INDIANAPOLIS – Roger Penske has made many great investments in his career as one of America’s leading businessmen and industrialists.
He has turned around struggling companies like Detroit Diesel and transitioned Hertz Truck Rental into Penske Truck Rental. He runs one of the largest automobile dealerships in the world, with business interests in every continent except Africa and Antarctica.
When he purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, and IndyCar from the Hulman-George family on Nov. 4, 2019, and took full ownership on Jan. 6, 2020, he was ready to solidify his legacy.
Two months later, Penske was hit with the greatest obstacle of his business career.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced most of the United States to shut down beginning March 13, 2020. That forced the 104th Indianapolis 500 to be moved from Memorial Day weekend to Aug. 23, when Penske hoped the virus would be under control and fans could attend the Indy 500.
Unfortunately, the number of infections continued to rise, and Penske had to make the difficult decision to stage last year’s race without spectators.
It doesn’t take someone with an Masters in Business Administration (MBA) to understand what type of hit that made on the business of IMS and IndyCar.
The 83-year-old Penske is known as “The Captain” and was able to steer his company through the troubled waters that COVID-19 created. Thanks to several vaccines that were approved for emergency use at the end of 2020 and early 2021, COVID infections have dropped dramatically. Nearly half of the United States population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.
It’s time to “Reopen America” and the leader of that campaign will be Sunday’s 105th Indianapolis 500, when 135,000 spectators will be in attendance – marking the largest event in the world since the start of the pandemic.
Even with the steep financial losses that came from the shutdown, Penske remains focused on the bright future he sees for both the Indy 500 and the NTT IndyCar Series.
“I would do this same transaction again,” Penske said. “I see the benefits on a longer-term basis. Each year, we look back and say, how did we get all the work done that we did last year? Well, we still have work to do.”
The last 12 months, Penske, IMS and IndyCar were in a bit of survival mode. But during that time, Penske’s business sense and ability to react to rapidly changing scenarios allowed the series to not only survive, but show signs of growth.
“I think the last 12 months we really focused on how to make the series and the Speedway a better place,” Penske said. “We didn’t really focus on the commercial benefits from a revenue perspective, but how do we make the guest experience better. That is at the very top of the mountain for me. I want people to come here, see that we really care about them and the experience.
“I was thrilled to see the amount of young people that were here with their mothers and fathers last weekend. You just don’t see that at a lot of other races. The focus is let’s get the track, it needed work on the outside and it still does. We invested $1 million in the golf course and it’s not even the track. We think that is also a product we can bring sponsors here.
“I want to run this busines by anticipation, not by exception. That is what people have done in the past – when there is a problem, let’s fix it. We need to anticipate and that is my goal moving forward over the next several months.”
Penske has worked with NASCAR to acquire a dozen of this year’s stock cars that will become obsolete beginning next season with the introductions of NASCAR’s next generation cars. He plans to use them for “ride along” cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for dealer and OEM events, as he believes building partnerships is the most important aspect of success.
“We’re not trying to rent the track for $25,000; we are not interested in that,” Penske said. “We are trying to build partnerships with people where it is special when you come here. We are seeing that today with the interest level.
“I looked at one on Wednesday at our shop in Mooresville and we can even take the nose and the tail off so if we want to have a Toyota event, we can have a dozen Toyotas or a dozen Fords or a dozen Chevys. These are things we are trying to look at so we have these tools we can use. It’s beyond how fast we are going to go here around the track.
“The other are we had to focus on was our key sponsor. I’m not sure we have really seen the publicity I would have expected to think that here we are in this environment to be able to get NTT to re-up on a long-term contract with us, which is huge for us. It’s really the bedrock of the IndyCar sponsorship. I take my hat off to (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and the guys. We’ve worked hard with them, our team here and Penske Entertainment to put that together.
“We’ve added a number of sponsors within the series and also the Speedway. Getting date equity is really important. Having these dates taken away from us has hurt us. You plan on running, then you don’t run, then you try to run a doubleheader. That’s a bandage on a bad sore. Going to Nashville is a new track with lots of excitement.”
The centerpiece of IndyCar, and from a bigger standpoint auto racing around the world, is Sunday’s 105th Indianapolis 500. With the United States beginning it’s “Reopen America” campaign, the Indy 500 will be at the forefront of that initiative as the biggest major sporting event with the largest attendance to show that it’s time to get on with life.
“From an overall standpoint, the fact we had this attendance here this past weekend is as good as it has been since 2016,” Penske said. “The fact we sold out; we have more people that still want to buy tickets, but we have to live within the guidelines. Quite honestly, three weeks ago, we didn’t have the green light to have anybody. With (Penske Entertainment CEO) Mark Miles working with the mayor of Indianapolis, we put together the 135,000. We gave credits for next year to over 60,000. That means we had 200,000 people that were ready to come this year.
“It shows you the strength that this place has. It’s something I never realized at all the commitment that people have that want to come here. We are going to fine-tune it.”
Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials announced on April 21 that it had reached an agreement with local health officials and Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett that 135,000 fans would be allowed to attend the 500-Mile Race. Since that time, the Center for Disease Control and many states have greatly relaxed its restrictions.
Theoretically, there could have been more than 135,000 for this year’s race, but logistically, Penske said there wasn’t enough time to change their agreement.
“We were glad to get to 135,000,” Penske said. “We used the percentage of 300,000 or more. The city was only at 25 percent so they had to change the declaration from 25 percent to 50 percent before we could even get to 135,000. To me, the seat number is 235,000. We’re going to have 135,000 and we have taken these pods of tickets and people will sit together, then you have spacing. It will still look like we have a lot of people, and we will, but we needed to get a number. Two or three weeks ago, we had 200,000 people that wanted to come here, and we had to find out if you are coming or not. It was a matter in the discussion with the mayor that we needed to know one way or another.
“We were committed; we are happy with it and the good news is it started to roll the opening of America and we are going to be premiere event to do that on a worldwide basis.”