The Sale

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Where do I begin?

It’s been roughly forty-eight hours since we learned that Roger Penske has purchased the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from the Hulman-George family. But even after a couple of days, I’m still having a little trouble sorting all of this out in my head.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration at all to say that this news was the biggest racing bombshell to drop in my lifetime.

Since we heard the news, I’ve gotten a lot of texts, tweets, e-mails, Facebook messages and phone calls from people trying to guess my reaction. I’ve gotten “Since you love Roger Penske so much, I’m sure you’re ecstatic”; while I’ve also had people say “Since you are such a traditionalist, I’m sure you hate this news”. To be honest, neither is right.

I’m not really sure why it matters what an overaged blogger in Nashville, TN thinks. I’m flattered, but in the grand scheme of things – my opinion doesn’t count for much. But to be honest, I’m cautiously optimistic and overall – I think this is going to be a big positive in the long run. But I also have some concerns.

For a die-hard racing fan, this will be one of those “where were you when you found out?” moments. For me, I was just leaving the house for work. My friend Paul Dalbey texted the news to me as I was literally walking out the door. I called him when I got in the car, and he read the press release to me as I was driving. I was shocked, just like all of us were.

What was odd is that I got a phone call from another IndyCar friend of mine late Friday afternoon. He told me that he had heard from a reliable source that Liberty Media had made an offer to purchase IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 from Hulman and Company, but that the track itself would stay with the Hulman-George family. I listened curiously, but ultimately dismissed it. As it turns out, he heard about Penske’s involvement on Sunday night, but he didn’t call me. It doesn’t matter, because I would’ve dismissed that too. I shouldn’t have, because many of his rumors have come true over the years. It doesn’t really matter. I don’t report news, I just comment on it after it breaks.

But even hearing that rumor on Friday didn’t take away any of the shock. But I think my initial thought when I heard the news was the most accurate to describe how I feel about this – it will be best in the long haul.

As we talked, I mentioned to Paul that you can bet we will see guaranteed spots in the Indianapolis 500 for IndyCar regulars. Roger Penske was asked about that in the Monday morning press-conference. He gave a non-answer, saying that it was a complicated issue and required a lot of discussion and thought. He didn’t commit either way, which was smart. Roger Penske will never allow himself to be backed into a corner.

Paul then brought up another big concern. Penske at one time owned several race tracks, including the former California Speedway at Fontana, which he built. He sold his entire portfolio to ISC, which is now owned solely by NASCAR. ISC shuttered Nazareth, and Fontana and Michigan don’t want much to do with IndyCar these days. Would Penske, his heirs or operatives ever sell IMS to NASCAR? That’s a scenario that made me shiver as I typed those words.

As the day went on, more and more questions popped into my head, as they did yours. I was very busy at work all day Monday and I really didn’t get a chance to check social media until I got home Monday night. I saw that a lot of people were asking the same questions I had been asking myself. Of course, some were asking (or stating) some just downright asinine concerns – but that’s what they do.

Most of these came from the Penske haters. Many fans (and many regular readers of this site) absolutely hate Roger Penske. I get that. He wins way too much in their eyes and probably got where he is by cheating someone. While I don’t agree with that assessment, I get it and people are entitled to that opinion.

But love him or hate him or somewhere in between – you cannot ignore or deny Roger Penske’s love and passion for IndyCar and especially the Indianapolis 500.

What a lot of people don’t understand is that after the death of Mari Hulman George last fall, I think most of the Hulman-George descendants wanted out. My personal opinion is that Tony George wanted to hold on to the track his grandfather had purchased in 1945, but his three sisters out-voted him. I guess they wanted to cash in their chips and be free to do whatever they wanted for the rest of their lives.

