One cannot underestimate the profound impact of Monday’s blockbuster announcement of Penske Entertainment purchasing the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NTT IndyCar Series and IMS Productions from the Hulman George family. This seismic event has been thoroughly covered by our RACER.com team of Mark Glendenning, Robin Miller and Marshall Pruett but I am still unpacking and processing what happened this week within those hallowed four corners that have defined American racing to the world since the dawn of the age of speed. A decade from now we may look back at the past seven weeks as the beginning of the pivotal period that reshaped auto racing and created new hope for the future of our sport.
This unprecedented sea change in the landscape of motorsports began with the September 19 announcement of IMSA President and COO Scott Atherton stepping down after a long and successful career that saw him first work with Don Panoz and then Jim France to revive North American sports car racing while overseeing some of the most iconic road racing racetracks in the country. His long and deeply impactful career also saw Atherton serve as central player in the publicly-run company racetrack boom in the 1990s with stints at Penske Motorsports and International Speedway Corporation before his game-changing leadership of IMSA through an era of unprecedented turbulence and challenges.
On Sunday, September 22 we could not have known that a few well-chosen words spoken by Tony George to Roger Penske would soon change the sport forever. This came on the same day The Captain celebrated Josef Newgarden’s second NTT IndyCar Series title and Team Penske’s record 16th championship in the series.
October 15 dawned with the news that Mazda Motorsports Director John Doonan had been named as the worthy successor to Scott Atherton as IMSA President and COO. Doonan shares Atherton’s deserved reputation for improving the sport as whole not just what was under his direct control. From IMSA to IndyCar to SCCA and NASA, Mazda Motorsports has been the engine of opportunity and fulfillment of the dreams of so many young racers who have changed the face of American racing.
The global racing landscape shifted again on October 18 when the long-anticipated merger of NASCAR and the International Speedway Corporation was completed and announced. This alone would be considered a defining moment for American racing as Jim and Lesa France began a major pivot for their category-leading business holdings. This long-overdue privatization allows for much-needed consolidation, repositioning and refocusing of their business. We will no doubt see the 71-year-old company move quickly to address shortcomings that have been laid bare during the past decade of decline and a cultural shift away from its original badass outlaw racer mindset. This also frees the new combined entity from a quarter-to-quarter management mentality to focus forward to a long-term strategic vision that can embrace the emergence of legalized sports betting and the looming shift of direct paid distribution of live racing events along with a diversification of entertainment offerings at their stadiums and international expansion into lucrative new markets.
When this country’s greatest racing team owner and esteemed business leader was deservedly awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Trump on October 24, little could we have all known what would come next for the man who has come to represent American excellence to the world. On Monday November 4, Roger S. Penske fulfilled his destiny by acquiring the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NTT IndyCar Series and IMS Productions.
Many will view this momentous Monday as the turning point when racing’s future was assured. I am among those and I am grateful to Roger and his family along with his great team of people at Penske Corporation for all they have done for racing during my 46 years of working professionally in the sport. One of the highlights of my career was the period when Pfanner Communications served as the agency of record for Penske Motorsports during the late 1990s. I saw firsthand how Roger and his son Greg worked with their team of exceptional people to create competitive magic while also relentlessly focusing on customers’ and stakeholders’ needs.
During this time I came to appreciate how much Roger loves our sport and how much he respects the good people whom have devoted their lives to nurturing and preserving racing. I saw this same passion, compassion and attention to racing’s fans and stakeholders from Roger’s son Greg Penske, with whom we also worked closely during this period. It is understatement to say that I grew as a person and as a businessman during this time. The lasting lesson was that quality attracts opportunity and that results are the true measure of commitment. In this light, it is telling that the great team at Hulman Motorsports that has been ably led by Mark Miles, Jay Frye and Doug Boles will be going forward with Penske Entertainment and that the Hulman George family has been offered the opportunity to become shareholders of the new company.
With these profound changes in our sport during these past seven weeks, we now have a new beginning and fresh optimism as we prepare to enter a decade that will see massive disruptions in the mobility and media sectors as well as the business models that have driven and shaped our sport. Many who work in motorsports have worried about how auto racing will remain relevant, vibrant and viable in the face of such sweeping changes to society during the decade ahead. But I take heart in the fact that racing is about learning and evolving faster than the competition. No one does this better than Roger S. Penske and few have such a complete grasp of the entire ecosystem surrounding the sport.
With so much change in racing’s landscape, anything is now possible. Never before has the racing community had such a golden opportunity to align strategies and resources for the common good. Roger Penske has the character, relationship skills and determination to make this possible and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway can continue to define racing for generations to come. From my personal experience, I know that Roger Penske lives his life knowing that the future is now. It will be fascinating and exciting to see if the rest of us can stay on the lead lap in the race to a better tomorrow for our sport.