The Penske Era Begins at IMS

As of this past Monday, the sale of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, The NTT IndyCar Series and IMS Productions to Roger Penske is now complete. Two months have passed since the best kept secret in the history of motorsports was dropped on us, and I’m still having a tough time processing the potential implications of this transaction.

Tuesday night, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb celebrated Penske Entertainment completing the transaction at a reception at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (home of the Pacers). Roger Penske turns eighty-three next month, but reports are that he has been working tirelessly day and night for the past two months with the energy level of a twenty year-old. While his team of lawyers were sorting out the final details on Monday, he was out walking the track for the umpteenth time in the last two months making notes on things to be improved upon.

I found it interesting that although he first attended the Indianapolis 500 in 1951 and has been an entrant since 1969, he has never toured the grounds or ventured past the Garage Area, the pits and the media center – the places he needed to be during the Month of May. Penske first ventured out from those areas this past November – after it was announced he was buying the place.

In various interviews on Tuesday and at Tuesday night’s reception, Penske spoke in very general terms of his plans – mostly to use the grounds of the famous Speedway as an entertainment venue throughout the year and not just as a destination during May. But he also spoke of many changes that would be noticeable to fans this coming May.

In practically every interview, he spoke of the fan experience as being the top priority to focus on. He said he wasn’t as focused on generating more revenue as he was for enhancing and improving the overall fan experience. Penske said that between now and the first of May, several million dollars will be put into the facility to make improvements in several areas – although he did not indicate what areas those improvements will be made in.

If you listened to Trackside this past Tuesday night, you heard Curt Cavin say that fans can expect to see many improvements in the restrooms and concession areas. Perhaps for us guys, that means individual urinals with partitions rather than everyone shouldering into each other to use those barbaric troughs. I would also hope that some solution to the paper towels that run out by the first caution of the race can be found – whether that means air-dryers (that I’m not particularly fond of – they blow the nasty restroom air directly onto your clean hands) or just more people to stock the paper towels. Too many times, I’ve left the rest room on Race Day wiping my wet hands onto my shirt or pants.

I think that the concessions could become more efficient and have better offerings. I’m not an expert in fast-food preparation, but McDonalds and Chick-fil-a have their systems down to a science (in most cases). While the concession staff is friendly and pleasant – they are not a well-oiled machine. They could use a makeover in how to run people through a lot quicker. I realize that traditional fast-food and sports concessions are two different animals, but I’ve been to many Titans games and also to Colts games at Lucas Oil Stadium. They do it a lot quicker than IMS.

The food offerings could be a lot better also. NFL games offer a wide array of selections. Most IMS concession stands are limited to Track Dogs and Burgers. If you’re lucky, you can find that one stand on the ground that still sells the Classic Jumbo Tenderloin – but that involves a search that should not be necessary. I’m hoping that The Captain and his people will choose to keep the Classic Tenderloin and make it readily available at all stands. they also need to do away with that abomination they call a tenderloin that they sell in the Pagoda Plaza.

Where else might Penske Corporation spend their millions over the next four months? Your guess is as good as mine. Some have suggested lights, but I don’t see that in the immediate future. Roger Penske has said that he would be willing to look at the possibility of lights for other events, but was adamant that the Indianapolis 500 would never be run at night.

I agree with that sentiment, but lights would offer the opportunity to wait out a rain delay. I remember when the 2007 race was called for rain. As we all sat in line to leave the facility around 7:00 pm, the sun broke through and it was a beautiful evening. Having the luxury of lights could have allowed the race to be run into the evening hours and perhaps change history. But if lights ever go up at IMS, I think it will be many years from now.

Sometime during the day on Tuesday, I read where Roger Penske was asked about his stance for guaranteed qualifiers for the Indianapolis 500. If you’ll recall, last year Penske was pretty vocal in expressing his opinion that any team that runs the full season in the NTT IndyCar Series, should be guaranteed a spot in the Indianapolis 500. Many, including myself, were incensed at this stance – especially given his stance when Tony George implemented the infamous 25/8 rule for the 1996 Indianapolis 500, that was very similar to what Penske was lobbying for last year.

