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Volume 23 No. 17
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Penske already making his mark at IMS, IndyCar Series

Roger Penske has made weekly trips to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to identify areas to improve the aging track.
Photo: getty images
Roger Penske has made weekly trips to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to identify areas to improve the aging track.
Photo: getty images
Roger Penske has made weekly trips to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to identify areas to improve the aging track.
Photo: getty images

If the first months under new owner Roger Penske are any indication, IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway are about to enter a transformative era in 2020.

Penske bought the series and speedway from the Hulman-George family in a $300 million to $350 million deal that closed in early January. Since then, Penske and his lieutenants have wasted no time making changes, ordering renovations at 111-year-old IMS, moving a NASCAR race to the track’s road course, and even holding some weekend staff meetings, the latter of which is part of Penske Corp.’s round-the-clock work ethic.

The automotive titan has committed to spending several million dollars this year to upgrade the track before the Indianapolis 500 in May, and he’s working on long-term plans for more extensive renovations.

Penske is implementing a more flat organizational structure at IndyCar/IMS and holding brainstorming sessions, a hallmark of Penske companies that gets mid-level employees more involved in decision making.

“Our business has always been 24/7 from a Penske perspective,” said Jonathan Gibson, Penske Corp.’s executive vice president of marketing and business development. “We’ve got a great team down there … and we’ve spent a lot of time doing our due diligence, getting our arms around the businesses and opportunities, and since the acquisition closed on Jan. 6, we’ve really been focused on improving and enhancing the guest experience, knowing the Indy 500 is only four months away.”

Later this week, the track will officially announce the work that will be finished at IMS by this year’s 500. Sources say it includes upgrades to the track’s outdated restrooms. Penske also told the Associated Press that he wanted to pave more of the parking lots around the track.

IMS will unveil a more long-term renovation plan later this year. Given the acreage around IMS, some in the industry expect Penske to look into building a mixed-use development. But Mark Miles, CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp., said that is not a priority. Instead, the initial focus is on growing IndyCar and IMS proper. Penske Entertainment Corp. is the subsidiary created for the IndyCar acquisition.

Penske, 82, has been making weekly trips to IMS from his Michigan headquarters with some of his top lieutenants, typically on Wednesdays, and has walked the sprawling grounds several times to identify areas he wants to improve.

“There are phone calls every day to convey info or get into topics and get decisions made and then there are visits which vary in frequency, but now the rhythm is about a day a week when Roger is going to try to be here,” Miles said. “From the very beginning of the morning into the late evening, we line up key topics we need to go through, and what’s terrific is it’s not just me and two or three of us; we bring in the key business people inside our organization who are the point people responsible for whatever we’re talking about. It might be 10-12 people on the topic of, ‘How do we help make IndyCar events stronger?’”

One of the ways Penske has already worked to make the series and IMS stronger is by looking into which sponsors and business partners from either Team Penske or his broader business empire may want to become official sponsors of the properties. Longtime Penske Corp. partner Shell Oil Co. has already purchased title sponsorship for the July 4 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at IMS, and Gibson and Miles said other new deals will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Penske and his team have held meetings with race promoters, and the series wants to leverage more of its resources, such as IMS Productions’ content producing capabilities, to help events do a better job of creating buzz and selling tickets.

Among the foremost things to improve for Penske are TV ratings for all events and attendance at oval tracks, making IndyCar more profitable and adding different types of events to IMS’s calendar. The series also still trails NASCAR in exposure, and building driver star power and buzz around the sport will be another likely priority.

Penske has started to make decisions at the league level, too. After speaking out last year in support of the idea of implementing guaranteed entries in the Indy 500 for full-time teams, Penske has now pulled back on that and said he supports keeping the race without automatic qualifiers. He’s also directed his staff to focus less on the prospect of international races in locations outside North America, though Miles said he isn’t sure the idea is totally off the table.

“All of our businesses have always been extremely flat. We often say that, ‘You can’t manage your business at 30,000 feet’ — you have to be in the weeds of the details,” said Gibson. “We all have the same mission, which is to continue to make IMS the greatest motorsport venue in world.”

The IndyCar Series starts March 15 in St. Petersburg, Fla., with televised coverage by NBCSN.