How significant is the impact of Penske’s purchase of INDYCAR, IMS?

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The full shape of Roger Penske’s purchase of INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway won’t be seen for months. The final purchase from the Hulman George Family won’t be completed for the next 30 to 60 days while it gets reviewed by lawyers and approved by the government.

Beyond that, however, the future for both INDYCAR and IMS got a lot brighter.

Already on the upswing since the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 revived interest in the series, and a new television package with NBC and sponsorship with NTT went into effect in 2019, the series is now under control of one of the most successful businessmen in the world.

Penske epitomizes excellence from the boardroom to the racetrack. The Penske Corporation has revived businesses such as Detroit Diesel and is in charge of some of the most successful automotive dealerships in the country.

But it’s Team Penske and its 53 years of success that have made Roger Penske a legend.

He has a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins and 16 IndyCar “National Championships.” In all forms of racing, Team Penske has more than 545 victories and championships ranging from sports cars to two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series titles.

Success is not just celebrated; it’s expected. And that is why this acquisition is so important to INDYCAR, IMS, the Indy 500 and its future.

When Indianapolis Motor Speedway Chairman of the Board Tony George approached Penske “to talk about stewardship” of one of the greatest sporting events on Earth, Penske was “the only choice” to take control of the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

At 82, this may seem like an extremely ambitious project, but it also will be his legacy.

Under the guidance and direction of Penske, it is set to succeed. It will be operated with a look to the future while maintaining and respecting the traditions of the past.

“We have a parent now that appreciates the history of the past, knows our business inside and out and gets things done,” INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles said. “I love that Roger has said more often than not, he cares about the talent, the people around him and how hard they work, how much we can get done.”

Penske’s accomplishments have already made him a face on auto racing’s “Mount Rushmore.” On Monday, however, he has taken on a “Mount Everest” challenge.

“I’ve got a big commitment here to take over certainly as the steward of this great organization and what’s been done here in the past for so many decades,” Penske said. “It’s my commitment to the Hulman family. The fact that you would select us is an opportunity to take on this investment, it’s amazing, and I just want to thank Tony and everyone else that’s been involved in this.

“We don’t have a gymnasium full of people to bring here. When we buy a business, we look at the people, and the great thing is we’ve rubbed shoulders with many of the people here over the years, so we’ve seen this organization grow.”

Penske vows to “walk every inch” of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and make some capital improvements where needed. He hopes to improve the business and ensure its future in a manner that he has done with his other business ventures.

“I think we look at businesses that we invest in where we have domain knowledge, and I think the fact that we’ve been coming to this track for almost 50 years and seeing the growth of the series and understand the technology and it’s also a great business opportunity for us to grow it to the next level,” Penske said. “We look around these thousand acres and we say, ‘Can this be the entertainment capital, not only the racing capital of the world but entertainment capital of the world in Indiana? Will we be able to support the state, the governor, the region, the city, the town of Speedway, and continue to grow it?’

“We’re going to invest capital. We know the economic benefit today that this race brings to the region is amazing, and we want to grow that. It’s important to us.”

Penske attended his first Indianapolis 500 in 1951 as a 14-year-old with his father. He has a photo of himself sitting in the seat of an old “Roadster” show car from that day. He entered the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in 1969 and with the exception of the CART boycott years of 1996 to 2000, has been back virtually every year since.

But he considers himself “the new guy” in terms of operating and maintaining the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indy 500 and INDYCAR.

Change starts on Tuesday, according to Penske, but it will be very well-measured before any action is taken.

He is going to sit down with the current staff and get their top 10 things that can be changed, improved or protected.

“I always like to work from a top 10 and see the things that we can do to make it fan-friendly, certainly from a competitive perspective,” Penske said. “I’m planning to really step down from being a strategist on the pit box (on his IndyCar Series team). You won’t see me there on race day. I think I’ve got a bigger job to do now, is to try to see how we can build the series to the next level. It will be nice to bring another car manufacturer in. I know (INDYCAR President) Jay Frye is working on that; can we have someone else come in to join the series.

“I think we look at the speedway itself, the investment with the $100 million that was put in a few years ago before the 100th, I think you’ve seen a tremendous change, and we want to add capability as there are more fan zones. Can we run a 24-hour race here? Can we run a Formula 1 race here? What are the things we can do?

“This is a great asset. This business is not broken. This is a great business, and the leadership team that’s been here has done an outstanding job, and what we want to do is be a support tool.”

Team Penske will continue to compete in the NTT IndyCar Series and Penske hopes it’s not viewed as a conflict of interest. But in auto racing, team owners and speedway owners have often been the same. After all, Penske ran Michigan International Speedway from 1973 to 1999 and California Speedway from 1997 to 1999. At one time, Tony George was the president of the Indy Racing League and team owner of Vision Racing.

“I don’t want to leave this conversation without knowing that I understand the integrity, and there’s got to be a bright line, and to me I know what my job is,” Penske said. “Hopefully I’ve got enough credibility with everyone that we can be sure that there is not a conflict, and I’ll do my very best to be sure that isn’t.

“If you think it is, I know that you folks will tell me pretty quick. So, I’ve got a lot of guys watching me.”

Penske also reiterated he has no intention of changing the management teams that are currently in place but will name a new board of directors that includes a diverse group of people to support the business.

“You can be sure that with an investment like this that I’ll be here other than the month of May,” Penske quipped to a question posed from NBC Sports.com.

At 82, Penske was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, attended college at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, started his business empire in Philadelphia before becoming a captain of industry in Detroit who will preserve one of the greatest treasures in the state of Indiana.

“The biggest single-day sporting event on planet Earth is about to get even bigger and better,” Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb said. “I couldn’t be more excited about the future of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with ‘The Captain’ Roger Penske at the helm.

“Mr. Penske’s vision, team and high expectations will ensure Indiana’s most iconic asset continues to grow. Along with INDYCAR, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway forms the core of an entire racing industry that employs thousands of people and pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into our economy. As a racing fan, my excitement is only equaled by my appreciation for the longtime Hulman-George commitment to the past and future of the sport of racing and to our great state.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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Honda Photo
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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500