Why Penske Buying IndyCar Is Such A Big Deal

Photo: Brian Lawdermilk (Getty)

When the news broke on Monday that both IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would be bought by racing team owner Roger Penske, everyone knew it was big. Sure, sports teams get sold to families all the time—but not whole sports, and not a family that doesn’t already run one of the biggest teams in the sport. There’s a ton of nuance about why this whole deal is actually really important.

The History

While pretty much everyone was shocked about the suddenness of this deal and the fact that nothing about it was leaked to the media, Roger Penske’s track record suggests that this wasn’t a complete and total off-the-wall idea.

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Roger Penske has been involved in racing since the late 1950s when he started out buying and selling race cars. In the decade that followed, he entered two Formula One races, won a NASCAR Late Model race, was offered a test for the Indianapolis 500, and retired from racing to establish both his own dealerships and his own racing team.

In 1969, Penske entered his team in the Indy 500 for the first time and in 1972, his team won that race with Mark Donohue. In 1979, when tensions were high and dissatisfaction was growing with USAC’s sanctioning of the Indy 500, Penske was one of the founders of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), a series that split from IndyCar, and which was intended to make it far easier for team owners and drivers to have a say in otherwise draconian sporting regulations. Penske rode the wave of CART’s success, before joining rival oval-based racing series Indy Racing League full time in 2003. Penske was there when American open-wheel racing reunified in 2008, and he’s been there ever since.

Long story short, Roger Penske has seen the best and worst of American open wheel racing. And if there’s anyone with the business acumen to keep a whole racing series afloat, there’s a good chance it would be the guy who also successfully fields racing teams in IndyCar, NASCAR, IMSA, and Australian Supercars.

A Turning Point

You can’t really overstate the importance of Penske buying IndyCar and IMS. It’s huge. I’d argue that it’s the biggest news in American open-wheel racing in the last five decades—even bigger than The Split and the reunification.

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Rumors about selling IMS and/or IndyCar pop up just about every year. There have been rumors that International Speedway Corporation, which owns many NASCAR and IndyCar tracks, would acquire IMS. There were rumors that Liberty Media, who purchased Formula One, would buy the series. NASCAR itself, Comcast, the Disney Corporation, and George Steinbrenner have all been hinted as being potential buyers, too.

Ultimately, though, you need a buyer who gives a shit. You need a buyer who wholeheartedly cares. And you also need a buyer with a lot of money. I love IndyCar, but I also have to be honest—TV ratings, attendance figures, and sponsorships just aren’t there. IndyCar isn’t really good business; it’s a passion project. It depends on having someone in charge who’s going to put their whole heart and soul and a hell of a lot of cash into injecting a little life back into the thing. And there’s not really anyone who could do that aside from Penske himself.

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Talking Business

Roger Penske has a $1.6 billion net worth, according to Forbes, and his company brings in over $20 billion in revenue annually. While IndyCar’s revenue—like most racing series—is kept under wraps, there’s a pretty good chance that it doesn’t even begin to touch Penske’s.

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But in this case, that’s a good thing. American open-wheel racing has been tempestuous at best throughout its entire history. IndyCar has been reunified for just over ten years. Who the hell is going to go out of their way to invest in a series known for a history of bad decisions and financial hemorrhaging?

Penske, though, brings a notion of stability. This is a man you can count on—a man whose business has withstood even the wildest blows thrown at it. Roger Penske is a name you can trust, in racing.

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From Racer:

Based on the current state of limited engagement by major companies, Penske would have a hard time making a case for new owners to join the series. Millions are needed to acquire a single car, engine, and tires before a wheel is turned. And with that chassis sitting primed and ready to race, millions more are required to hit the championship trail from March through September.

Teams with all the cars and personnel strive to hit the $6 million mark for each entry, and while that number is relatively tiny positioned next to a NASCAR budget, the problem is unchanged. Whether it’s bringing in more money to the series, delivering sponsorship leads for teams to pursue, or driving costs down to a more attainable sum, a heavy revision to IndyCar’s economics sits at the center of this issue.

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Motorsport is a big capitalist money-pit, and IndyCar’s biggest problem is that no one has really found it valuable enough to sink in enough funding to really get its feet back on the ground. At least with Penske in the mix, investors and sponsors have a business mind that they can actually imagine helping the sport.

Conflicts Of Interest

Penske maintains that, despite the fact that he runs a team in the series he now also owns, he isn’t setting himself up for a conflict of interest. But Penske is already making moves to alleviate concerns, according to Autoweek.

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Perhaps most shocking is the fact that Penske is stepping down from the pit box and will no longer be calling races—something that hasn’t happened since he was fielding Mark Donohue in countless races a year back in the late 60s and early 70s. That’s pretty huge. Instead, he has promoted Team Penske president Tim Cindric to lead in his place.

Penske is also separating the sanctioning body away from the IndyCar series itself, creating what would essentially be a separate company that Penske doesn’t have a say in. Instead, he’s just going to be focusing on the money and business side of things as opposed to monkeying around with rules that could theoretically give his team an advantage.

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Other IndyCar series team owners have stated that they’re totally okay with things, the Indy Star reports:

“I’m actually going to sleep better at night knowing Roger is at the helm,” said Michael Shank, co-owner of Meyer Shank Racing[...]“He’s built his whole life on ethics at the highest level.”

“My ease speaks to Roger’s character more than anything,” said George Steinbrenner IV, the grandson of the late longtime owner of the New York Yankees and current co-owner of Colton Herta’s IndyCar ride. “Roger’s been around 50 years and has such a sparkling reputation for a very real reason with the way he’s gone about things.

“There’s obvious things you can point to that could be seen as worrying, but that speaks to his character and how he’s run his operation the last 50 years. You think about it for a short second, and then you realize, ‘No, it’s Roger, no we’re fine.’”

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Longtime racers and team owners A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti have both put their support behind Penske, too.

Other Benefits

Rumors are currently flying about all the possible things that could happen now that The Captain is in charge—but there are no guarantees or promises. Given Penske’s stance on sporting regulations in the past, though, here are some things we might be able to expect:

So, Is This A Good Thing?

I’m no psychic, but: yes. Probably. I think we’re going to be able to say this is a good thing. For the first time in a long time, IndyCar and IMS have someone at the helm who not only intimately knows American open-wheel racing but who can also procure the funds and connections necessary to revamping the series. He has skin in the game, so to speak—but he’s probably the only person alive who can direct IndyCar into an actually successful future.

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What IndyCar needs right now more than ever is a boost in both its finances and its legitimacy. If anyone can provide both in a one-two punch, it would be Roger Penske.

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About the author

Elizabeth Blackstock

Staff writer. Motorsport fanatic. Proud owner of a 2013 Mazda 2.