Chris Owens/IndyCar

Penske wants full crowd at Indy 500: ‘Never been more motivated, excited’

Leave a comment

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Roger Penske will watch the IndyCar season opener from a suite at Texas Motor Speedway, which will be mark the first time off the pit stand and on the other side of the fence since his teams failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1995.

His relocation is partly for safety.

Penske, 83, is considered at high risk for contracting the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), and he will avoid large crowds by working inside the paddock from a transporter separate from the rest of his team. But as the new owner of the IndyCar Series, he also has relinquished his role as a strategist for Team Penske to avoid conflicts of interest.

“I don’t know if I will be able to stand it. We’ll have a conversation after the show. I guess it will be like a NASCAR race,” Penske, who watches NASCAR events from a suite, said in an interview with The Associated Press’ Jenna Fryer.

The pandemic has disrupted Penske’s first year as the owner of iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series, which suspended its season March 13 just 48 hours before its opening race in Florida.

The schedule has been overhauled, his beloved Indianapolis 500 moved to August from the Memorial Day weekend date it held for 73 years, and Penske has spent nearly six months focused on improvements for his newest properties.

Penske said he is at IMS at least two days a week overseeing massive upgrades. He is involved in every detail, from freshening public bathrooms to paving parking lots, lowering television monitors and creating a lift to an elevated winner’s circle.

Fans won’t get a true sense of the changes to the national landmark built in 1911 until at least August.

Its first event, a doubleheader between NASCAR and IndyCar Series, will run July 4 weekend without spectators. In making that decision earlier this week, Penske said it moves the speedway closer “to execute with full fans” for the Indy 500, which recently has drawn crowds of more than 250,000.

“We really wanted to go forward with fans, but it wasn’t realistic,” Penske said. “If we had fans and had any problems, that would absolutely close the door on for us for the 500.”

The auto racing magnate addressed a number of topics in the interview:


HIS HEALTH: Penske said he travels from his Michigan home to Indianapolis twice a week and wears gloves and a mask while working. His Bloomfield Hills office is a three-minute drive from his home, and he said a nurse is on site, and “everybody has to go through a temperature check.”

Penske, a cancer survivor who received a kidney transplant in 2017, said Penske Corp. practices social distancing at work.

“I’ve been at home with my wife and have been careful on any interface,” he said. “All my transportation has been from Pontiac Airport to Indianapolis and back. I’ve not gone downtown. I haven’t gone anywhere. I’m not, you know, in trouble.”

He said most of his meetings are done over Zoom and are scheduled in shifts throughout the day so he can conduct business globally.

“We start early in the morning in the U.K., then we do our U.S. businesses and then we talk to Australia at night. It’s been a good tool,” he said.


THE SPEEDWAY: The coronavirus has given Penske additional time to raise the speedway to his standards.

All work on the track was halted early in the COVID-19 pandemic under stay-at-home orders, but moving the 500 to August allowed time for capital improvements.

He often likens his visions for the speedway to pristine Augusta National.

“Every time I walk around I find something else to do,” he said. “I thought there were only so many chapters in the book. Every time I get to the last chapter, there’s one or two more to look at. Time is always beneficial.”

He said new video boards at the speedway would not have been in place for the 500 if had been run in May as scheduled.

“I’ve never been more excited about what we’ve been able to accomplish,” he said. “The future is very, very bright. I’ve never been more motivated, never been more excited.”


INDYCAR SEASON OPENER: Penske said he is proud of IndyCar’s top two leaders, Mark Miles and Jay Frye, for getting the season on track. The series will practice and qualify before Saturday night’s race, unlike NASCAR, which has cut both so far.

He said both worked to get the series’ foreign drivers back into the United States in time for the opener, and Penske believes IndyCar’s teams largely have weathered the financial shutdown.

“They’re all ready to go racing ourselves. No question about it,” he said.

As for his own team of reigning champion Josef Newgarden, and back-to-back Indy 500 winners Simon Pagenaud and Will Power: “Texas at those speeds, I told them they are going to have to have their heads on.”


NASCAR: Team Penske has four wins through nine Cup races even after the boss swapped all three crews for drivers Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

Logano won two before the shutdown and Blaney inked a contract extension. Keselowski, who is in a contract year, won two Cup races last week and is fourth in the standings.

“I certainly am not saying he’s not going to run for us,” Penske said of Keselowski. “We have to talk to Brad, and we have not done that during this pandemic. Quite honestly, we’re not negotiating something with a driver over Zoom. We’ll get together with him.”

He said Team Penske is working in split shifts at the shop for social distancing, and he’s holding out for economic impact analysis before he gives an opinion on NASCAR’s frantic current schedule.

To make up its postponed events, the three national series raced nine times over 15 days. There have been two midweek races and all have been without spectators.

“We’re happy with the outcome of operations but I think the more important thing is what’s the impact on the sport? You know, what do our races look like in the future?” said Penske. “As competitors and for our sponsors, there’s a comfort level that we’re back racing. Now is a time to see what we can do moving forward for both NASCAR and IndyCar.”

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images
3 Comments

LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.