‘Roger Penske Perfect’: Indy 500 set for first full house under command of ‘The Captain’

Indy 500 Roger Penske
Mike Young/Penske Entertainment

INDIANAPOLIS – The owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway enjoys turning laps around his most prized possession, but former race car driver Roger Penske can hit the rev limiter without going 240 mph on the 2.5-mile ribbon of asphalt that hosts the Indy 500.

Penske is covering a lot more ground by regularly zooming around the entire Brickyard – a sprawling 250-acre facility whose footprint comfortably can fit the Rose Bowl, the Roman Colosseum, Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium and the White House (with still enough space left over for several more world-renowned landmarks).

On a souped-up golf kart (which bears the No. 18 for his team’s record Indy 500 win total), Penske never stops motoring around the grounds of the world’s most famous racetrack and finding new details (both minute and gargantuan) to improve.

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“Oh, I’ll make a lot,” Penske told NBCSports.com with a laugh when asked how many full tours of the property he’ll log in May. “Every time I go there, I make two or three. I’ve got a special golf kart, and it’s high speed, so I can get around.”

Instead of vetting the premises for new projects, Penske’s trips lately have been more about validating all of the new concepts and construction he has commissioned in the two years since buying the deed to the Brickyard.

At least $30 million in upgrades have been made under Penske’s stewardship at IMS, which has countless fresh coats of paint, LED lighting and gleaming videoboards waiting at (literally) every turn.

Now the trick is showcasing the temple of vroom’s shiny new veneer when more than 300,000 people descend on the track May 29 for the first fully attended Indy 500 since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

After a muted start without a crowd in 2020, the Speedway came back to life last year with a limited crowd of 135,000 witnessing the history of Helio Castroneves becoming the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner – setting the stage for an even bigger splash in 2022.

The anticipation has been building for more than a year. A few days before the 2021 race, Penske proclaimed he wanted to “blow the roof off this place” with the 106th running in ’22, and the signs have been trending positively since.

The track’s 110 suites have been sold out since the middle of March, and advance grandstands sales have been trending double digits ahead of three years ago – raising the possibility of the track’s first sellout since the centennial race in 2016

“There’s always pressure because you want the Indy 500 to be special,” IMS president Doug Boles told NBC Sports. “But I think having everyone come back, we all feel a little bit more pressure that we want people to come back and go, ‘Jeez, I remember why I love this place. I remember why I’ve gone to 30, 40, 50 races in a row.” So that’s really important.

“(Penske) has never experienced it from the position he has now, so we all want to do it well for him.”

Though he’s based in the Detroit area, Penske has been making regular visits to IMS since closing on the track in January 2020 – over the past few months, he stopped by weekly (and sometimes more often than that) to ensure his famous “Penske Perfect” brand is being honored as a couple of hundred thousand experience IMS under the auspices of “The Captain” for the first time.

Among the most noticeable differences has been the condition of the grass at the track, which encompasses four holes from the Brickyard Crossing golf course. Penske directed staff that “you don’t just have 18 holes (to groom) now, you’ve got the whole place, and their team has done an amazing job. The place never has looked better.

“Many of our customers have not seen the track or been able to really experience some of the things we’ve done to have the guest experience better,” said Penske, who did a walkthrough in April of the track’s 20 gates and 210 lanes for pedestrian entry. “We’ve talked about what we’ve done, but I want them to feel and touch it and see that we do care about a guest experience. That’s been our focus.

“We spent a lot of time on our refreshment stands, redoing all of those. We got LED lighting in all of our restrooms now, painted them and put in all-new fixtures where needed, so those are things that they’ll see, and then probably Georgetown Road behind the front straightaway, we’ve really widened that significantly where we have 120-130,000 people come down that way off of Gate 9.

Roger Penske poses with a fan at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the recent GMR Grand Prix weekend (Aaron Skillman/Penske Entertainment).

“That’s going to be a huge difference for the fans that were squeezed in, obviously it’s still going to be tight, but that’s going to make a big difference just ingress and egress from the standpoint of fan access so the track will light up our lots for safety.

