Indianapolis Monthly

MAY DAY

ROGER PENSKE, honorable member of the Handshake Generation, does not grandly sweep into the conference room at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or even pause in the doorway for people to take a gander. He enters on a beeline, in a logoed navy pullover that matches the bespoke suit pants. No suit coat. He greets the room before sitting at the head of the table and gives a nod indicating he’s ready to go to work. Only then does his presence really register: Roger Penske, the 83-year-old racing legend, trucking mogul, owner of the Speedway, of the IndyCar Series. Known as “The Captain” to employees and fans alike, he looks fit, if you can say that about a man his age, alert, quick on his feet, silver-haired, and a little tan. Penske owns the room. Literally, of course. He also owns everything visible in the view out the window. The grandstand. The track. The pits. The Pagoda. The miles of new fencing. The ladders, the carts, the tarps, the hand-trucks, and dumpsters. Even the trees. A thousand acres yawning in the middle of a town named to signify this place. Speed-way. The Speedway. All of it right outside the window. His. So it can be said: Penske enters like a boss.

Penske has commuted from his home in suburban Detroit to work a pair of back-to-back 12-hour days at the track and to discuss the slate of improvements here in advance of his first Indianapolis 500 as its owner. The race itself—its somewhat cryptic qualification process, a complicated joy to motorheads everywhere—will be unchanged. High-priced luxury seating, the bread and butter of revenue production for sports franchises everywhere, will go unexpanded. Penske is focusing squarely on the average ticketholder. “I’m interested in the guy who walks in and buys tickets for his family on race day, or just before,” he says. His father bought tickets that way almost 70 years ago. Penske himself has owned a set of four tickets since the mid-’70s. He speaks with the assurance that the work he’s ordered up will be appreciated by loyal racegoers. Lord knows there will be a lot of them.

Outside, workers are trimming the arbors, running fiber optics, and yanking old sinks from the dark cinderblocked restrooms. Penske rolls his palm up. “I tell people, before this, we owned the track on the inside,” he says. “Owned it. We won the race 18 times. I can say that the racing product—what’s inside the track, the track itself, the pits—all of that is first-class, as good as anywhere in the world. The best it’s ever been from the standpoint of any car, any owner. That was already here. We purchased that.”

Now, he says, he has to regard everything from the outside in, look at the edges of the place and work his way in. From the fence line, through the gates, past the bleachers, beyond the grandstand, over the pits. Inward, from end to end. In the weeks before the purchase, “I walked the thousand acres,” he says. “I’ve driven it a hundred times. What we’ve got to do is to be sure the entire facility meets those standards—the standards of the racing—on the full thousand acres.”

He looks back to me. “When I look at the track, I see the 230,000 seats. I don’t see ‘revenue-producing opportunities.’ Those seats are nothing

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