MARTIN: The Penske Era — Keep Up If You Can

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Bruce Martin Mug
Bruce Martin

INDIANAPOLIS — When Roger Penske became the owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar on Jan. 6, he wasn’t in the office popping corks off bottles of champagne in celebration.

The 82-year-old Penske was walking the grounds of the speedway doing a site survey.

From the moment the sale was announced on Nov. 4, an eight-member team from Penske Corp. and Indianapolis Motor Speedway spent eight weeks working to complete the sale.

During that time, Penske was already making changes and leaving his mark on shaping the future of the Indianapolis 500, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar.

“I felt like I owned it 60 days ago and someone had to say, ‘Remember, you haven’t written the check yet,’” said Penske. “I’m always trying to get a lap ahead.”

Penske’s pace continues to keep him ahead of everyone else in the sport. Already the winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history with 18 wins, 16 Indy car championships and 545 victories in all forms of racing, Penske’s legacy will be cemented by his latest project.

He is just the fourth owner in the history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which opened in 1909.

Even before he took ownership, Penske was already addressing the finer details of his regime. He sent personalized emails to each driver in the series. A different email was sent to staff with a completely different email sent to stakeholders and sponsors.

Penske even sent out an email directed to the media that covers the series with the hopes of growing that media footprint in the future.

On his first day as owner, Penske hit the throttle. He conducted team meetings, reviewed strategy and made more site visits around the facility.

Penske vowed to spend as much as $2 million to upgrade Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He also met with the client services team to continue to enhance the premium and fan/guest experience.

Later on Jan. 6, Penske gathered the staffs of IMS and IndyCar for a meeting held on the fourth floor of the IMS Media Center. He conveyed his optimism for the future of the sport and indicated the positive changes he plans to make.

One longtime IMS employee, who has spent years working for the Hulman-George family, said they were so inspired after Penske’s meeting they were ready to “run through the wall” to get it started.

The following day was a chance for the State of Indiana and Governor Eric Holcomb to recognize the Hulman-George family and Penske.

Governor Holcomb called the Indianapolis Motor Speedway “truly the happiest place on Earth,” as he welcomed the latest member of the Indiana business community to the state. Penske, founder and chairman of Penske Corp., visited both chambers of the Indiana Statehouse.

“I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms and I’ve been in a lot of meetings with (race car) drivers, but this was (unique),” Penske said. “(It’s) a real honor, to be honest with you.”

The Hulman-George family, whose patriarch Tony Hulman purchased the speedway in 1945, was also honored.

Later that evening, Governor Holcomb along with more than 200 Indiana business leaders hosted Penske at a large reception at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

“The first thing I see is an iconic event, the largest sporting event in the world and our commitment to the folks here, the fans and everyone else is we’ve got to maintain that and make it better,” Penske said. “Potential other events, we’ve talked about Formula One, who’s been here, we’ve talked about long-distance racing, now that won’t happen overnight, I don’t want anybody to think it’s on the schedule next week, but we need to be sure the events we have do two things: they provide better racing, but also, what can we do with this group here to give back to this community?

“Our goal here and my personal commitment isn’t what generates more revenue for our company in 2020 or ’21,” he said. “It’s about, ‘What can we do as a team to make the guest experience better?’ That’s where I’m committed.”

Penske, who has owned several tracks in the past, said promoters need consistent dates to build momentum.

“The racing product itself is terrific at IndyCar. We’ve got to have date equity at the tracks we go to around the country,” Penske said. “We’ve got to take our marketing people, our production people to go to these track owners and help them.

“From the Indianapolis 500 perspective, we’ve got to drive the guest experience from the top.”

Penske’s investment in the future begins with an investment in people.

“I’d rather spend $50,000 with them to figure out what we can do to help them rather than ask them for a $50,000 sanctioning fee,” Penske said. “We want to invest in people. That’s what will lead to a better number of teams and drivers over time. … If there’s no cars, there’s no speedway. No speedway, no cars. We have to make sure there’s a common thread going through the entire business, but the things I’m looking at may not be economically or commercially beneficial to us as a company, but I think that’s what, as a stewardship, we’re committed to in making and sustaining the great treasure we have.”

IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 belong to Roger Penske.

Try to keep up, if you can.