Rumors swirled for the past year that everything was up for sale, but they were all publicly denied. When Clabber Girl sold for $80 Million this past spring, it raised eyebrows, but Mark Miles continued to deny the rumors. I’m wondering if there was something to what I heard about Liberty Media. Perhaps the Hulman-George family had gotten a decent offer from the conglomerate that also owns Formula One, but they just couldn’t bear to see everything they had built for decades being dismantled by some corporate behemoth. Maybe that’s why Tony George approached Roger Penske on the grid at Laguna Seca six weeks ago to start this dialogue.

He knew that Roger Penske had the resources to buy everything, but that he had the passion and the respect for the hallowed ground that sits at 16th and Georgetown – much more so than some corporate giant that would just look at this as nothing more than a property transaction. In Roger Penske, the Hulman-George family knew they had a buyer that would continue the legacy their family started seventy-four years ago – and build on it.

Some of the Penske haters out there claimed he would get rid of every tradition that we hold so dear. Do you really think so? This is a man who went his first Indianapolis 500 as a fourteen year-old in 1951, when his father got a couple of tickets. He immediately fell in love with the race and the place. Since then, he has only missed one race, either as a participant or a spectator that didn’t involve the politics of The Split. This was a man that in 1993, sternly told Emerson Fittipaldi to drink the milk after Emmo had decided to go rogue and drink orange juice instead. Does that sound like the actions of a man who cares nothing for the traditions of the Indianapolis 500?

Yes, I have concerns that he will reserve guaranteed spots for the Indianapolis 500 – big concerns. I went off on a rant last spring about it and my feelings have not changed. I won’t get into it again here, but if that happens – I’ll be very upset. But I also have the feeling that the possibility of guaranteed spots is the worst thing that may come of this entire transaction.

On the positive side, I see endless possibilities – especially regarding the NTT IndyCar Series. Roger Penske has deep – and I mean deep – relationships in business all over the world. His relationship with Verizon as his team sponsor led to them becoming the title sponsor of the series for five years. After that contract ran out, they still serve as the only primary sponsor for Will Power’s Team Penske car for all seventeen races. His sponsors are loyal and he is loyal to them. That’s the way he does business.

I can see him being able to create a much easier path for a third engine manufacturer joining the series. I’m hoping that he will see the need to increase purses at all the races and act accordingly. If NTT pulls out as the current title sponsor, I can see Roger Penske being able to find a quick replacement. That’s assuming that he doesn’t lose his battle with Father Time anytime soon.

That brings up another potential problem. Roger Penske is eighty-two years old. While he seems to be in excellent health and has the energy of a twenty year-old, you cannot dismiss his age. How much longer will he be able to command a board room? On one hand you like to think he can go another ten to fifteen years, but at that age – anything can happen at any time. Then again, I’m a generation younger and I seem to have high school and college friends dropping like flies – so you can’t discount him because of his age. And how old is Bruton Smith, by the way? I looked it up. He’s ninety-two.

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Penske’s age will work to everyone’s benefit. With age comes wisdom and experience. Age also gets rid of the desire to make a name for one’s self. Roger Penske has already done that. He has seen what IndyCar was in the sixties and seventies, as well as what it became in the nineties…and also what it sunk to in the late nineties. He was a co-founder of CART and was steadfast in his resolve in the early days of The Split. When he saw they were fighting a losing battle, he was one of the first to make the fulltime switch to the rival IRL. Shortly after he left CART, most of the others followed suit.

He knows and he understands what we IndyCar fans want, because he wants the same thing. It’s pretty obvious that the Hulman-George family was going to sell out to someone, regardless of who paid the money. Would you prefer a Sardar Biglari, who now controls Steak ‘n Shake, to come in and make wholesale changes? Can you imagine Universal Studios taking over and getting rid of the Borg-Warner trophy in favor of something that looked like their trademark globe? Sure, they could get A-list movie stars and build an amusement park outside of Turn Two, but do you think they would give a hoot about honoring any of our sacred traditions?

Speaking of traditions, who will give the traditional command to start engines? Since 1955, it has always been a member of the Hulman-George family to deliver some variation of “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines”. With the Hulman-George family out of the picture, who will have that honor going forward? At most races, it’s usually the CEO or some corporate officer of the presenting sponsor. But the Indianapolis 500 is not like most races. My thinking is that it should be a former winner of the race, preferably a legend. They need to ask the oldest ones first, for obvious reasons. I’d like to see them ask someone like AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Bobby and Al Unser, Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock or Johnny Rutherford. When they are no longer available, ask Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Danny Sullivan or Bobby Rahal. It should be an honor that goes to someone who appreciates the honor – not just some corporate tool that writes a big check.

Many have expressed concern about a potential conflict of interest. I get that. No matter how many firewalls are created to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest, it’s there. The first time Josef Newgarden gets a pass from Race Control over what many will see as a flagrant violation, the chirping will start. And what about Race Control? If Will Power or Simon Pagenaud get flagged for the same violation three races in a row by Race Control, will they feel pressured to please the boss and let something ride in that fourth race? Roger Penske can be pretty intimidating without saying a word. I know I’d be careful in calling one of his drivers several times in a row, in fear of losing my job.

I have an idea that Penske will overcompensate in proving that his racing series is fair. I think he himself is so aware of the conflict of interest perception that he will go out of the way to prove it is a non-issue. And remember, this has been done before. Going back to the beginning there were "Speedway" cars entered in the race for years. Howdy Wilcox won the 1919 race driving one. Don’t forget that Tony George owned and directly operated Vision Racing in the 2000s, while still serving as IndyCar CEO. Some have suggested very firmly that Roger Penske should sell Team Penske, the team that has won four of the last six IndyCar championships and three of the past five Indianapolis 500s. It isn’t happening and it shouldn’t. The Captain is very aware of the perception out there and he will not allow it to creep into a discussion. His credibility and reputation has been built over decades. He’s not going to throw that all away in an instant just to get a favorable ruling for one of his drivers. But there will be some that will squawk no matter what. That’s just the nature of the business these days.

I have been going to the Indianapolis 500 since 1965. In my entire lifetime, that facility was owned by the Hulman-George family – until Monday. While it is sad to see that seventy-four year reign come to an end, many of us figured it was coming sooner than later. In 110 years of existence, this is only the fourth time that ownership of IMS has changed hands. The four founders owned The Speedway from its inception in 1909, before selling it to Eddie Rickenbacker in 1927.

After four years of inactivity during World War II, Rickenbacker was no longer interested in pouring money into the dilapidated facility to get it up and running. Many assumed it would fall to the wrecking ball in favor of a housing development. Three-time winner Wilbur Shaw was not going to let that happen. Mutual friend Homer Cochran put Shaw in touch with Tony Hulman of Terre Haute. Hulman purchased The Speedway in the fall of 1945 and immediately began his quest to turn the track into the showplace that it is today.

Rickenbacker didn’t care who he sold IMS to or what would become of it. Fortunately, members of the Hulman-George family were more prudent. Say what you will about Tony George, but he loves the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was not about to let it be sold to some corporation that felt no passion for the history or tradition of IMS, that would treat it as simply a financial investment. They sold it to someone who has already made it his life’s passion.

A family-owned business can only do so much. Tony George himself said as much on Monday when he acknowledged that they had taken it as far as they could. The sale of Clabber Girl and IMS represents the family’s entire fortune. While that is substantial to most of us, it’s just one piece of the pie to the Penske Corporation. Roger Penske’s company does $32 Billion in annual revenue and employees 64,000 people. They have the resources to pour into IMS and the NTT IndyCar Series. And Roger Penske has the foresight to take both to the next level and beyond.

So yes, things are currently a little uncertain and I have a few concerns. But overall, I think this is the best scenario I can think of – for the series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I just wish it had happened ten years ago.

I’m grateful to the Hulman-George family. Had Tony Hulman not bought the track in 1945, I never would have gone to my first race there twenty years later. I most likely would have never been introduced to this sport that I love and my life would have been much different. I’m thankful that two generations later, the family was still acting as a good steward to the facility and sought out the best possible buyer to entrust its future to. Roger Penske will take good care of IndyCar, the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Although Monday was very emotional for Tony George, he can rest easy now. His grandfather’s Speedway is in good hands.

