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Penske’s Place: Inside the renovation of Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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When Roger Penske closed on a major real estate acquisition Jan. 6, the giant of industry did not purchase a 110-year-old mansion.

He purchased a Cathedral of Speed.

It was Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500. It has a worldwide reputation that is so strong, first-time visitors are in awe of the venue when they experience it.

That was never more evident than in the days before the first United States Grand Prix was held at the Speedway in 2000.

Worldwide racing legends such as Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and Jenson Button walked onto the track in solemn reverence. Crew members from the stuffy Formula One teams that regularly compete on the streets of Monte Carlo, or the history-steeped road courses at Nurburgring, Magny-Cours, Hockenheimring, Spa Francorchamps and Monza walked the track, feeling the walls and the “Yard of Bricks.”

It was two years before the SAFER Barrier was installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so these were the same hard walls that had seen its share of massive impacts and thunderous crashes.

Long before “selfies” became a thing and the smartphone was invented, these legends would pose for pictures with actual cameras.

It was obvious that many in Formula One were deeply honored to be competing at the “World’s Most Famous Race Course.” They thought of the historic names and the great races that had preceded them.

That was 20 years ago after then-Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George had authorized tens of millions of dollars in a massive renovation to the facility to bring it up to FIA stands for a Formula One race. That included a road course, a new media center and Formula One garages on pit lane. The old glass and steel control tower had been replaced with a massive Pagoda.

Another major renovation took place at IMS in 2016. Known as Project 100 (in reference to the 100th running of the Indy 500), elevators were installed, and the main grandstands were rebuilt to modern standards while maintaining the classic look at feel of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For the first time, spectators with disabilities had reserved areas where they could watch the race in prime locations.

To the average spectator, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a fine facility considering its massive size and age. It was the “Cathedral of Speed” and as with most historic cathedrals, the structures were built a long time ago.


Welcome to Penske’s Place

But now, it’s “Penske’s Place” and the 83-year-old is the new owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NTT IndyCar Series, the Indianapolis 500, the Brickyard 400 and IMS Productions.

Since the sale was announced on Nov. 4, 2019, Penske has spent seemingly endless hours walking the 1,000 acres of this expansive property in detailed site surveys that revealed the need for significant changes that he announced Feb. 14.

Seating will be improved, video boards will include more detail for the spectators, more video boards will be installed, and new entry points will be created. Parking lots will be paved, restrooms will be renovated with new sinks, toilets and other amenities.

Penske’s team is installing 15,000 linear feet — 3 miles — of new fencing around and throughout Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Victory Lane will include a podium that will rise above the ground so more spectators can see the winner’s celebration. Half of Georgetown Road (which runs behind the frontstretch) will become part of IMS property, allowing for wider and safer entries and concourse areas into the Speedway.


Preserving the past; preparing for the future

On the competition side, an additional $2 million will be added to the total purse for the Indianapolis 500, bringing it to over $15 million.

The “Last Row Shootout” on “Bump Day” will be increased from one hour to 75 minutes, and teams that get bumped out of the lineup will have one more chance to race their way back into the field of 33.

Penske, whose team has a record 18 Indy 500 wins, understands the history and the heritage of the Indianapolis 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway as well as anyone.

He also understands reverence and that is why he invited former Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Corporation Chairman of the Board and track owner Tony George to show him his plans for the future.

Penske’s massive and aggressive renovation plans were announced 100 days from the 104thIndianapolis Motor Speedway. The changes are scheduled to be completed before spectators arrive for the “Month of May” at Indy, beginning with the IndyCar Grand Prix on May 9.

“When you think January to May 1st, we’ve got to be done,” Penske said at the announcement. “The green flag drops at that point, and we’ve got to be ready to go.

“When you see some of the things we’re going to accomplish before the race, believe me, this is really starting to write a new book from the standpoint of what we can do here as we go forward.”


Larger purse, expanded Bump Day

Though the Indianapolis 500 purse is one of the largest in auto racing, the total purse has remained stagnant for the past 10 or so years.

That is about to change, according to Penske.

“The Indy 500 winner will get at least $2 million,” Penske said. “Then, you have the other winnings you might get for pole position, leading laps that can add to that. I think last year Simon Pagenaud got almost $2.6 million. We think that’s important. We’re investing in the track but also trying to provide additional monies to the teams that are successful here.”

It was one year ago before the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg that Penske floated the idea of having full-time NTT IndyCar Series teams guaranteed a spot in the Indianapolis 500, protecting sponsor agreements so vital to a team’s business model.

As the owner of IndyCar and IMS, Penske has listened to fans who were against that concept.

“There’s been a lot of discussion, and I even made a comment, ‘Should we have guaranteed starting spots?’ ’” Penske admitted. “Quickly realizing that listening to the fans, looking at the information that flowed to my desk, the fans here, the history here, is having a Bump Day. I think that will take place at this year’s Indy 500.

“They’re going to add an additional 15 minutes, (so) you’ll be able to have more than one attempt. I think that’s going to make it really exciting.”

More on-track action will have benefit the broadcast with additional hours devoted to the race and qualifying weekend on NBC and NBCSN. The networks will combine for nine hours of coverage on qualification weekend.


New sponsors, information

Penske and Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles also announced six big-name sponsors that are new to the month of May. Those include Pennzoil, the official oil of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series. Pennzoil will sponsor the IndyCar technical inspection area at each track.

Former series sponsor Verizon returns as a partner, developing a 5G technology network. Snap-on Tools becomes the official tool for IMS and IndyCar and will have a display in the infield area for the 500. Road and Track Magazine has a “Youth in Racing” program that will be part of the “Fan Zone.”

GMR, Global Medical Response, is the title sponsor of the IndyCar Grand Prix. The network of first responders is a key part of the IndyCar Safety Team. DEX Imaging will serve as the partner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Media Center.

“We believe this is not the end of the story between now and May,” Miles said of the sponsorships. “There may be additions.”


Information improves on-site experience

The addition of 30 videoboards is impressive, but Penske is going one step further by adding scoring information so fans will be able to easier understand the running order of the race.

Many of the seats at IMS are in areas where it was difficult to see any of the scoreboards. That will change.

“One of the things we hear from our customers, they love the event, especially they love our video boards, but they still struggle to get the information they need in the seats through our timing and scoring as we put it on the video boards,” IMS President Doug Boles said. “We are going to make an investment around the facility in over 30 new video boards that will help deliver that information to folks who are all over the race track.”

Penske stressed it is important to understand what goes on inside the track and relay that information to the spectators. The increase to 5G will help, but the new video boards will allow fans in any area of the track to see what is happening in the entire racecourse.

“We also will be looking at 24 additional boards that will sit underneath the paddock penthouse and above the paddock,” Boles explained. “Those sold-out seats in those areas really don’t have good access to the video boards. For the first time when they come to the facility, they will be able to watch replays and activities on the video boards at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We’re going to put up what we’re calling the IMS media wall. That wall is going to be on the backside of the pagoda. The pagoda right now has two boards on either side of it. Now it will be one, long, continuous board, 100 feet wide by roughly 20 feet tall. We can deliver information and video to our customer in essentially what is our central park. It’s our gathering area for our fans outside of their seats.”

Penske wants to make Indianapolis Motor Speedway a year-round entertainment venue that can host business conferences and meetings at its facilities as well as outdoor concerts throughout the year.

“We’ll continue to invest, to make it better,” Penske said. “We really talked about what we do in this short period of time, less than eight weeks. When you see what we’ve bitten off here to try to get done, we will get it done.

“Someone said, ‘What if there’s bad weather? I said, ‘I don’t care, we’re going to get it done.’”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500