Before he became a sports-car driver, a Chevy dealer, a race-team and race-track owner and a business mogul with a transportation company with 64,000 employees, Roger Penske was a 14-year-old kid from Cleveland attending his first Indianapolis 500 with his dad.
Roger Penske loved the 1951 Indy 500 so much that he kept going back, and 68 years later he bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series. Penske, 82, is, has and will always be an open-wheel guy first. But he owns top stock-car and sports-car teams and is auto racingâs strongest advocate. Easily.
The annual NASCAR Cup race at Indy, still widely known as the Brickyard 400, was a sidebar during a news conference in Indianapolis at which Penskeâs purchase was disclosed, but Penske made it clear that stock-car racing at the Brickyard is very much in his plans. And Penske carries enormous clout in NASCAR.
âWe would expect to take this for many, many years,â Penske said of the NASCAR race. âThey need to run at Indiana. We want them to, and there’s no question that we’re going to look at opportunities to expand the relationship with them in the future.â
It was not as if Hulman & Company, the family business that owned the speedway since 1945, had not been serious about keeping the Brickyard 400, which debuted in 1994. But interest in the race has lagged noticeably in recent years. Things donât lag under Penske.
âThis is a great asset,â he said of the speedway. âOnce the tradition had been broken in adding the NASCAR race, which obviously we’re going to get behind that in a big way because for 27 years they’ve run here. I look at all of these across the board to see what we can do.â
His monumental purchase of the speedway is not guaranteed to save the Brickyard 400 or single-handedly boost NASCARâs tenuous attendance and TV ratings, but donât tell Penske that. The Captain still makes things work because he is diligent, precise and takes chances. He is keenly aware of what people like â and donât like.
When asked at the news conference about the delicious possibility of holding an IndyCar Series race and a NASCAR race on the same weekend at the speedway, he replied, âLook, we’ve got to break some glass on some of these things, don’t we? We’ve got to try some of this. I’m prepared to take a risk. No risk, no reward in many cases.â
Although the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has low banking, making it less much ideal for stock-car racing than Indy-car racing, the Brickyard 400 was an immediate hit because people were interested in watching a NASCAR race at the worldâs most famous track.
The race was held in early August through 2006, then was shifted to late July in 2007, then to September in 2018. The Brickyard 400 was once a sellout of 250,000-plus, but attendance continued to drop, and the most recent race drew only an estimated 60,000 fans. It is as if the thrill of racing stock cars at Indy is gone.
NASCAR announced in the spring that it was moving the race again in 2020, to the July 4 weekend, so it can be promoted with other holiday-related activities in the area, giving the speedway, which hosts the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend, two solid calendar spots.
Penske sees two races that could complement each other, saying, âI think it’s important to know that one of the things that I care most about are the men and women in our armed forces and the first responders that we represent and compliment every Memorial Day. Then having the July 4th race, think about the two of those, we’ll continue to support that with our hearts, and certainly from a tradition perspective.â
He said, âThere’s nothing that gives me more feeling than to stand on the grid and see the flyovers and see the men and women in the services each year, so I can tell you we’re going to push harder on that to be sure we respect them and the tradition and the pomp and ceremony is certainly going to be top of mind.â
Penske might have been talking about the military, but he could have been talking about auto racingâs blue-collar fan base â we are not going to forget about you. He knows that some of them buy race tickets. It would not be surprising to see more family ticket plans at Indy, or discounts for military members and their families.
Penske has deep roots in auto racing, and more stakes in different aspects of the business than anyone else I can think of. His drivers have won the Indy 500 18 times, and one of his stock-car drivers, Joey Logano, is the defending NASCAR Cup champion.
He will have a lot of other things to worry about with his new purchase than stock-car racing, but stock-car racing is still a part of the mix. He plans to keep his Indy-car and NASCAR teams under a separate umbrella, but it all blends together, which is good for NASCAR.