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A determined Roger Penske presides over impressive growth at the Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS – When Roger Penske purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series from the Hulman George Family on Nov. 4, 2019, he wanted to secure the future for one of the world’s greatest sporting events.

That meant restoring the luster of the race and elevating it to back to its “can’t-miss” status.

That was a level it enjoyed from the 1950s through the mid-1990s, when the race was sold out nearly every year and it became a major American tradition on Memorial Day.

But as generations changed, so did the taste of many sports fans. During the previously mentioned era, the Indianapolis 500 provided the adrenalin rush to a generation that had fought in World War II, returned home and built the United States into the leader of the free world.

Danger and risk were part of society at that time and there was no greater display of bravery in a sporting event than the 33 drivers that competed in the famed race that began on Memorial Day in 1911.

While the “Greatest Generation” made it an annual ritual to attend the Indianapolis 500 every year to watch “Man vs. Machine,” the Baby Boomer generation and later, Generation X turned the infield into “Woodstock.”

From the 1950s through the turbulent 1960s and into the hard-rock 1970s and the excess of the 1980s, the Indianapolis 500 was a gigantic party, where morality was left at home.

What happened in the Indianapolis 500 infield often stayed in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield, literally.

Indy Car Series: Indianapolis 500

May 29, 2011; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Race fans in the infield near turn three prior to the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Guy Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Guy Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

From old sofas to pea green 1968 Chevrolet Impalas that were sometimes set afire, to hundreds of thousands of empty beer cans and bottles to more than a few prosthetic limbs, the infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was not necessarily intended for younger or more sensitive audiences.

In latter years, some millennials became more interested in art fairs and Premier League Football and Generation Z seemed to have little interest in watching internal combustion engines in cars race around the 2.5-mile track at high speeds.

At 87, Penske represents America when it was adventurous. His race team began when the United States was involved in the Space Race, hoping to be the first to land a man on the moon.

It was 1969 when Roger Penske arrived with his first entry in the Indianapolis 500, a race that was won by Mario Andretti. Seven weeks later, on July 20, Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon’s surface.

Over the decades, America’s “Can Do” attitude gave way to other movements. People were more interested in a safer society than reaching for the stars.

But with a resurgence of interest in returning to space, including an American effort to return man to the surface of the moon later this decade, the Indianapolis 500 is returning to its glorious status as the most spectacular spectator sporting event on earth.

And Penske is providing that foundation at the greatly improved and enhanced Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

As of Wednesday, May 23, there are less than 5,000 grandstand tickets left for sale for Sunday’s race. Those tickets are sprinkled in the north end of the track. The “Snake Pit” – a music festival in the massive infield geared toward fans 17-30, is expecting its largest crowd yet.

And advance general admission tickets for the infield have been gobbled up.

Last month, race-day parking was sold out. That means fans coming from outside of the area that don’t have parking passes will have to find spots in the many lawns and front yards of the residents in the nearby neighbors that help turn this event into an American reunion.

There are many great things about living in the United States and the Indianapolis 500 is one of them.

To many from Indiana, it’s the greatest day of the year to be a Hoosier.

It’s when the “World Comes to Indianapolis.”

Indiana Welcome sign

Welcome to Indiana roadway sign crossroads of America interrstate I-69

Dennis Macdonald/Getty Images had an exclusive interview with Penske in RP1 – his mobile office motorhome – at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the days leading up to Sunday’s 108th Indianapolis 500.

“I’ve got to go back to 1951 when I came here for my first time with my dad, and I feel the same way now every time I come through the tunnel,” Penske told “I see this place and see it’s so amazing for racing and what it drives from a brand perspective it’s an iconic race really, it’s a generational race because you know we’re sitting here almost with a sellout of our 234,000 seats hopefully that’ll happen the next few days.

“The Snake Pit is way up, Carb Day is up, so we should have a record crowd here come Race Day.

“It it’s an amazing place and you know we’re just thrilled to have the opportunity to try to build it to even be better.”