George Phillips

18 Responses to “The Sale”

  1. Good news I think. Roger has pockets deep enough, the experience and respect for tradition to take IndyCar to the next level.

  2. Change is gonna come. I’m ready for whatever, and it’s probably needed. My only true concern is that the Indianapolis 500 itself not get watered down and become just another in a series of races at the IMS Entertainment Complex.

  3. I’m still shell-shocked but ultimately I only see positives. Nobody cares more about the race, the series, and the track than Mr. Penske. I have little doubt he will not only continue but reinforce the old traditions while introducing new ones.

    There will be no conflict of interest, Penske is the king of bending the rules but he would not compromise his integrity by letting his drivers get free passes, nor would he disrespect the sport in such a way. I don’t believe this means guaranteed spots for the 500, it’s now in his interest to make bump day huge. When Penske calls people answer, if Penske wants to race at a particular track they will have a talk with him and probably make it happen. I’m not sure I wanted everything to be sold, but if it was going to happen this is probably the best outcome. Should be an exciting few years.

  4. The sisters should have addressed the media instead of Tony since I’m sure it was their decision to sell. Tony looked like he was at a funeral. And who was the jerk that asked Penske how much he paid for the speedway? Did you see the cold stare Roger gave him?

  5. As Tony George said ,the family has taken IMS and IndyCar as far as the family can. Passing the business on to the Penske Corp. is a stroke of genius. After 50 years at the Speedway ,with all the success don’t you think RP is like family to IMS? To paraphrase AJ, the 500 helped make Penske Racing, now Penske Corp., can help make IMS even better. The luster of the 500 will always remain and will be even polished up going forward. I am excited about additional events taking place on the road course such as a Indy 24 hour event. The facility has a lot of activity which does not receive a great deal of attention already, such as the SCCA run offs and vintage racing. It’s a great facility and should be used more often . I am sure the city and state will love the infusion of monies the facility will bring to the area. The facility is generally in good condition however I assume RP attention to detail will bring improvements to the for participants and spectators alike. Penskes prior experience owning race facilities is a huge plus.

    Racing is still a business ,it’s entertainment . Mr. Penske will leverage his influence with car makers, sanctioning bodies,governmental groups,etc to help advance IndyCar and IMS growth.

    Mr. Penske age is a concern ,however I am sure there is a succession plan in place for the day Mr. Penske is no longer at the helm

    All things considered the passing of stewardship from the Hulman family to the Penske family is a,good,thing for INDYCAR and IMS.
    Excited to see what the future holds

  6. Randy Holbrook Says:

    The only things that worries me are his age and his long association with Chevrolet. No one cries louder than Chevy if they are not allowed to dominate and they will now have a most sympathetic ear. I think Roger will be as fair as he can though so I think great things are ahead.

  7. James T Suel Says:

    For me this is the biggest and most welcome event in racing ! Roger Penske like many of us loves the speedway. The man is a businessman and racing wizard. He will in the long run take the 500 and the series to new heights! And will do it with class and integrity.

  8. It was Roger Penske’s view that Indianapolis should be treated as just another race that helped give fuel to the split. Will that change now that he owns the speedway? Time will tell.

    To really make a change, Mr. Penske will need five healthy years to get a plan in place and keep it moving. At age 82, I am afraid the odds are against him. Better hope he comes from a good gene pool. If he gets those five healthy years, he can definitely have an impact. What happens when he is out of the picture?

    I’ve noticed everyone has a wish list. There is a lot of hope now that things everyone has wanted at IMS and in the INDYCAR series will get done. This is the optimistic happy time. It’s inevitable that many will be disappointed.

    Tony George definitely thought Penske would be the best one to sell the track and the IRL to. In the end I’m guessing the Hulman family is taking less money than they could have had by selling to him. I’m hoping Roger made some promises to Tony concerning the traditions at the track. If Penske protects those long time traditions at IMS and also in American open wheel racing, and even restores some of the lost ones, he can truly make a difference that will be remembered for decades.

    The ball in in your court, Mr. Penske.

    • Well stated. I agree.

    • I think it’s pretty clear that Mr. Penske changed his view on Indianapolis being “just another race” a long time ago. Indy means more to him than anything, or any race. He’s also probably the healthiest 82 year old on the planet with the best doctors money can buy. He spends the entire 24 hours at Daytona on the pitstands, not many people half his age do that. I’d guess he easily has another good 10 productive years ahead, his age is not a concern to me.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    For all of the realistic possibilities for the sale of the Speedway, this was certainly the best-case one. I will always believe it is critical to have folks with a passion for racing involved in running racing organizations, even more so than in other sports because racing requires changes much more often than other sports and folks without a passion for it are more apt to make changes that do not resonate with fans.

    I’m excited to see what the future holds for Indycar under Penske, though I don’t doubt there will be changes I am not especially fond of along the way.

  10. Bruce Waine Says:

    So What type of a Guy Is He?

    Roger offers the Hulman & Company shareholders an opportunity to hold a minority stake after the sale has been completed. !

    Monday November 4, 2019 Press Conference

    “ROGER PENSKE: Well, I think to everyone that’s here today and around the world listening to this iconic event, I really have to wind back to 1951 when my dad brought me here when I was 14 years old, and I guess at that point the bug of motor racing got in my blood I’d have to say, and to think about what it’s meant to our company, the brand that we’ve been able to build — it’s interesting,

    I talked to Mario Andretti today and AJ Foyt, and we all agreed what the Indianapolis 500 has meant to us as individuals and as a company, and certainly our company.”

    From Robin Miller’s Posting on RACER about 11:37PM Monday November 4th:

    Bobby Unser, A J, and Mario

    Bobby Unser: “I’m at a total loss on this one, I had no idea it was going to happen and I’m extremely surprised, as old as he is,” said three-time Indy winner Bobby Unser, who is the same age (83) as his former car owner whom he won Indy for in 1981.

    I didn’t think he’d be looking at a major deal like this so late in life, but I think it’s great news for IndyCar racing in general.

    Penske called A.J. Foyt early Monday morning to inform him of the deal.
    A J said “if there was anything I can think of to make it better, then to please let him (Roger) know, and I thought that was very nice of him and he sounded sincere,” said Indy’s first four-time winner, who is closing in on 85 years of age. “We were teammates for John Mecom a long time ago in sports cars and I feel like we both respect each other.

    “I told him we’re not gonna be around forever. Hell, we’re both older than dirt. But he’s got a lot of energy and he’s a smart businessman.”

    Asked what his old pal Tony Hulman might think about IMS being sold outside the family, Foyt responded with a chuckle: “He wouldn’t say much. I’d worry about Joe Cloutier (Hulman’s right hand man) more than Tony but he might roll over in his grave.”

    A J – “I’d rather see Roger buy it than anyone else, because he cares and he knows everything about our business,” said Indy’s icon A.J. Foyt.

    Mario Andretti also drove for R.P. at Indianapolis and couldn’t restrain his joy at the news when R.P. called him Monday. “He’s a true racer who spends as much time as possible at all his disciplines (IndyCar, NASCAR, IMSA and Supercars) and nobody loves our sport more,” he said. “To put all his marbles into this is a benefit to all and the fans of IndyCar should rejoice.”

    “I don’t know anybody who loves the Speedway or the sport more than Roger, and no-one has more of their skin in the game. He knows the big picture, he’s got the respect of all other competitors and this is going to be the jewel of his accomplishments.

    It’s the oldest top-level series on the planet and now he’s the head of it. He’s got control and this time there is going to be a vision – not just a word.”

