Penske’s Place: Inside the renovation of Indianapolis Motor Speedway

INDYCAR Photo by Karl Zemlin

When Roger Penske closed on a major real estate acquisition Jan. 6, the giant of industry did not purchase a 110-year-old mansion.

He purchased a Cathedral of Speed.

It was Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500. It has a worldwide reputation that is so strong, first-time visitors are in awe of the venue when they experience it.

That was never more evident than in the days before the first United States Grand Prix was held at the Speedway in 2000.

Worldwide racing legends such as Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and Jenson Button walked onto the track in solemn reverence. Crew members from the stuffy Formula One teams that regularly compete on the streets of Monte Carlo, or the history-steeped road courses at Nurburgring, Magny-Cours, Hockenheimring, Spa Francorchamps and Monza walked the track, feeling the walls and the “Yard of Bricks.”

It was two years before the SAFER Barrier was installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so these were the same hard walls that had seen its share of massive impacts and thunderous crashes.

Long before “selfies” became a thing and the smartphone was invented, these legends would pose for pictures with actual cameras.

It was obvious that many in Formula One were deeply honored to be competing at the “World’s Most Famous Race Course.” They thought of the historic names and the great races that had preceded them.

That was 20 years ago after then-Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George had authorized tens of millions of dollars in a massive renovation to the facility to bring it up to FIA stands for a Formula One race. That included a road course, a new media center and Formula One garages on pit lane. The old glass and steel control tower had been replaced with a massive Pagoda.

Another major renovation took place at IMS in 2016. Known as Project 100 (in reference to the 100th running of the Indy 500), elevators were installed, and the main grandstands were rebuilt to modern standards while maintaining the classic look at feel of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For the first time, spectators with disabilities had reserved areas where they could watch the race in prime locations.

To the average spectator, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a fine facility considering its massive size and age. It was the “Cathedral of Speed” and as with most historic cathedrals, the structures were built a long time ago.

Welcome to Penske’s Place

But now, it’s “Penske’s Place” and the 83-year-old is the new owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NTT IndyCar Series, the Indianapolis 500, the Brickyard 400 and IMS Productions.

Since the sale was announced on Nov. 4, 2019, Penske has spent seemingly endless hours walking the 1,000 acres of this expansive property in detailed site surveys that revealed the need for significant changes that he announced Feb. 14.

Seating will be improved, video boards will include more detail for the spectators, more video boards will be installed, and new entry points will be created. Parking lots will be paved, restrooms will be renovated with new sinks, toilets and other amenities.

Penske’s team is installing 15,000 linear feet — 3 miles — of new fencing around and throughout Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Victory Lane will include a podium that will rise above the ground so more spectators can see the winner’s celebration. Half of Georgetown Road (which runs behind the frontstretch) will become part of IMS property, allowing for wider and safer entries and concourse areas into the Speedway.

Preserving the past; preparing for the future

On the competition side, an additional $2 million will be added to the total purse for the Indianapolis 500, bringing it to over $15 million.

The “Last Row Shootout” on “Bump Day” will be increased from one hour to 75 minutes, and teams that get bumped out of the lineup will have one more chance to race their way back into the field of 33.

Penske, whose team has a record 18 Indy 500 wins, understands the history and the heritage of the Indianapolis 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway as well as anyone.

He also understands reverence and that is why he invited former Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Corporation Chairman of the Board and track owner Tony George to show him his plans for the future.

Penske’s massive and aggressive renovation plans were announced 100 days from the 104thIndianapolis Motor Speedway. The changes are scheduled to be completed before spectators arrive for the “Month of May” at Indy, beginning with the IndyCar Grand Prix on May 9.

“When you think January to May 1st, we’ve got to be done,” Penske said at the announcement. “The green flag drops at that point, and we’ve got to be ready to go.

“When you see some of the things we’re going to accomplish before the race, believe me, this is really starting to write a new book from the standpoint of what we can do here as we go forward.”

