One of Dan Gurney’s favorite phrases when discussing the present or future fortunes of his beloved IndyCar racing was: “Nobody is going to make any difference unless he’s got some skin in the game.” The Big Eagle knew from where he spoke, because it was his famous White Paper that was the impetus for CART taking over from USAC in the late 1970s to bring American open-wheel racing into the 20th century.
And it was Roger Penske, with financial support from Pat Patrick, that took the lead and secured CART a TV contract, tracks to race on and put together a staff and a plan. Like Gurney, he knew IndyCar racing was floundering outside of the Indianapolis 500, so he put his money where he mouth was and where his passion always bubbled over.
Kinda like right now.
The fact Penske purchased IMS and IndyCar isn’t just the biggest news of the 50 years I’ve covered this sport, it’s also the best news. Because if anyone can make IndyCar more relevant 11 months of the year, increase the purses for the Indy 500 and the series, secure another engine manufacturer, and put the right people in the right places with a master plan for success, it’s The Captain.
It wasn’t sold to NASCAR, or ISC, or Disney, or Comcast – someone with no connection to the blood, sweat and tears of 16th & Georgetown. It was sold to a billionaire that is a titan of business who treasures his Indy 500 Oldtimer’s hat just as much as one of his private jets.
“I’ve been giddy all day because this is such great news,” said Mario Andretti. “A lot of us knew the Speedway has been for sale for over a year, and can you imagine this falling into the wrong hands? Some rich guy with no ties to racing buys it and is going to reinvent the wheel? I always look at the big picture, and the timing for this is as good as it could be.
“I don’t know anybody who loves the Speedway or the sport more than Roger, and no-one has more skin the game. He knows the big picture, he’s got the respect of all other competitors and this is going to be the jewel of his accomplishments. It’s the oldest top-level series on the planet and now he’s the head of it. He’s got control and this time there is going to be a vision – not just a word.”
Without rehashing the past 25 years, the Hulman/George family had taken Indy and IndyCar about as far as it could. After Tony George merged Champ Car with his Indy Racing League in 2008, he was removed from power by his family and the free flow of money to teams, tracks, drivers and purses was cut off. They weren’t investing any more money and The Leader’s Circle usurped all the purse money, so today a victory anywhere but Indianapolis barely pays the weekend tire bill, and the Indy 500 payout has been stagnant and paltry for a decade.
Mark Miles and Jay Frye understand the economics aren’t where they need to be, but they can’t write a check and make things better. And as positive as things have been under their reign, they can’t walk into a boardroom of a major corporation and dazzle shareholders or CEOs like The Captain can. His fingers reach deep into American and international business, and you can bet he’ll find a marketing magician that can give the iconic race a big-time title sponsor or find a way to give the series an infusion of cash to help the car owners. And help Frye find that third engine manufacturer.
“I’d rather see Roger buy it than anyone else, because he cares and he knows everything about our business,” said Indy’s icon A.J. Foyt.
And it’s not that Tony and his sisters didn’t care or have passion. They just didn’t have the wherewithal or expertise to grow it. But this was anything but a hostile takeover.
“I talked to Tony and Nancy (George) and they’re pretty emotional, but they feel very much at peace this happened in the right direction,” continued Andretti. “They know R.P. will respect the legacy of the track, and you’ve got to have a strong series to benefit Indy, and I think this is the best news we could ever have regarding that.”
Miles added: “It was an unanimous vote among the board.”
Of course I’ve always said that if R.P. followed Bernie Ecclestone’s path, he would have sold his racing teams and just run IndyCar. As big as CART became by the ‘90s, it would have dusted NASCAR and The Split might never have happened. But he was a racer and had no desire to just be the boss. Yet when he owned Michigan, Nazareth and Fontana, there was always a rumor he was going to purchase IMS.
“No. Not true,” responded Penske late Monday. “I had too much on my plate, and I couldn’t have afford it anyhow. This came out of the blue and we got it all done in six weeks. It was the fast-track, and this a great day in my life.”
Everyone is guessing at the price tag ($2 billion was the popular number Monday) but nobody has a clue except Penske, Miles, Mitch Daniels and the board of directors, and they ain’t talkin’. But like his impressive makeovers at Detroit Diesel and Hertz Truck Leasing, you can count on The Captain to upgrade the facility, the experience for the fans, and hopefully, the bottom line.
“In the big picture, Indy and IndyCar are going to benefit from it, and team ownership could also benefit, and the wealth totally lost from The Split could be brought back,” said Andretti. “He needs success because that’s what he’s all about.”
Then the 1969 Indy winner then framed the past with the future.
“When moribund USAC was dying on the vine, Roger formed CART with a vision. He brought IndyCar to the glory days until it was fractured. He’s got a beautiful history of having been successful. And that’s why I’m so giddy about today’s news.”