Counting the 234,000 seats in the world’s largest sporting arena, combined with thousands and thousands more in the suites that are located around the track, the crowd in the infield and The Snake Pit, the Indianapolis 500 can host upwards of 350,000 fans on race day.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when the infield was wide open and not sectioned off with a road course, fans used to jam into the Turn 1 and Turn 4 areas that are no longer accessible.

Crowds back then approached, and maybe exceeded, 400,000 spectators.

But fans expect higher levels of service and comfort these days compared to decades ago. And that is what Penske has tried to provide with more amenities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We’ve changed our vendor for our food and concessions,” Penske said. “We’ve gone to Aramark, and they’ve really stepped up. We’ve got a new kitchen up, in the Hulman Terrace Club off Turn 4. Many of the areas and concessions have been redone, the technology there.

“We’ve got the ‘Grab and Go’ store at the Pagoda level now, which has really been exciting. And of course, we’ve upgraded, spent several million dollars on the sound system.

“And to me, one of the most important things is safety. We replaced all the soft wall detail this past several months. We also put up fence and soft wall all the way from the entrance of Turn 3 on the inside all the way through Turn 4.

“Safety first, take care of our customers obviously. And you mentioned the spectator mounds. We felt that all these people had come in with their kids sit on those mounds the first year. We want to give them the same look that people have in the stands. We put, I think, 17 small video screens along the mounds through what they can see as they come off a Turn 4.”

Penske and his staff have put focus on both the younger crowd, as well as the tens of thousands of older fans that have been coming to the Indy 500 every year for decades.

“Well, I guess if you look at the demographics, we still have a very loyal, what I would call old-timer base, including myself, obviously,” Penske told “It’s exciting to see the people that are turning out.

“We have a metric that says 500 hours after the previous race, you can have your ticket for next year if you come back and make that decision that we will honor that, and you’ll have your same seat.

“And, typically, we get in that 500-hour period, somewhere between 130,000 and 140,000 people come back and want to buy their tickets now for next year.

“That’s why I call it generational, that’s why I call it iconic, it’s the greatest racing event in the world and there’s no question that the interest by the fans not only locally here but worldwide it’s just amazing.

“I can’t give you a number, but I will tell you this – we’re going to have over 300,000 people here on Race Day and that’s five times the crowd of the Super Bowl.”

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star

Fans get down in the Snake Pit during the 102nd running of the Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 27, 2018. The 102nd Running Of The Indy 500 At Indianapolis Motor Speedway On Sunday May 27 2018

Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

This year’s Month of May, however, began under a cloud of scrutiny.

In addition to owning the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar, Penske owns the most successful racing team in history – Team Penske.

Although Penske has stepped away from running that team, he was put in a difficult position when IndyCar discovered Team Penske had violated the push-to-pass regulations in the March 10 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Josef Newgarden’s victory in that race was taken away when he was disqualified six weeks later. Third-place finisher and Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin was also disqualified. A third driver on the team, Will Power, was penalized, but not disqualified.

Penske was upset and embarrassed by the actions of his team. He suspended Team Penske President Tim Cindric and Ron Ruzewski, Team Penske’s managing director, IndyCar, along with engineers Robbie Atkinson and Luke Mason for their role in the scandal.

None of the four were allowed to be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Month of May, which included the Sonsio Grand Prix earlier in the month and practice, qualifications and the race for the May 26 Indianapolis 500.

Penske took decisive action but was determined that it did not impact the competitiveness of the operation.

Team Penske has the deepest bench in motorsports and the result was an all-Team Penske sweep of the three starting positions in the front row for the Indianapolis 500.

McLaughlin of New Zealand won the pole with a four-lap average of 234.220 miles per hour. It’s the fastest Indy 500 pole in history. Power was second with a four-lap average at 233.917 mph and defending Indy 500 winner Newgarden rounded out the front row with a four-lap run at 233.808 mph

The only other time in Indy 500 history the same team swept the front row was 1988 with Rick Mears on pole, Danny Sullivan in the middle and Al Unser on the outside of Row 1.

