Roger Penske was already part of the conversation as one of the most respected individuals in motorsports through his remarkable success on the track and in the boardroom.
However, Penske may arguably be the most influential person in the industry at this time.
His leadership and financial resources during the COVID-19 crisis may have single-handedly saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series.
Penske, 83, was embarking on the crowning achievement of his remarkable career when he became the owner of the world’s most famous race track on Nov. 4, 2019. There was renewed faith and optimism among fans and stakeholders of the Indy 500 and IndyCar for an incredible season.
But on March 13, COVID-19 entered the picture.
For a man who has been one of the great businessmen of his time, Penske’s $300 million purchase of IMS, IndyCar and IMS Properties, along with at least $100 million worth of capital investment in the facility, became the victim of incredibly bad timing.
Penske became the savior.
“Well, I am not sure any amount of experience would have prepared us for 2020 and all that we have faced during a global pandemic,” Penske told SPEED SPORT. “To me, what has been helpful as we have encountered the numerous challenges presented this year has been the ability to adapt and move in new directions.
“I learned early on in racing, as well as in business, that change is a constant. Conditions are always changing on the race track and it is the same in business,” Penske continued. “Being able to respond in a dynamic environment to meet the challenges and identify the opportunities has been essential this year. We have also focused on safety as the top priority in 2020.
“Safety has always been the No. 1 goal in racing and all of the decisions and the actions we have taken this year all come down to doing the right thing to keep our people, our customers and our fans as safe as they can be.”
Penske and the staffs of Penske Entertainment and Penske Corp. went to work. IndyCar President Jay Frye and his staff held weekly teleconferences with IndyCar team owners and team managers and the season was delayed until June 8.
Penske brokered his influence as a two-time NASCAR Cup Series championship team owner with NASCAR by creating a much-desired IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The Fourth of July weekend extravaganza included the NTT IndyCar Series, NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Cup Series.
While the event was run out of necessity, the doubleheader will return to the NASCAR and IndyCar schedules this season.
Penske used his business and racing connections to influence both series for the good of the sport.
“Hosting a historic Fourth of July weekend with NASCAR and IndyCar racing together at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was definitely one of the highlights of the season,” Penske said. “To me, working together with other racing series to create new opportunities is essential for the growth of our sport overall.
“For each series, it is a great way to connect with a different fan base and highlight the personalities, the technology and the partners that make their style of racing unique. NASCAR was very receptive to working with us to try something new this year at Indianapolis.
“I want to thank Steve Phelps and everyone on the NASCAR team for being so open and welcoming to our ideas,” Penske noted. “We are excited about building on that partnership in 2021 with both the Xfinity Series and the Cup Series racing on the IMS road course, alongside IndyCar, on the same weekend in August.”
Penske had the resources to create a revised 14-race schedule that allowed IndyCar teams to keep sponsors and satisfy the sanctioning body’s television contract.
Penske’s influence was key in helping many of these changes become reality.
“His leadership was essential this past year,” said Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, who along with Doug Boles at IMS and Frye at IndyCar run the Indianapolis-based entity. “I think it is under any circumstances, but certainly under the circumstances of the pandemic. It wasn’t that we navigated through the season and did all the events we set out to do one way or another at IMS, but while this is going on the place gets the kind of investment and the metamorphosis that wasn’t envisioned by anybody under great circumstances.
“I look at it myself and can’t get over the transformation,” Miles said. “That was almost unimaginable a year or two ago, but it says it all about how important his leadership and stewardship was in 2020.”
Even before the pandemic, Penske’s vision was leading to some dramatic changes at Indianapolis. One night, he invited several members of senior management at IMS to go out to dinner. They met in front of the administration building at 6:30 p.m.
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