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.
“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.”