Roger Penske still gets ‘goosebumps’ at the Indy 500 like he did in 1951

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway is undergoing a significant overhaul under its new owner, but one thing never will change for Roger Penske and the world’s most famous racetrack.

“Every time they say, ‘Gentlemen start your engines,’ I get goosebumps as I did, probably when I was 14,” Penske said, referring to the first time he attended the Indianapolis 500 in 1951. “That’s a special place. I found out how special the last several weeks as we completed our transaction there. It’s really the Holy Grail of the state of Indiana.”

As the most recent guest on the “Coffee With Kyle” feature (video above), Penske regaled host Kyle Petty with many stories about IMS’ past, present and future.

Aside from regularly walking the 1,000-acre property (“I’ve tried to become an expert on what’s going on outside and the guest experience”) since the track announced him as the buyer last November (the sale closed Jan. 6), Penske also has spent time at the track’s infield museum.

He got a black and white and color photo from each program in the 18 Indianapolis 500 victories by Team Penske. “I said, ‘Listen you don’t have any pictures of ’51, do you?’ Sure enough, they bring out 25 pictures,” Penske said with a chuckle. “Once we get through this race season, I’m going to just go there for a couple of days and look at some of the things they have.”

Penske told Petty that as of the Jan. 31 interview, 78 percent of the track’s more than 230,000 grandstands were sold, and all the suites were sold out.

When the crowd arrives May 24 for the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 (and its record purse), they will notice an expansion of videoboards, freshly paved parking lots and upgraded restrooms among the enhancements.

Penske, who turned 83 last Thursday, likely will be remembered for the work he did in refurbishing one of auto racing’s public trust, but he deflected a question about whether he will can improve on the legacy of the Hulman-George family, which owned the track for 74 years.

“Well, we’ll never know,” Penske said. “It’s going to be 74 years before somebody can say, ‘Did he do any better?’ Certainly our focus is on guest experience. We need that with an asset like this. In today’s world, when someone has a car plant, they don’t run it one shift.

“We’ve got to look at we can reinvest to generate revenue. We have the Brickyard, the Indy 500 on Memorial Day. We need to look at special events. Fans are looking for variety. They’re looking for change.”

Other topics that Penske discussed with Petty:

Asked about what the biggest challenges are for auto racing in general, Penske said cost reduction, venues, length and diversity of races should be on priority lists. “The costs have gotten way out of line from the standpoint of sponsorship and what’s available,” he said. “There are people who can write checks but how many of them? That’s something we have to look at. There’s no question NASCAR and IndyCar have looked at it. Racing Supercars on a budget of two cars for $8 million a season. … The technology in many cases has gotten the cars to where we can’t drive them because they’re stuck to the ground. We need to focus on trying to make racers, racers instead of it being a technical challenge.”

On receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year: “For my family, it’s probably more important than the next Indy win for me. This is more important. It takes all the things you’ve tried to do in your life, and someone in a very high position realizes you made a difference with people inside and outside. And to have your family in the White House, the president couldn’t have been more gracious to everyone. Having that experience is something you’ll never forget. Means more than any race win and probably any championship. Ask your dad (Richard Petty) would he give up a championship to go to the White House and get his medal of honor? I guarantee he would. It’s a big deal.”

On his memories of Mark Donohue, who won the 1972 Indianapolis 500 for Penske and also delivered his team’s first NASCAR Cup win in 1973: “His approach as a partner, you almost forgot he was a driver. Sometimes I’d say, ‘You have to get some sleep to drive these things.’ He was very understated. Very skilled.”

You can watch the video above or you also can subscribe to the Motorsports on NBC YouTube channel to watch here.

New schedule has Josef Newgarden seeing double (points) again in 2020

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
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Two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske believes the latest revised schedule for 2020 will change his approach to the season.

The new schedule has the defending IndyCar champion looking at ways to double the possibilities for a second consecutive championship.

“When I look at the whole schedule they released now, I look at it as double-points as a whole in all of them,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com Monday. “Iowa is double points on a short oval. There are double points at the Indy GP because there are two races and a road course. Then double points at Laguna, which is a different road course than IMS. And there is double points in the Indianapolis 500.”

IndyCar announced to team owners two weeks ago that the season finale (once scheduled for Laguna Seca and now at St. Petersburg) will no longer be a double-points event. But Monday’s schedule revision essentially adds three double points-style races to the Indy 500’s double-points format, Newgarden said.

“Those are four events where you have to be quite strong,” Newgarden said. “They are all very different from each other. Each one is critical to get right. Iowa has a chance to be the most difficult. From a physical standpoint, it’s already a physical track for one race. To double it up on one weekend will be quite the toll for the drivers.

“It will be a very big test physically to see who will get that weekend right. You can bag a lot of points because of it.”

Just 12 days after the first schedule revision, IndyCar officials announced another revised schedule Monday because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The new schedule features doubleheader weekends at Iowa Speedway in July and Laguna Seca in September. There is an additional race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course Oct. 3.

That race will be known as the IndyCar Harvest Grand Prix. It will be the second time in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history that an IndyCar race is held in the fall. The only other time was the Harvest Auto Racing Classic, a series of three races won by Johnny Aitken on Sept. 9, 1916.

The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix scheduled for May 30-31 will be dropped from the 2020 schedule. Michigan has a “Stay at Home” order that won’t be lifted in time to start construction of the Belle Isle street course.

Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles said the Detroit event will return in 2021.

The IMS road course essentially will have a doubleheader spaced out by nearly three months. The first race will be the GMR IndyCar Grand Prix on July 4, and the second will be Oct. 3 in the Harvest Grand Prix.

The extra doubleheaders combined with the loss of Detroit gives IndyCar a 15-race schedule for 2020. It started out as a 17-race campaign, but April’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the Acura Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the AutoNation IndyCar Classic at Circuit of The Americas (COTA) have been canceled. The season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is being revived as the season finale on a TBA weekend in October.

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Newgarden also is excited about the chance to run at Indianapolis for three major races in one season. Of course, that all depends on how soon IndyCar can return to action because of the global pandemic.

“I’m continually excited about the thought of getting back to the race track,” Newgarden said. “We would love to be there now, but we can’t. With the current situation, everyone is trying to do the best they can to pitch in and do their part so we can get back to the track as quickly as possible.

“I’m excited to get back to racing at some point in the future. To see that is planned to start at Texas is still great. IndyCar has done a great job staying active and fluid with the ever-changing dynamics and current situation.

“We have three opportunities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There are a lot of chances to get it right at the Mecca of our sport.

“I have a lot of trust and faith in IndyCar and Roger, and they are doing their best to stay on top of the situation.”

The one downer to the revised schedule is the loss of the Detroit doubleheader, a very important weekend to Team Penske because Roger Penske also owns the Detroit race. It’s a chance to showcase the series in front of as “Motor City” crowd, which is also the home to the Penske Corp.

“It’s a shame that we miss any event this year,” Newgarden said. “As a racer, you look forward to each one of them. If any of them drop off, it’s a tough pill. Detroit is more so because it is such an important race for us at Team Penske. It’s in our backyard for Penske Corp. Also, our relationship with Chevrolet, how much they put I that event and try to get it right for everybody involved. It’s tough to not have a go at that this year.

“I think of the volunteers. The Detroit weekend is so well run and executed with such a positive momentum behind it for the last eight years that I’ve gone there. I’ve always enjoyed that weekend off the back of the Indy 500.

“It’s a shame we will miss that this year, but I look forward to getting back there in 2021 and getting it started again.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500