    “I talked to Tony and Nancy (George) and they’re pretty emotional, but they feel very much at peace this happened in the right direction,” continued Andretti. “They know R.P. will respect the legacy of the track, and you’ve got to have a strong series to benefit Indy, and I think this is the best news we could ever have regarding that.”

    From Mark Glendenning’s Articles:
    “This is great news for the industry,” said Chip Ganassi. “The news will provide a shot in the arm to both the sport of auto racing and specifically to the Indy Car Series. Roger is a good friend and a class act, and all of his businesses are run well and with integrity. I couldn’t be happier for all of us that are involved with the sport.”

    Ganassi’s support was echoed by RLL co-owner Bobby Rahal.
    “Roger Penske’s commitment to the sport we love is over six decades long, and I am confident that his stewardship of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series will ensure a great future for the sport,” he said.

    “His many successful business ventures underline the fact that he is the perfect custodian of one of the most historic venues in the world and is the perfect architect to build the foundation for the next 100-plus years of the sport. We look forward to working with Roger in order to make the IndyCar Series and the Indy 500 the best it’s ever been.”

    From ROGER PENSKE:
    “This business is not broken. This is a great business, and the leadership team that’s been here has done an outstanding job, and what we want to do is be a support tool.

    “This is in our DNA, and I think with input from the media, input from our sponsor partners and all the teams – I had a chance to talk to most of the teams today, the principals – and we’re looking forward to getting together with the car owners and seeing what we can do to make Indy Car even stronger, and that’s something that would be a priority for me.”

    From Nathan Brown’s Indianapolis Star article Nov 4, 2019:

    Tony George: “It went from doing our due diligence to making sure we didn’t miss this opportunity with Roger,” George said. “I can’t imagine what this place will look like in five or 10 years. He wakes up every morning, and all he’s thinking about is making his Penske Corporation and his various racing holdings the best they can possibly be, and now we’re one of those.”

    ROGER PENSKE: “Penske made it clear that he has offered the Hulman & Company shareholders an opportunity to hold onto a minority stake after the sale has been completed – a chance George said he plans to jump on. And there will be races to attend, other civic work to complete and duties for the (George) family to fulfill in making sure that the pageantry and traditions of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing thrive.

    Roger offers the Hulman & Company shareholders an opportunity to hold a minority stake after the sale has been completed.

    That is the type of guy Roger is ! !

  11. Thanks George for your well written post. I do not see the sky falling at all. Mr. Penske has been a strong supporter of the series and the speedway. This is a good move. I have been wondering though who will be RP’s second in command. They will need to keep everything going, but I do so hope Mr. Penske will continue with his good health for many years to come. I’d like him to see his plans play out for IMS and IC’s future.

  12. was NBC left out of any consideration?

  13. I think we have all been to hell and back with the CART/IRL split. Those who survived it have surely learned from it. This includes Mr. Penske. He does everything first class. I have full faith he will do what is best for IMS and IndyCar first. This will include a scuccession plan that is as good as one can be. This is his white whale. This is the equivalent of Jim Delaney landing Notre Dame for the BigTen. Note: I say this as a rabid fan of the Champion in the 9 car.

  14. Bruce Waine Says:

    Roger Penske Interview with Robin Miller
    5 pm Today Nov 6th.

    https://racer.com/2019/11/06/video-robin-miller-with-roger-penske/

  15. “…but do you think they would give a hoot about honoring any of our sacred traditions?…”

    And what traditions are those? The fastest 33 cars make the field ? Not with the old 25/8!

    Innovative cars? Like the spec Dallara Honda, or the current spec Dallara Chevy/Honda?

    Pole day? Or Fast Nine/Fast Six/multiple attempts with the same car?

    The month of May, Or the barely two weeks of May, with one of those twisty type, furriner ROAD Course races.

    Naming rights? Yep, just like the old days (lol)

    Don’t get me wrong. Penske and his organization are the best thing to happen at IMS in decades. I’ve no doubt that he will be a positive force there.

    If only it could have happened twenty five years ago.

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