At 86, IndyCar’s Roger Penske still full speed at the helm as a racing and business icon
ST PETERSBURG, Florida – Roger Penske turned 86 on Feb. 20.
He certainly isn’t letting age slow him down.
“We feel very good about it,” Penske told NBC Sports as the season gets ready to kick off with Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. “Our organization and our people are fully committed, and we can’t wait to go racing.”
The chairman of the Penske Corporation and owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 is a man constantly on the move.
His office transporter in the driver/owner motorhome lot on the grounds of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg features a constant trail of business leaders, sponsors, team owners and other high-powered types that come by for meetings.
As one of the leading businessmen and industrialists in North America, Penske’s passion project has always been auto racing. And nobody has done that better than the man from Shaker Heights, Ohio, who spent time at Culver Military Academy in northern Indiana before he became a stellar student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
When his father, Jay, took Penske to the 1951 Indianapolis 500, the young lad was hooked on the greatest sporting spectacle in motorsports. He would ultimately become a championship sports car racer in the late 1950s and early 1960s before stepping out of the driver’s seat to begin a business career as a Chevrolet dealer in Philadelphia.
SEASON OPENER: Details for watching the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this weekend
Instead of driving the race car, Penske became a team owner in 1966. Since that time, Penske Racing – now known as Team Penske – has created a record unmatched in all of auto racing.
That includes 17 IndyCar championships, 18 Indianapolis 500 victories, 231 IndyCar race victories and 43 championships in all forms of racing. His NASCAR Cup Series team has won the championship three times, including Brad Keselowski in 2012 and Joey Logano in 2018 and ’22.
With Will Power winning last year’s NTT IndyCar Series championship for the second time in his career and Logano winning his second NASCAR Cup Series championship, Penske claimed yet another first. It was the first time the same team won the two biggest prizes in North American motorsport.
This year with Porsche Penske Motorsport, he hopes to claim one of the final goals on the list – his first victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
This will be the fourth season with Penske at the helm as the owner of IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and at an age when most people are retired, Penske remains as sharp as ever when it comes to running the business.
“Every time Roger Penske arrives at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he has a new spring in his step,” Penske Corporation President Bud Denker told NBC Sports inside Penske’s motorhome office Saturday afternoon in St. Petersburg. “The man is revitalized and refreshed and serves as an incredible inspiration to all of us.”
This is a big year for Penske and IndyCar. He has big goals and ambitions for IndyCar and for the 107th Indy 500.
The season will begin Sunday with a track-record 27 cars on the starting grid for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
“To see the number of teams, the new drivers, the liveries and the competitiveness through the entire field is just amazing,” Penske told NBC Sports. “We have gone through our marketing plans for 2023, our tune-in campaign, we will spend several million dollars to create more interest. Our ‘100 Days to Indy’ docuseries are all marketing and PR things to do to make the series more exciting for our customers and fans to continue to grow.
“From an IndyCar perspective, our team is in place. Jay Frye (IndyCar President) and his whole team are ready. We have leadership with Mark Miles and Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles to make it more exciting for our fans this May for the Indianapolis 500 and the month of May.”
Penske purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from the Hulman George Family on Nov. 4, 2019. He had big goals and ambitions for 2020, but those plans were scrapped because of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
Penske had to quickly regroup. He spent millions to keep IndyCar afloat and had to run the 104th Indianapolis 500 without fans on Aug. 23, 2020.
On May 11, the COVID emergency in the United States will be over and IndyCar is stronger than it was before the pandemic started.
“America is open now,” Penske said. “COVID was a time in our lifetime we all forget. People had tragedies in their families and businesses. Things seem to be getting back to normal.
“From a racing perspective, there is a lot of pent-up demand. People that couldn’t come to the races are going to be there. Tickets sales for our races are up and for the Indianapolis 500, ticket sales are up over last year, and people are waiting in line to get suites.
“These are all good observations. Based on current orders and the forecast from our partners and new sponsors wanting to come in, things look very positive for us going into 2023.”
Meanwhile, Penske revealed even more changes are coming to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the fabled track he tirelessly has been sprucing up (from the grandstands to the infield grass) for more than three years.
“We have spent almost $30 million more in capital expenditures at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and people will see some differences there in 2023,” he said.
Penske believes having 13 of the 17 races on the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series schedule on NBC is vital.
To support that, IndyCar will have a “tune-in” campaign in selected markets to help increase interest in the telecast and generate a higher rating.
