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.”

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