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A new car, the field of 33, succession plan: Roger Penske addresses IndyCar’s big issues

Roger Penske IndyCar

INDIANAPOLIS – Even at 85, Roger Penske is always on to the next racing project in IndyCar.

Once Sunday’s 106th Indy 500 is complete, the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series will shift his focus to the next important issue that faces the sport -- but he also is willing to look back when asked.

Since taking ownership, Penske has spent more than $30 million upgrading the “World’s Greatest Race Course.” As he prepared for the first full-capacity Indy 500 since 2019, Penske had to make many difficult decisions.

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One was dropping the Freedom 100 from the Carb Day schedule. The Indy Lights race produced some of the most thrilling finishes in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history.

The last Freedom 100 was held in 2019 when the Hulman-George family still owned IMS. It was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic the past two years and left off the schedule for 2022, which led many race fans to ask, “Why?”

“It’s one word,” Penske told NBC Sports. “Safety. We just can’t have those cars running at the speeds. A lot of people haven’t had the experience on ovals.

“We want to keep the Indy 500 weekend (about the Indy 500), not some other race. It takes away from the history and the iconic impact that it makes for the sport.”

Penske also addressed why IndyCar has no plan for a new car in the near future.

The current Dallara tub and chassis was introduced in 2012 and has undergone various iterations with aerodynamic parts and pieces. Since the introduction of the aeroscreen in 2020, some drivers have lobbied that the design update of a new car is sorely needed to address the extra weight of the safety device.

“We don’t need a new car right now,” Penske said. “We need to do one big job at a time. We’re coming out with a 2.4-engine. Both manufacturers have run them successfully at this point. The hybrid will be the next piece of that. It’s going to be evolutionary for the cars. We’re going to add things to make them safer, potentially faster.

“To me, at the end of the day, we’re talking about the team and we’re talking about the driver, I’m not sure the people in the stands care about what car it is, they want to see their driver and team on the track.

“I’m not in a hurry. We pushed the rules in Indy Lights out a few more years. We need to have cars and lower costs. If you took the 33 cars times two, that’s 67 cars and each car is $400,000 to $500,000, you are talking $25 to $30 million to come up with before you have any spares.

“I don’t see that happening in today’s economy.”

Long-term, IndyCar is preparing for the Hybrid Assist Engine, which was set to take the track in 2023 but was delayed to 2024 because of supply chain issues.

Penske believes IndyCar always must keep pace with the direction of the automotive industry.

“Hybrid technology is the bridging technology to the future,” Penske said. “I don’t think you will see every manufacturer only produce completely electric vehicles for a long time. The products are good. They will always be more expensive. You look at the infrastructure. There are so many things there.

“We have made a commitment on the hybrid side. We were limited to bring it in 2023 because of the supply chain. We are now getting pieces we couldn’t get before.

“We are not taking a year off, because we pushed it out. We are actually working harder to make sure the product is viable.”

This year, there were just enough entries to make it to 33 this year. That meant no “Bump Day” but there was a good reason for that.

The full-time field for most NTT IndyCar Series races has increased to 26-28 cars. Teams that used to field an extra entry for the Indy 500 are fielding extra full-time teams in every IndyCar race.

In a sense, the Indy 500 entry list became a victim of IndyCar’s success, particularly with a team member personnel shortage.

“I think 33 is history, but it’s a good problem to have because it shows you the quality of the existing teams,” Penske said. “We supported Beth Paretta and had an extra car last year. That’s two extra cars that we don’t have this year that came from our own team.

“We’re thrilled with the quality of the field. There is nobody in there that won’t have a good shot at a top finish. You can see the qualifying at the other races prior to Indy have been very, very close.

“It’s a moot point for me. We want to make a better show for the crowd with teams that have experience and bring cars in and new drivers from Indy Lights, we want to have this pipeline and the support series is key to bring in new mechanics and sponsors. We want to connect the two series as much as we can.”

IndyCar continues its neverending search for a third engine manufacturer (OEM) to join Chevrolet and Honda.

“We’ve been in discussion with OEM’s,” Penske said. “We’ve been close, but at the moment, I have nothing to report. We have a few that have been closer than others, and we’re looking at a couple of new ones, too.”

This is also the final year for the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix of Belle Isle. The Penske Corp. is also the promoter of that event. Next year, the race return to the streets of downtown Detroit.

“Detroit is important to me because it’s my hometown,” Penske said. “Bud Denker and Michael Montri have taken that whole project, Belle Isle, and IndyCar racing to the top. To have the excitement downtown in Detroit where we used to have a Formula One race and we have the success we used to see at Portland and in Toronto and Nashville, the city council and the mayor were really excited about having it downtown. It will be close to over 200 businesses and running through downtown that will create a tremendous amount of economic benefit.”

NASCAR has been discussing adding street races to the schedule.

Could a NASCAR race one day be part of the Detroit Grand Prix?

“Not that I know of,” Penske said. “It’s not on our books.”

Penske also discussed Formula One’s dramatic U.S. growth, which is largely attributable to the “Drive to Survive” show on Netflix.

IndyCar has been investigating the prospect of a reality-based show, but Penske notes the goal isn’t to mimic F1. He would rather make IndyCar the best series that it can be without trying to be something that it isn’t.

“I think we have two different businesses,” Penske said. “They are running about the world, and we are running in the United States. Ours is a U.S. series. They see the benefit of running in the U.S. They see the benefit of running in the U.S. and have three races in the United States. I think that is great.

“‘Drive to Survive’ has been a tremendous asset to them. They are talking to people they have never talked to before. We are looking for different types of opportunities. We haven’t announced anything yet, but we haven’t shut out that opportunity. There are people out there that want to do something with us and develop a product to communicate with the fans.”

Now that IndyCar has navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, how does Penske plan on expanding the series?

“What we need to do at IndyCar, and Indianapolis is understand what the base is,” Penske said. “We’ve been unable to calculate the base from January 2020 when we bought the track, series and IMSP. As we end 2022, we will have a much better idea.

“Then we can look at other things to support our race product for the future.”

As the owner of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Penske has kept a safe distance from the Team Penske operation he continues to own. From time to time, he will wander down to the pit area, but he stays off the top step of the timing stand by intention.

“I just want to be sure there is a Chinese wall, and the competitors realize I have nothing to do with how the race is conducted,” Penske said. “Since we bought the series, I’ve never been in race control. The commitment is building our brand. I know the drivers on my team, and I’m rooting for them.

“Someone had to take this role. Someone had to make the investment. I did it because I love the sport. I knew both sides. I’ve been a track owner before with Michigan and California and Homestead and have also competed in many different types of racing.

“I think I’ve landed in the right spot, personally. Our family and our goal are to take the series and the Speedway to the next level. Tony Hulman and his family did a terrific job as stewards. We need to take that base and try to make it better.”

Penske admits he gets to play full-time team owner when he attends NASCAR Cup Series and Xfinity Series races where he can become more involved.

“That’s right,” he said. “I used to be up in the spotter’s stand, and they won’t let us up there anymore. I love going there.”

Though Penske has an incredibly sharp business mind, he has surrounded himself with outstanding talent. Two new additions came with Penske’s purchase of IMS: Mark Miles and IMS President Doug Boles.

“I’ve known Doug Boles since when he worked for Panther Racing,” Penske said. “A terrific guy. His heart is at the Speedway. He’s there every day. There is no better guy than to be president of the Speedway. To me, Mark Miles came into the Hulman Company and brought a sense of leadership to the company to support the family. They put together a great board. The outcome, we were the benefactors with being able to buy the asset, but I wouldn’t know what to do without them.

“The level of respect for them has grown. I knew they were good. We almost road-tested them because we were on the other side of the street and had to work with them every day. They are high integrity. They are hard workers, too, and very transparent.

“The series, the Speedway, our sponsors are all lucky to have the people we have at the helm. There are others who fall into that category, too.”

Penske realizes he never really will retire, because he loves the challenge that comes from running businesses around the world.

But, when the day comes that Roger Penske is no longer around, who will run the business of the Penske Corp. and Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

Greg Penske is a key member of running his father’s business empire and Roger Penske Jr. owns several automotive dealerships. Another son, Jay, has created a booming media empire of his own.

Mark is another son and daughter Kathryn Blair is Penske’s youngest.

“As Greg knows and Roger Jr. and the rest of my family knows, we have professional people that run these businesses,” Penske said. “We have included the family as directors in these businesses. They have been involved from a strategic standpoint. I would expect that is what we would do in the future.

“There isn’t one family member that will take over the enterprise at this point. At that point, it’s a matter of managing those people over time with the knowledge you have. The enterprise is significant, and there should always be Penske people that have the ability to reach into the organization and ask questions.

“That is what I expect our family to do.”

At 85, Penske continues a pace that would exhaust people half his age. He sleeps 3-4 hours a night and discovered early in life the fact he doesn’t require much sleep is a gift because it gives him more time to get things done.

“I’m used to not a lot of sleep, but when I get it, I sleep well,” Penske said. “What I love about my job is every day is different. When you get into that mode is when you are doing the same thing every single day.

“The good news for me is we have such a varied group of companies, customers, and challenges, that is what gets me up every morning. I don’t get up in the morning not knowing I have a lot to do, and then things change when you walk into the office.

“That’s the fun I’m having every day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500