“The opportunity to have our races on network is key for us to get the eyeballs and interest in IndyCar,” Penske said. “Our marketing campaign features individual drivers to support each one of the races with individual spots talking about the excitement about the upcoming race weekend.
“A very comprehensive marketing and PR program is being put together as we start the season going into St. Pete.”
Penske has invested millions into the new marketing campaign but also shared that responsibility with the IndyCar team owners through the Leaders Circle program that rewards full-time participation in the series with the top 22 entries.
“When you look at our program from a marketing standpoint, it will be somewhere around $17 million when you think about the real number going into marketing with a lot of that spend early on,” Penske said.
On Saturday, Penske Entertainment President Mark Miles announced that each Leader’s Circle entrant would receive $150,000 less than last year with that money being invested into the aggressive marketing effort.
“It wasn’t voluntary, but we sort of polled the teams on the idea that we might reduce by about $150,000 per leader circle entry, a total of $3.3 million, to further extend our investment,” Miles said. It’s a minority share of our investment for the whole thing.”
One of the key pillars of that marketing campaign is the docuseries “100 Days to Indy” that will air on The CW beginning April 27 and produced by VICE Media. It is an attempt to help create some of the same magic that Formula One has experienced with “Drive to Survive” on Netflix.
“Having six episodes prior to the Indy 500 is going to so important to drive people to our sport to show them the inside, not just what happens on the track,” Penske said. “VICE and The CW are fully committed along with the teams. I’m going to be very interested to see the outcome.
“We are doing everything we can to make it great. We know what ‘Drive to Survive’ did for Formula One and we hope we get the same kind of bump from our fans with ‘100 Days to Indy.’ ”
Penske knows it is very important to create a new generation of IndyCar fans with demos and new sponsors. He wants to ensure that the series continues to grow under the Penske Corp. stewardship.
Penske has other projects that he has brought to IndyCar including the “Race for Equality and Change” diversity effort and an active role in creating a sustainable future for IndyCar with a goal of reducing the carbon footprint.
Firestone is using an alternate tire made from guayule that is harvested in the southwest.
Shell has created a racing fuel that is made from 100 percent biodegradable sugar cane waste.
Under Penske’s guidance, IndyCar has become one of the world’s most sustainable racing series. But it’s competition that fuels Penske’s racing passion.
In 2022, Penske got to celebrate two major racing championships in the same season with Power in IndyCar and Logano in the NASCAR Cup Series.
“Every championship is important, and you don’t get credit for the ones you had in the past,” Penske said. “To see Will win the championship and then Joey win at Phoenix starting on the pole, he made it happen on race day and that was super.
“It’s a team effort,” Penske said. “When you think about the cross-pollination of information between all the drivers, it’s a key. Will had a great season. He overcame adversity and was able to come back from that, starting back in the field, kept his head on and executed when he had to.
“Beating the all-time pole record of Mario Andretti was capping his great season. Well-deserved and he is someone you will have to beat this year.
“This year we are going to try to win three championships with Porsche Team Penske.”
Penske believes the sports car team will be a success after a slow start in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He considers the 24 Hours of Le Mans the one great gem that he wants to add to his racing collection of accomplishments.
Penske takes pride in the fact he is able to inspire people to achieve things they didn’t know they could do when it comes to business goals and challenges.
For years, he has preached that people -- not money -- are the secret to success.
“We view racing as the common thread through all of our businesses because it shows performance, transparency, integrity and hard work,” Penske said. “We use that motto and our mission plan through all our businesses.
“To me, it’s all about people. We can do a lot of the things, buy things and have them, but without the people to execute, we continue to strive within our organization longevity and people that want to stay with the company and perform.
“Typically, we build our organization from the bottom up, not for the top down.
“We push our people. No one is ever ready. It’s a chance to give them the opportunity. We don’t have a business where anybody fails, either. We are in a position where you need to produce. If you don’t, we can step back and find out why.
“Maybe there is another position for you.”
Penske has built his empire through the automotive business. He has used racing as the connecting thread through all his business interests and entities.
It’s a winning strategy that continues to keep Penske on the move at 86.
“People in racing understand the cost of our sport is realistic,” Penske said. “We are not driving these costs into the sky. The opportunity for teams to come in through Indy NXT and then IndyCar is important.
“We are seeing sponsorship. People want to be behind these teams. They see great drivers. There are a lot of drivers coming here that see this is a stepping stone to the future. That makes me feel very good that we have this platform. But the most important thing is one word: