A little more money for the regulars and a lot more consideration for the paying customers were the two main takeaways from Roger Penske’s update on the 2020 Indianapolis 500 but The Captain is also looking down the road at how to secure the foundation of the NTT IndyCar Series.
Just a couple months after his blockbuster purchase of IMS and IndyCar, Penske went over some details and improvements for the 104th running of the race he’s owned figuratively for four decades.
And it was good news for the full-time teams as well as the 200,000-plus fans that grace the Indianapolis Motor Speedway once a year.
In increasing the purse $2 million to a record $15 million (it’s been $13m for a decade), the bump was aimed at the 22 full-time competitors that comprise the Leader’s Circle.
Asked if he would consider using his vast marketing reach to find a title sponsor for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the owner whose cars have been to Victory Lane 18 times in the past 50 years instead replied:
“We need to support the 22 people who go race-to-race-to-race. When you look at the opportunity to add additional cars, this year I would assume that eight or nine additional cars will probably come from that group. So our focus is as we add to the purse, those 22 people have the opportunity to get that additional compensation.”
A year after musing about guaranteed starting spots for the full-timers, Penske said that wouldn’t happen but this was a good way to protect and serve his constituents. They will realize $125,000 extra per Leader Circle franchise, which isn’t much, but it can at least pay the tire bill for the month.
The other competition news was that the Last Row Shootout has been increased to 75 minutes on NBC. So instead of getting just one shot to bump your way into the last row like a year ago, now the teams vying for spots 31-33 can make multiple attempts under the clock.
This also gives a full-time squad another mulligan if things go awry like it did for SPM in 2018 or McLaren last May.
As for finding a third engine manufacturer, it was assumed that the man with teams powered by Chevrolet, Honda and Ford in IndyCar, IMSA and NASCAR has spent the past two months knocking on the doors of Ford, Toyota and Audi.
“To be honest, I’ve spent more time meeting with Chevrolet and Honda about extending their contracts, because that is key going forward,” said the largest Toyota dealer in North America. “I want to make sure that Honda and Chevy are in for the long term, then we can approach other OEMs to get a third manufacturer. I’ve got some candidates but the top priority today is continuing with our two partners.”
But Penske did what he promised a few months ago and listened to the fans who voiced their displeasure with either the lack of information during the race or ability to see the action — or both. So 30 large-screen video boards will be erected around the track (including 24 around paddock seating) in addition to equipping the seven screens in the infield with a constant running order.
“I think we really have to think about what goes on inside the track today. The drivers and the teams, the information we have technically at our fingertips during the race is key,” continued Penske.
“People have asked, sitting in certain parts of this Speedway, and they don’t know what’s going on so we want to do whatever is possible to make connectivity immediate for our fans.”
In addition to refurbishing 125 restrooms, IMS is also opening up the pedestrian space behind the grandstands on Georgetown Road, where there is little room to breath or walk before and after the race.
The other space a lot of us want to see opened up is in the four corners of IMS but The Captain said he had no plans to re-install the apron where Rick Mears and Michael Andretti traded the lead in 1991.
“I don’t want to tear up the track, let’s get the race run,” he said with a grin. “I think the racing has been damn good the last few years without the apron.”
And the whole experience figures to get better and better in the next few years.