Nobody in motorsports was hit harder by the coronavirus than Roger Penske.
Penske completed the purchase of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar and IMS Productions on Jan. 6 and as renovations to the speedway were underway and the NTT IndyCar Series was ready to begin the season in St. Petersburg, Fla., COVID-19 brought racing to a screeching halt.
There’s no doubt Penske took a huge hit. He also had to lay off thousands of Penske Corp. employees around the world.
That would crush many, but the Penske Way prevailed. It’s a code that has guided Penske throughout his business and racing legacy. A couple principles stand out: Over deliver and never look back. Both are evident in 2020.
“I think the whole world is upside down and I’m part of it, that’s for sure,” Penske said in August. “First, as a team owner, we’re operating in Australia with Supercars, with NASCAR (Cup and Xfinity Series), IMSA and IndyCar as a team owner. Every one of those has been impacted immediately by schedule conflicts that have been produced because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“State, federal and local authorities have been given the license, I guess you would say the authority is a better word, to govern their individual areas of that regulation the public, and in our case the fans, have to adhere to if we’re going to race in their particular area.
“That has created for us a much revised schedule in all of the series we compete in,” Penske explained. “Obviously, the one that affects us the most is the Indianapolis 500, which was moved from Memorial Day to Aug. 23 and run without fans.”
Like everyone, Team Penske has changed its methods because of the pandemic.
“From the team perspective, we’ve learned how to operate on split shifts, distancing people,” Penske said. “In some series, the teams come in the day of the race or the night before, the drivers come in and they go right to their cars.”
Penske claims sponsor relations have become more difficult.
“From a sponsor delivery and communication standpoint, it has been tough because in many cases we have not been able to connect all the pieces of the puzzle at any one time,” Penske noted. “Each piece (the sponsor) is very clear about the responsibilities and the deliverables. I would say we have won 16 races this year, I don’t know how many poles or laps we have led, probably 1,700 laps, so we’re having a very good season following our best season last year. It certainly bodes (well) as we look in 2021 as we look at how we will be running events, how many people and what series we will be competing in.”
Penske acknowledges he couldn’t have envisioned a scenario like the one that developed with the coronavirus when he and his team took control of IMS and IndyCar.
“I was excited then. I’m certainly excited now,” Penske said. “None of us expected that the world would be turned upside down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. It is an unprecedented time for everyone — team owners, fans, the public and everybody else that’s involved. The health and safety of the world is the most important thing we have to deal with every day.
“I spoke to someone the other day that in 1994, we sat on the pole and led every lap with the Mercedes engine. In 1995, I came to the track and I didn’t qualify and had to walk down the pit lane with Emerson (Fittipaldi) and Al (Unser Jr.) and we didn’t make the race. Not having the race (the Indianapolis 500) on Memorial Day is a bit of the same medicine we had to take in those days under completely different circumstances.
“This is the risk you take to get the rewards you get. I am fully committed,” Penske continued. “What I learned having gotten inside — what we didn’t know from the outside — it has gotten me even further convinced the decision was the right one. I have found they (the existing management) have tremendous capabilities within the three organizations that we can utilize in taking the sport, the speedway and production capabilities to the next level.
“Overall, the investment is a big one. It was what we understood when we made it, that it was a long-term investment, not short-term. This is a yellow flag that we’re under now and we can’t wait for it to go green.”