I was happy to see that Penske has now retreated from that stance and will not be seeking to make that change. He hinted that there might be some other provisions, such as more practice time or additional qualifying runs for those fulltime teams in danger of missing the race, but that there would be no guaranteed spots. That’s a compromise I can live with.

Selfishly, I was also happy to hear Penske tell Dave Furst of WRTV-6 that he recognized the importance of the media and how they planned to work more closely with the media to help them do their job. As a lowly blogger, I can’t help but wonder if the new regime will embrace bloggers as has been done in the past, or if they will weed them out. The PR folks at Team Penske have always seemed to recognize the role that bloggers play in the grand scheme of things. The small group of us that remain seems to have a good understanding of the boundaries. There was a time when some bloggers thought a credential was their license to break the rules imposed on all media. Most of them are long gone. I’m hoping Penske Entertainment recognizes that those of us that are left, are not the bad apple that gave bloggers a bad name.

I still maintain that Penske’s biggest challenge is not what to change at IMS. His biggest challenge is fixing the series. It’s not that the series is broken, but there is a need for some long-term strategies to make it a viable entity in the years to come. I fear more for the future of the NTT IndyCar Series than I do for IMS.

The New Year not only ushered in the new decade of the twenties, it ended the seventy-four year stewardship of the Hulman-George family at IMS and is now ushering in the Penske era. In the 111-year history of the track, Roger Penske is only the fourth owner; after the original Carl Fisher ownership group, Eddie Rickenbacker and then the Hulman-George family. Each period of ownership has left its own indelible mark on the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I’m anxious to see what will be the identifying mark for Roger Penske.

George Phillips

13 Responses to “The Penske Era Begins at IMS”

  1. I’m hoping you will guide me to sample the tenderloin in May!

  2. I, for one, welcome our new starched shirt overlords.

    I also always look forward to George’s annual tenderloin hunt.

    If I have one selfish hope it’s that they put a permanent kart track on the grounds and have the fine folks from Speedway Indoor Karting operate it all year (well, April through October or whatever). Bring some national karting series there for sanctioned races as well as rental karts for us wannabe racers. Can’t imagine that’s likely though.

  3. very happy he’s reconsidered the automatic qualifiers. optimistically curious as to what Penske’s priorities are for IMS.

    • billytheskink Says:

      For better or worse, it is going to be interesting to see what changes occur under Penske’s ownership and whether Penske Entertainment is more apt to make regular changes at IMS and the Series than the H-G Family or will be staid once they have implemented an initial list of changes.

  4. Roger Penske will turn IMS into the racing Capital of the world it so rightly deserves! In the next few years I look forward to the speedway being in pristine, immaculate condition. Roger has a great business model and we should be so thankful he purchased the place!

  5. The IndyCar series faces some serious future challenges that need immediate attention and who would be more capable of facing these challenges than the Penske group. I have more confidence in RP than the Hulman Family that is for sure. Looking at the big picture for the speedway I think it should be left alone for the most part with the exception of updating restrooms, concessions , some parking ect. IMS is not a place to be modernized too much.

  6. I was taken aback that RP had never been anywhere at IMS other than the Garage Area, pits, (and Museum?), although that may be true of other long-time entrants. Having spent many hours at just about every place on the property, including many not accessible to the public, I guess I was just surprised to realize that I probably know the facility better than Penske did until the last few weeks.

  7. does Levy still run the concessions?

  8. Since Indycar racing is no longer on tv in Canada …… who gives a flying anything about tenderloins.

    There’re a whole lot of more serious issues at hand out there.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      Suggest that you be pro-active and send a (polite) letter off to Roger seeking his indication when the Canadian INDY fans will be able to watch the Indycar races once again on Canadian TV.

      Perhaps you have already done so?

  9. Doug Weglarz Says:

    I think we need an article about the bad bloggers and their rule breaking, could be an interesting read.

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