Inside the monster deal Roger Penske made for INDYCAR

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With a record 18 victories in the Indianapolis 500, Roger Penske has owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

By announcing on Monday morning, he is purchasing INDYCAR and the world’s most famous race course, now it’s official.

In a historic move that is both stunning in terms of magnitude and impact on the sport, and the fact Penske and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were successful in keeping it under wraps, the most successful team owner in auto racing history now owns the series and the “World’s Greatest Race Course.”

The purchase was announced by the 82-year-old Penske along with Indianapolis Motor Speedway Chairman of the Board Tony George and Hulman & Company President and CEO Mark Miles, who is also the CEO of INDYCAR.

Penske becomes just the fourth different owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since it was built by Carl Fisher, Arthur Newby, James Allison and Frank Wheel in 1909. The first Indianapolis 500 was held in 1911 and won by Ray Harroun. The entire Hulman-George family was in attendance at Monday morning’s announcement.

“It’s bittersweet, but very exciting for us because we are passing the torch to an individual who has created an organization that is not only dynamic but ideally suited to take over this stewardship,” George said of Penske. “It’s a corporation that is family involved but with a track record that is really without compare.

“Our process took us to a point where we all agreed we needed to have a conversation with Roger Penske.”

George’s overture to Penske about the deal came at Laguna Seca before the final NTT IndyCar Series race of the season on Sept. 22.

“I approached him at the final race of the season on the starting grid and told him I wanted to meet with him to talk about stewardship,” George recalled. “He got a very serious look on his face.

Emails were exchanged followed by meetings culminating with Monday’s announcement.

“Not many things are kept under wraps around here, but this was fairly well contained,” George said. “We are able to present this to the world this morning.”

Details of the purchase price were not revealed. The deal won’t be officially closed until January, pending government approval and a new board of directors will be established.

Miles cited the tremendous success of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 as the springboard for INDYCAR’s continued uptick in growth and interest. A key part of that is NBC’s current television package that began this past season with all races on NBC and NBCSN rather than split between different networks.

“There’s no question we have great momentum now,” Miles said. “Every fan metric shows growth. We’ve kept our traditional longtime fans, and we’re growing the fan base and adding younger fans all the time.

“It’s without a doubt in our minds the best form, most exciting form of racing object the planet, and with Roger and Penske Entertainment as our leaders now, we see nothing but more of that growth.”

Penske also spoke of the importance of NBC to helping grow the series.

“TV ratings, attendance, social media up,” Penske said. “NBC, not only network but also on cable has been tremendous.  The competition couldn’t be better. The racing product is excellent. I think the venues are well balanced.”

Penske recalled the first time he ever attended the Indianapolis 500 as a 14-year-old with his father in 1951. It inspired him to go into racing and now continue that as the owner and steward of one of the greatest sporting events in the world.

“I talked to Mario Andretti today and A.J. Foyt, and we all agreed what the Indianapolis 500 has meant to us as individuals and as a company, and certainly our company,” Penske said. “I think that what it really says, that in the United States of America, if you work hard and you’re committed and you have a great group of people, you get great success. So today I hope my dad’s looking down at me and looking at this group and saying, Son, you did a good job.

“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. 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.”

Penske also offered assurances that many of the current employees at INDYCAR will be retained.

“Remember, I’m going to be the new guy in town, so we’re going to take those plans and see if we can add anything to it that makes it better,” Penske said. “But I don’t think you build a business overnight. We have no intention of changing the management teams that are in place today.”

According to Miles, there are 260 people employed by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, INDYCAR or IMS Productions. Penske said he plans on keeping many of them, as well as integrating management from the Penske Corp. He also said members of the Hulman-George family can remain as part of the organization and can potentially buy interests into the new ownership group.

Penske said he will walk every inch of the property over the next few days to get an assessment of what may or may not be changed. He also said guaranteed starting positions for the Indianapolis 500 may be considered.

Penske has been a strong proponent of that to help full-time INDYCAR teams maintain relationships with sponsors by guaranteeing they will be in the biggest race on the schedule.

Over the next 30 to 60 days, Penske will be making a “top 10 list” for fan and competitive enhancement after analyzing the facility and talking to staff. He would like to add another venue to the series to have a well-balance schedule but did not reveal where that would be. He did stress that it would likely be in North America.

Penske would like to utilize the facility for greater entertainment purposes and even mentioned the possibility of a 24-Hour sports car race at the facility. As for NASCAR’s Brickyard 400, Penske said, “It’s here to stay.”

Penske also wants to maintain its history and traditions of both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500.

“There’s nothing more to me, that gives me more feeling than to stand on the grid and see the flyovers and see the men and women in the services each year,” Penske said. “I can tell you we’re going to push harder on that to be sure we respect them, and the tradition and the pomp and ceremony is certainly going to be top of mind.”

Penske will no longer be on the timing stand calling race strategy in INDYCAR races, so that he can focus on the bigger picture of running the series. That should help avoid any appearance of “conflict of interest.”

“The sanctioning body and the INDYCAR will be a separate company, and the other assets will be in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Penske said. “I think you have to ask our competitors at this point. Tony (George) has been a car owner and we were talking about it today.

“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, and hopefully I’ve got enough credibility with everyone that we can be sure that there is not a conflict.

“I’ll do my very best to be sure that isn’t. If you think it is, I hope that — I know that you folks will tell me pretty quick. So, I’ve got a lot of guys watching me.”

The news has been met with very positive feedback from fellow INDYCAR team owners.

“Roger Penske’s commitment to the sport we love is over six decades long and I am confident that his stewardship of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series will ensure a great future for the sport,” Bobby Rahal said. “His many successful business ventures underline the fact that he is the perfect custodian of one of the most historic venues in the world and is the perfect architect to build the foundation for the next 100-plus years of the sport. We look forward to working with Roger in order to make the IndyCar Series and the Indy 500 the best it’s ever been.”

NBC Sports’ Dustin Long was able to talk to James Sullivan, a partner of Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan, and get his reaction to the news.

“I think it’s fantastic for the sport,” Sullivan told Long. “I can’t think of a better person to lead us into the future from IndyCar’s perspective. Jimmy and I are pretty well vested and it’s an important part of our future and Roger, in our mind, is probably the best guy to take that thing forward.

“We vote yes. I think he’s the best (choice).”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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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