the three Penske drivers. You won’t get what he did if you let things slide.

What Penske really wants to avoid are people like himself who have been coming to speedway circuits all their lives, some for generations. It starts with improving the toilets. But he continues to ensure that the most sacred ground in their athletic lives remains a constant part of that life.

When the 500 race was moved to May last year, Penske made sure the track remained a center of civic activity. In spring and summer, high school and university graduation ceremonies are held here. A facility that can accommodate a dozen NFL stadiums on its field has more than enough room for social distance.

There was almost no racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year, but Roger Penske made sure the track didn’t shut down. Among other things, it was the site of the funeral of Indianapolis police officer Brynn Leaf, who was shot to death in April 2020. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

When 24-year-old Indianapolis policewoman Brynn Leaf was shot to death in April 2020, her funeral was the first in IMS history. So many fellow police officers came to pay their respects that their police cars lined the 2.5-mile rectangular racetrack. During the pandemic, the Speedway also took care of thousands of people in need, first through testing and now through vaccination.

We’ve vaccinated more than 90,000 people right here in Gasoline Alley and Pit Road, Penske proudly announced Friday morning. If you want a shot today, I can take you. We’ll do this all weekend. The race could not have prevented it.

Penske likes to work with big numbers: 90,000 transplants, 235,000 seats (his staff swears he counted them himself), 135,000 tickets sold this May, but also 60,000 ticket credits already good for next May. He even knows that Indianapolis Motor Speedway Productions, his own television company, has sent 150 cameras to the track.

Each number given by the captain is part of a larger mathematical problem for which there will probably never be a definitive sum. Things are moving too fast for that. The numbers keep going up. That’s also his whole approach as he incessantly surveys the 560-acre racetrack he now owns.

As race drivers, we’re not very patient, Penske said less than 48 hours before the start of his first real race at the Indianapolis 500. But many people were patient as we worked toward the goal of Sunday’s race. As soon as that happens, we change our goal and go after it again.

One step at a time.

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