Roger Penske (left) with Paretta Autosport team owner Beth Paretta. (IndyCar Photo)
Roger Penske (left) with Paretta Autosport team owner Beth Paretta. (IndyCar Photo)

KELLEY: What Makes A Captain?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — To this day, anytime Roger Penske calls me by name, I am floored.

“How does ‘The Captain’ know MY name?” I think to myself.

It’s just one of the many reasons Roger Penske is, not only successful, but extraordinary.

He remembers the little things, while executing the big ones.

He thrives on details, while also spearheading billion-dollar contracts.

He sits at tables with Fortune 500 executives, but still remembers names — a lot of names!

And this is his month.

Though he has owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway for more than a year, Penske hasn’t yet had the moment he’s been waiting for: When the 84-year-old entrepreneur will be looking at The Brickyard through the eyes of his 14-year-old self.

It was with those eyes he first saw the Indy 500. The year was 1951. His dad, Jay, took him to the track — and Roger Penske has never been the same. One could say that trip set the course for the rest of his life.

It was at the end of 2019, when the news broke that Penske Entertainment Corp., one of the companies owned by Penske, was purchasing Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the IndyCar Series and IMS Productions.

The move, one of the biggest in the history of motorsports, was described by some in the industry as “positive news,” with Penske as the “perfect custodian.”

Just a couple of months after the deal was complete, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world, including the IndyCar Series.

The world powered down. But eventually, the engines fired again.

While Indy car racing returned during the summer months, the Indy 500 looked and felt different when it finally took the green flag on Aug. 23.

The 2020 running of the Indy 500 marked the first time the race was not run in conjunction with Memorial Day at the end of May.

And, despite efforts to run the race with fans, it was determined for safety reasons that the 250,000 grandstand seats would remain empty.

Can you imagine how Roger Penske must have felt? Of course, he supported the decision. But so many improvements had already been made to the facility — and nobody would be there to see them?

Hopefully, that will change this month.

For me, part of the allure of the Indy 500 is the anticipation leading up to it.

That will only be heightened when I think of what Roger Penske will be thinking, leading up to The Greatest Spectacle in Racing back in its traditional place on the last Sunday in May.

Why do I think so much of Mr. Penske? Is it just because he calls me by name?

No. It’s because I watched him accept his induction into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame with a speech that didn’t have a single word in the teleprompter. The words were already stamped in his head and imprinted on his heart.

It’s because when the organization that bears his name was honoring him with a 50-year celebration, they called and asked if I would be a part of it. I told them, “You had me at ‘Roger wants to know …’”

It’s because each year at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, while men and women over half his age are yawning due to sheer exhaustion, Penske is alert and focused on the task at hand.

It’s because his wife of 47 years, Kathy, is proud to stand by her husband’s side on a championship stage, and is so genuinely nice to those around her.

I don’t pretend to be a part of Roger Penske’s inner circle. I’m simply making observations based on my experience over the last 20 years in the sport.

But those who do know him best, say it best. The drivers he’s employed over the years, talk about his hunger and how much he cares about everything he does.

That now includes the famed race track located at 16th Street and Georgetown Road.

I wonder if, on May 30, Penske will stand in the same spot he always has on a race day there. Or, as the owner of the venue, will he find another vantage point to look out over the speedway he first visited as a teenager in 1951.

That trip, one could argue, formed the path Penske has traveled every day since with his steps taking him back to where it all began.

I hope he enjoys that beautiful Sunday morning later this month, and  hope he thinks back to that trip with his dad.

I know I’ll take a moment to think of him and what it must mean for him to once again gaze upon the hallowed grounds he first saw 70 years ago.

I think those eyes, the eyes of “The Captain,” will like what they see.

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