Larger purse, expanded Bump Day

Though the Indianapolis 500 purse is one of the largest in auto racing, the total purse has remained stagnant for the past 10 or so years.

That is about to change, according to Penske.

“The Indy 500 winner will get at least $2 million,” Penske said. “Then, you have the other winnings you might get for pole position, leading laps that can add to that. I think last year Simon Pagenaud got almost $2.6 million. We think that’s important. We’re investing in the track but also trying to provide additional monies to the teams that are successful here.”

It was one year ago before the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg that Penske floated the idea of having full-time NTT IndyCar Series teams guaranteed a spot in the Indianapolis 500, protecting sponsor agreements so vital to a team’s business model.

As the owner of IndyCar and IMS, Penske has listened to fans who were against that concept.

“There’s been a lot of discussion, and I even made a comment, ‘Should we have guaranteed starting spots?’ ’” Penske admitted. “Quickly realizing that listening to the fans, looking at the information that flowed to my desk, the fans here, the history here, is having a Bump Day. I think that will take place at this year’s Indy 500.

“They’re going to add an additional 15 minutes, (so) you’ll be able to have more than one attempt. I think that’s going to make it really exciting.”

More on-track action will have benefit the broadcast with additional hours devoted to the race and qualifying weekend on NBC and NBCSN. The networks will combine for nine hours of coverage on qualification weekend.

New sponsors, information

Penske and Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles also announced six big-name sponsors that are new to the month of May. Those include Pennzoil, the official oil of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series. Pennzoil will sponsor the IndyCar technical inspection area at each track.

Former series sponsor Verizon returns as a partner, developing a 5G technology network. Snap-on Tools becomes the official tool for IMS and IndyCar and will have a display in the infield area for the 500. Road and Track Magazine has a “Youth in Racing” program that will be part of the “Fan Zone.”

GMR, Global Medical Response, is the title sponsor of the IndyCar Grand Prix. The network of first responders is a key part of the IndyCar Safety Team. DEX Imaging will serve as the partner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Media Center.

“We believe this is not the end of the story between now and May,” Miles said of the sponsorships. “There may be additions.”

Information improves on-site experience

The addition of 30 videoboards is impressive, but Penske is going one step further by adding scoring information so fans will be able to easier understand the running order of the race.

Many of the seats at IMS are in areas where it was difficult to see any of the scoreboards. That will change.

“One of the things we hear from our customers, they love the event, especially they love our video boards, but they still struggle to get the information they need in the seats through our timing and scoring as we put it on the video boards,” IMS President Doug Boles said. “We are going to make an investment around the facility in over 30 new video boards that will help deliver that information to folks who are all over the race track.”

Penske stressed it is important to understand what goes on inside the track and relay that information to the spectators. The increase to 5G will help, but the new video boards will allow fans in any area of the track to see what is happening in the entire racecourse.

“We also will be looking at 24 additional boards that will sit underneath the paddock penthouse and above the paddock,” Boles explained. “Those sold-out seats in those areas really don’t have good access to the video boards. For the first time when they come to the facility, they will be able to watch replays and activities on the video boards at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We’re going to put up what we’re calling the IMS media wall. That wall is going to be on the backside of the pagoda. The pagoda right now has two boards on either side of it. Now it will be one, long, continuous board, 100 feet wide by roughly 20 feet tall. We can deliver information and video to our customer in essentially what is our central park. It’s our gathering area for our fans outside of their seats.”

Penske wants to make Indianapolis Motor Speedway a year-round entertainment venue that can host business conferences and meetings at its facilities as well as outdoor concerts throughout the year.

“We’ll continue to invest, to make it better,” Penske said. “We really talked about what we do in this short period of time, less than eight weeks. When you see what we’ve bitten off here to try to get done, we will get it done.

“Someone said, ‘What if there’s bad weather? I said, ‘I don’t care, we’re going to get it done.’”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”