Mention the scandal to Penske, and he sits up straighter in his chair and looks directly into your eyes to give his response.

“The storyline to me is over. It was certainly over once we did our, really, review of what happened,” Penske said. “I’ll repeat it again. We went back and eight months ago, we put software in the cars and we’re doing durability testing on hybrid back at Sebring.

“Unfortunately, because of a process failure, that software was not taken out of the car. But ironically, anybody in the pit lane, any officials could see that if we had it, that we had it once they saw it at Long Beach.

“And there was no reason or no way where we would try to hide something of this.

“On the other hand, it certainly was our problem from the standpoint of communication to Newgarden and his team, that it shouldn’t be used. He pressed the button 26 times a year ago, just to see if it was on.

“Of course, he did this and took advantage of it, which, obviously, he was penalized, the win taken away from him and some points and certainly financial impact.

“Scott hit it once and never did it again.

“And guess what? Will Power never used it at all, but the fact that he was on our team and the information was in his car. He also got docked points.

“So, to me, no malicious intent. I realize people want to make a story out of it. As far as I’m concerned, the case is closed. We went on to Barber. We sat on the pole, ran 1-2 there, had a good run on the road course and our goal here is to win No. 20.”

The 107th Running of Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MAY 28: Josef Newgarden, driver of the #2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet, poses for a photo in victory lane after winning the 107th Running of Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Roger Penske celebrating Indy 500 win No. 19 in 2023 — Getty Images

The No. 20 would be Team Penske extending its Indy 500 victory record to 20 if one of the three drivers starting in the front row wins on Sunday.

“I would say all three drivers are on it, I wouldn’t say one is better than the other,” Penske said. “Only one can win a race on the team on the weekend. We are very fortunate to have the experience. Scott hasn’t won the 500, the other two drivers have, but I think he is a very good candidate to win this year.

“We have a very deep bench. Jonathan Diuguid came over from our Porsche program and takes the week-and-a-half to be the lead guy on Josef Newgarden’s car.

“He has a very steady hand.”

A 20th Indianapolis 500 win is very important to Roger Penske. But when asked directly if that would complete his auto racing quest and give him a grand number to celebrate like no other, Penske smiled.

“Well, 20 is an important number when you have 19, but let me tell you this – there’s 32 other cars out there that want to be sure we don’t win,” Penske said. “We’re going to do our best.

“I think it’s the pride that goes with winning the Indy 500.”

To Penske, the work is never over, it’s onto the next project.

And there are many projects that Penske and IndyCar need to complete, fending off some team owners, such as Michael Andretti, who have been vocal, wanting Penske to do even more.

“Well, there’s some people. who think we haven’t done anything, but I guess that’s the chosen few,” Penske fired back. “From my perspective, we’re continuing to invest in the series.

“Certainly, the promoters are having record crowds, so I think they’re now in gear. I think what we have to do now is execute the full year.

“We’ve to get our TV contract done. Hopefully we have some other opportunities that will make the series even better as we go forward.

“The charter system, obviously, is something we’re in discussion with the car owners. It takes time. It’s complicated, but we hope to have a deal put together over maybe the next couple of months.”

On Sunday, weather permitting, Penske is going to step up to the microphone on the stage at Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to give the command, “Drivers, start your engines” to begin the 108th Indianapolis 500.

Roger Penske with Tony Hulman in 1971

Roger Penske with Tony Hulman in 1971

Roger Penske (left) with Tony Hulman (right) in 1971.

He follows the tradition that included IMS President Wilbur Shaw, owner Tony Hulman, his widow Mari Fendrich Hulman, Mary Hulman George and her son, Tony George.

“It’s an honor,” Penske said. “When you think about the people, Tony Hulman particularly, Mary Hulman George, Tony George and the rest of the people that really carried this track to where it is today to be part of that select group.

“It’s exciting and I’m looking forward to being a part of it again in 2024.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500