During the 51 years I’ve covered IndyCar racing, I’ve had a few battles with Roger S. Penske. We screamed at each other during the national anthem back at Pocono in the early ‘80s about something I’d written, and there were a couple instances when he had a right to be mad because I hadn’t given him a proper chance to respond. I also wrote a column once that said I could not stomach seeing him take one more victory lap at Indianapolis. And that was in 1988.
Throughout our relationship, I’ve always said he is the smartest man I’ve ever met, and treated his accomplishments with the respect they deserve. By the same token, no matter if we were feuding, he always treated me professionally – be it a parking place, return phone call or a quick two minutes on television. As we’ve grown older, I think I’ve come to appreciate his body of work like nobody else’s.
But the one thing I could never imagine would be feeling sorry for The Captain. He’s got it all, and earned his wealth and global clout with hard work, an eye for detail, a great mind, and by surrounding himself with good people. Yet since he bought IMS and IndyCar back in January, R.P. constantly has been besieged by obstacles. The coronavirus cut down the season-opener, and then proceeded to wreak havoc on the rest of the schedule – eliminating the month of May altogether. He made a deal that cost him money to run the first race at Texas with no fans because he knew IndyCar had to get out in front of people after eight months in mothballs.
Earlier this month, here on RACER.com, he guaranteed the 104th Indianapolis 500 would be run “only with fans”, and then last week announced IMS will be able to accommodate 50 percent of its capacity on August 23rd. Judging by some of my mail and text messages, you’d have thought he was suggesting replacing “Back Home Again in Indiana” with “Helter Skelter”, or moving Turn 2 to Winton Avenue.
Race fans amaze me. They’re constantly bitching and moaning about something, and now Penske is catching some of their wrath because he dared to try and figure out a way to stage the race in front of live bodies while adhering to the social distancing policy. First they whined that Indy wouldn’t have any spectators, and now they’re pissed because it can only be half-full. And if you’re not comfortable with what the pandemic may look like in two months, then IMS gave you the option of just applying your 2020 ticket money to 2021. That sounds pretty fair to me.
“The feedback I’ve gotten so far is quite positive,” said Penske on Sunday morning as he worked from his home office. “You know, we had to get in front of this and couldn’t wait until August 15 to make a decision, and we wanted to give the fans either an opportunity to go to the race, or to give them credit. We’re doing everything we can to make it a quality experience in the face of all the hurdles.”
There is no formula yet for where ticket holders will end up and won’t be until the head count is determined this week.
“People with more than two tickets probably have to be reassigned,” continued Penske. “I think everybody who has seats that wants to come will be taken care of, and they’ll be satisfied with our approach and the outcome. We think once we have the opportunity to access people’s interest, we’ll do our best to put them in areas they can be comfortable with.”
The Speedway has 232,000 permanent seats, not counting suites, hospitality and The Pagoda, plus another 3,100 seats outside the Tower Suites. And you also have general admission in the infield, so it’s feasible to get something approaching 125,000 on race day. But there are not as many Indy 500 ticket holders as people might imagine.
“The average ticket holder has between four and five seats, so that puts the number at about 50,000,” responded IMS president Doug Boles when asked about a number. “Nobody is going to get split up with two tickets, and we’ll do what we can to keep people with three together in or near their normal seats.
“We know it’s hard on everybody, especially the fans with the same seats for so many years, but obviously this is new territory for all of us, and we appreciate their understanding.”
Asked if there was any kind of drop-dead-date for postponing to October, Penske replied: “No, we’ve committed to have it in August in a rational and safe way. Obviously it’s a big enough place we can have realistic social distancing guidelines for the health and safety of fans.”
A decision on honoring bronze badges or crediting them for people who are not going won’t be made until after this weekend’s Brickyard 400, and without a concert or Indy Lights race, it would appear Carb Day’s attendance won’t present a problem. But those who do make it to practice, qualifying, Carb Day or the race will be blown away by what they see. Penske has spent a ton of money putting up new fencing, adding 28 video boards, widening the spectator’s walkway on Georgetown Road, paving every road and lot (except the TV compound) inside and outside the track, re-modeling the restrooms, making the grass look like Augusta National and power washing the museum, grandstands and Gasoline Alley. It looks and feels so like a new place. Which makes The Captain’s critics seem even more pathetic.
“Look, we’ve got a great fan base, it’s generational and this race has always been for the fans,” said the man with 18 Baby Borg-Warner trophies. “It’s important for our teams and sponsors that we have this race in August, but it’s also just as important for the city of Indianapolis and the great tradition of this event.”
Penske was asked if he’d ever had second thoughts about dolling out an estimated $300 million only to have all these setbacks prevent him from enjoying his favorite month of the year?
“Not at all,” he replied. “Obviously there have been some obstacles we didn’t expect the first year, but what I found is the crown jewel, and as a family, a company and a team, I’ve never been more excited about the future.”
What should resonate with IndyCar fans is that Roger Penske is all in, and doing the best he can under some difficult circumstances. He’s here a couple times a week, and IMS is his baby. So some of you whiners need put away your pacifiers, and be real thankful he’s calling the shots.