“People are going to see a clean track when they go to the restrooms, when they go to the refreshment stands, they’re going to see a difference.”

Boles said many of the improvements bear special touches by Penske, who has been spotted making at least three sweeps of the IMS media center since last week – examining a fresh layer of carpet on the fourth floor.

“The great thing about Roger Penske is he makes us better,” Boles said. “Maybe sometimes it’s a few percent, sometimes bigger, but the great thing about his detailed focus, you just end up better on the back side of him being able to breathe some life into things.”

Citing the leadership of Boles, Penske believes he has assembled an IMS staff that are “a group of winners that want to be sure that the fan has an experience they’ve never had there in many years.

“Many people are coming back, and we want to make sure we have the right staff in the right places, and saying, ‘Thank you for coming,’ and ‘Hope you had a good race,’ when they leave,” Penske said. “Those are the things that people remember that only happens on race day. It’s not a playbook that you can read. It’s something you try to train your people so they understand that because we need to keep this as the biggest racing product in the world. We have it. We don’t want to lose it.

“From my perspective, our goal is to make it even better. Good enough is not good enough as far as I’m concerned.”

Here are some of the most significant changes and impacts on fan amenities since Penske’s takeover:

Video visions: During one of his first site visits, Boles mentioned to Penske that many frontstretch seats in higher rows had no line of sight to the videoboards because of an overhang. Penske began sitting in many of the seats to understand the blocked views.

“People who have been in these seats for 30, 40, 50 years, and some never had seen a replay,” Boles said. “All of the things they just couldn’t see. So there are 27 new boards that are hanging off there for over half that section that couldn’t see a videoboard before.

“That is one that will really impact the way those customers interact with the race to be able to see what’s going on instead of what’s right in front of them. That’s one I’m really excited about it.”

Going cashless: Boles said the biggest complaints from the 2021 Indy 500 crowd were about long concession lines, so self-serve express lanes have been added along with “reverse ATMs” so fans can put their cash on cards to expedite purchases.

“That’s maybe one of the biggest challenges, because you’ve got a whole bunch of people who typically all go to the concession stand at the same time, and at the first yellow, everyone bombards the concession stand,” Boles said. “So that’s something high on Roger’s radar. Hopefully, we’ll be a little better this year, and over time with technology, we’ll really be able to solve that.

New structures: A new multipurpose performance driving center (with BMW as a major client) has been added between Turns 3 and 4, and Penske has revamped fan tram traffic flow around the infield. The infield medical center also was overhauled last year. Both projects were overseen by Tyrone J. Garrison, the track’s new facilities manager who was hired from a local company that oversaw the well-documented refurbishment of the track’s restrooms.

“Roger fell in love with him because he could deal with Roger changing small details,” Boles said. “He’d do what Roger wanted, and when Roger says, ‘I don’t think I like that, can we move this here?’ And Tyrone has just a great personality.”

–Concert reshuffling: In order to prepare for the speedway’s second-largest race-day crowd in 30 years, the Legends Day concert Saturday has been moved downtown, and one stage will play host to the Friday Carb Day show and the Sunday morning EDM concert in the Snake Pit. In addition to avoiding the hassles of extra materials and personnel, the consolidation also will open up Turn 4 parking and save time from having to turn around the property with fans attending concerts Saturday night.

“You didn’t get people out of the venue until 7:30 or 8 p.m., and you had to get it cleaned and reset, so not having that to worry about is a huge benefit, especially this year,” Boles said. “We can have Carb Day Friday, clean up the venue and get it ready for Sunday.”

There could be even more work next year with a possible expansion of suites. With a waiting list of clients and companies in the double digits, Penske said IMS considered adding temporary structures this year

“So we’ll look at that from a business perspective in the future,” Penske said. “Do we build more? Because there seems to be a high level of interest from not only companies locally around the Indiana area, but also some of the international companies coming in, and the new teams bringing in sponsors who want to activate at the track. It’s terrific.”

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.”