Penske: Indy 500 helped build brand
One of motorsports’ legendary figures, team owner Roger Penske, sat down in his team’s motorcoach trackside recently, ready to discuss all things racing as his team prepared for the March 27 IZOD IndyCar Series’ season opener at St. Petersburg.
Rising to greet and shake hands with a handful of journalists invited for a rare “all-things considered” interview, Penske was game for an hour of questions about everything from NASCAR’s crowds to the economy to the future of IndyCar. He also shared his thoughts about the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, which he has won 15 times as a team owner, amassing a trophy collection likely never to be equaled.
Penske’s cars had been running well all weekend at St. Pete – driver Will Power finished second the next day -- and he was in a good mood, alternately joking with the small group and offering a perspective no one else in the industry can provide:
Penske grudgingly laughed when it was suggested that the IndyCar weekend crowd at St. Pete might just outdo NASCAR’s race at the Penske-built Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. But he remained optimistic about NASCAR’s ability to overcome its current attendance slump:
Penske: “I think we just have to realize in today’s economic environment people just can’t spend the money they were spending. When you look at the demographics with NASCAR, you’ve got a 160,000-seat stadium and you have 120,000 (in the stands), it looks like you’re in trouble. But we had the Super Bowl in Detroit in 2006 and we had 72,000 seats and everyone said it was success.
“I think probably the tracks have overbuilt a little bit and will have to readjust some seating, sell some advertising. We used to do that. … with 120,000 people there you shouldn’t look like you’re in trouble. But again, all those tracks are owned by a public company, so you can see how they’re doing financially.’’
Penske made a convincing argument that things are looking up:
Penske: “I would say, in our business, in the automotive business, we’re starting to see recovery. We’re seeing the same thing in our truck leasing and logistics business, we’re seeing recovery. I think it’s not straight up but it’s certainly an indication. We’re adding people in all aspects of our business, adding jobs. We’re not back to pre-2008, but from the low point we’re back up 3-4 percent.’’
Penske discussed how having several smaller sponsors vs. one major full-season backer has changed the face of sponsorship:
Penske: “One of the things that’s tough is the fan identity of the red-and-white (IndyCar) car, or the blue (NASCAR) car with number 2 on it. They’re losing a little of that driver-car-team identity because every day it’s a different cover on the book. We’re gonna have to figure out a way to better connect the fan with the car.’’
Penske was asked about the state of IndyCar engine development for Chevrolet, for which Team Penske will be the manufacturer’s flagship:
Penske: “Chevrolet wants an engine running mid-year, so sometime (in) June, July we want to be running – dyno running first and then car running. IndyCar is working out the details on how the car testing will be done. It hasn’t been agreed to yet.’’
American cars in IndyCar
Will having an American-make like Chevrolet in open-wheel help attract a new audience to IndyCar?:
Penske: “They say what wins on Sundays sells on Monday so maybe we’ll use that same theme as we go forward. I think having an American manufacturer in to compete with Honda is just good for the sport. Honda has done a terrific job, but Chevy was here before when it was just IRL by itself, with Champ Car too. They are very committed to winning."
On the importance of the Indianapolis 500 to his career, Penske did not hesitate:
Penske: “I think the 500 and the success we’ve had there helped us build a brand for our business which you couldn’t do any other way during that time. It’s paid off for us. The notoriety you get from winning the race, the ability to sell the sponsorship has given us a tremendous opportunity.
“As far as the 100th (anniversary), I look at every one of them the same. This is the one you want to win. It doesn’t matter how many you’ve won, you’ve still got to line it up and go again. This is important. We won the 50th running of the Daytona 500 and this is a milestone this year.
"We’ll have a full field, people bumping. We have all our winning cars there at the track and it’s pretty special to see them all there at one time. It will be a whole different feel. That event carries tremendous amount of weight there and it’s good to see it hasn’t lost that."
Adding for Indy
Penske was clear when it came to whether he would consider adding a fourth car to the Team Penske stable for the May 29 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500:
Penske: “We’re not going to run a fourth car at Indy.’’
Sam Hornish Jr.
On whether he’d consider providing support for 2006 Indy winner Sam Hornish to run for someone else:
Penske: “You’d have to ask Sam directly, but (Team Penske President) Tim (Cindric) and I talked about running Sam at the Speedway and that’s really not what he wants to do right now.’’
“He’s never asked us to run him,’’ added Cindric, who was seated next to Penske.
“He and I talked about it but haven’t even broached the subject in the last six to eight weeks,’’ Penske said.
“It’s probably safe to say we’re not going to help someone else beat us,’’ Cindric said with a smile.
“If he’s gonna run, he’s gonna run with us for sure. Let’s put it that way,” Penske reiterated with a laugh.
On whether he thinks NASCAR should hold a Sprint Cup race in Montreal, Penske was thoughtful, but decisive:
Penske: “I think there’s so many Cup races today, I’m not sure we need another one anywhere. At the moment, we need to give to the promoters who have committed their time and money to build the tracks we have here.’’
“I think the Montreal Nationwide (Series) race is great and it’s always a preview of NASCAR in the future. By running Nationwide races they get to know the track and the track understands what it takes to run NASCAR cars vs. Formula One. But at the moment, that’s not up to me, that’s up to the boys in Daytona.
$5 million bonus
On fielding a car in the $5 million IndyCar Challenge at Las Vegas, Penske was in favor of the series trying new concepts to attract fans. But he wouldn’t go so far as to commit to this particular idea, which will feature a $5 million payday to any non-IndyCar Series driver who can win the Oct. 16 season finale. The format is based upon existing teams offering to field extra cars for the “guest” competitors.
Penske: “I think if you’re running for the championship and you’ve got to worry about putting another car in there with someone else.… , well I think it’s a great idea, but the issue is with a team that’s competing to win the championship. I’d much rather win the championship than the $5 million.
“The key thing there is run for the championship. I think there are other things we could do along the way to create more buzz. Some people may want to do it, and that’s fine. We have not committed to fielding another car.
“I think anybody that comes in there to run one race, no testing, other than single-car testing. … they’re going to have a very tough time to compete, I don’t care who it is. I look at it from a safety standpoint more than a competitive standpoint for the drivers. If you haven’t been in one of these things and get to last race, running on an oval, it’s going to be pretty difficult.
“What we used to do, when you wanted to run at Indianapolis, you had to run two races. Now you get into this, 'buying rides.' Buy a Lotus and next thing you know you’re qualified to run in the race. The sport has been under some siege because of the economy. Guys that have come in to buy a ride, I hope sanctioning bodies maintain a level of proficiency before they just let anybody show up and run.
“If I’m running for a championship and we hope to be, I’d say it would be 'highly unlikely' we would (field an extra car)."
On whether anybody has seriously asked Penske to field a car for them at Las Vegas – say his NASCAR Sprint Cup lead driver Kurt Busch – Penske and Cindric broke out big smiles:
Penske: “We’ve had a lot of people call us wanting to know if we’d run a car, but I”ll go back to the same thing I said before. It’s highly unlikely. We (Penske and Busch) kidded about it, but it’s all in jest.”
Explained a grinning Cindric, “They’ve all got an interest in five million bucks.’’