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INDIANAPOLIS — Risk is by no means a foreign concept to an 83-year-old Roger Penske in the midst of a pandemic world.
Sure, “The Captain” greets acquaintances with an elbow bump instead of firm handshake, as he flashes a cheeky grin at the awkwardness of it all. And yes, he sports a surgical mask while roaming the grounds of his recently renovated Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But simply to exist outside the confines of your home, as COVID-19 continues to shutter bars and restaurants around the country, is to recognize that those dangers haven’t disappeared.
And they won’t by the time Penske plans to host his first Indianapolis 500 on Aug. 23 – but that’s not going to stop him.
In an exclusive sit-down with IndyStar, Penske made clear the mindset that helped mold his team’s 50% capacity plan for this year’s Indy 500 is centered around faith in people, trust in his team’s planning and a knowledge that the entire sport he now controls would struggle to function without the largest single day sporting event in the world.
“There’s risk wherever you go today, and no one knows who they should stand next to and who they shouldn’t – even the two of us,” Penske told IndyStar, sitting across an IMS conference room Wednesday afternoon. “I can’t guarantee anything, but at the same time, we can’t shut the world down, shut commerce down.
“There certainly isn’t a commercial benefit for us with what we’re doing, but with what we’re going through, we haven’t stopped investing.”
Opinions have been mixed on social media following Penske Entertainment Corp.’s announcement last Friday regarding fan attendance at this year’s Indy 500, and the boss is more than aware. A billionaire who said he has been forced to keep 20% of his 27,000 Penske Automotive Group employees on furlough – a drop from 57% – is no stranger to the complicated health and financial decisions business leaders in all sectors currently face.
The goal, Penske said, wasn’t to try and please all 100,000-plus patrons that will attend this year’s Indy 500, or the millions of other Indiana residents and fans that won’t.
But with more health and safety measures coming in a couple weeks, and having already pledged that all patrons will receive temperature checks, their own mask and hand sanitizer bottle, Penske said he feels his team and city and state health officials struck a “middle ground.”
“That (50%) number came down to this: we wanted to go to our ticket holders and start with everyone getting two tickets (or 50% of their larger order), and if they want more, they can get it in possibly a different place,” he said. “It’s not scientific.”
He went on to say he doesn’t have a specific goal on ticket sales, or even really know how the fan survey sent out and due on July 6 will shake out. But in working with state and local health officials, if they’d allowed as much as, say 75% capacity in 2020, they may have ended up with more than they could handle, Penske said.
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Allowing more than 250,000 fans across the grandstands, infield and suites, might not have communicated the proper severity and care needed for fans to remember the importance of keeping each other safe.
Already, though, a handful of fans rejoiced on Twitter over the weekend, excited to attend on Aug. 23, yet stating adamantly of their plans not to wear a mask. With the present plans in place, Penske hopes those fans will be few and far between, even given the undoubtedly steamy afternoon they’ll be spending at IMS.
“Everyone’s getting their temperature taken” he said. “Everyone is being provided with a mask. Everyone is getting sanitizer. We’re giving them the tools, and it’s up to people, individually and collectively, to make the next step.
“The people that come to this race, I think they respect the race, and that’s why they’re coming back – even in these conditions.”
Opponents of last Friday’s decision to hold fans in such a capacity – or to host them at all come Aug. 23 – have claimed holding the largest gathering in the world since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic is simply a money grab. In Penske, they see a billionaire scrambling to make ends meet after he and his businesses suffered an economic freefall in March.
And in Penske Entertainment Corp. president and CEO Mark Miles telling fans not to expect a lift of the traditional local blackout, those same fans paint the picture of a company strong-arming ticket sales out of lifetime race attendees who, for they and their family’s health, are on the fence whether to go.
But with that blackout still looming, many have said they’ll likely hold onto a portion of their tickets and forgo their chance for a full 2021 ticket credit while they cling to the option of attending in seven weeks. And if nothing changes between now and race day, the pull of the Speedway, as dangerous as some public health experts claim it may be, will be hard to resist.
Penske’s response was this: “Anyone who doesn’t want to come, for any reason, can get a credit for next year. The people that come want to be here and us to have a race (can come). I’ve never made this decision in history to have it (blacked out) or not, but at this point, I’m not ready to make a decision on that.”
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Further, Penske told IndyStar he’d like to re-address the term “blackout”, with this year’s race set to go green around 2:30 p.m. and finish at 5:30 p.m., and a local re-air to begin at 7 p.m.
“I’m not calling it a ‘blackout’. We’re calling it a ‘delay’,” he said. “People can still all watch it within a 5-6 hour timeframe. And I’ve read the comments, but quite honestly, that’s not our biggest decision we have right now.”
Though his further claim that “nobody will be disadvantaged” doesn’t quite ring true, with the threat of a “delay” a blow to folks that have been used to watching the race live by attending all their lives, Penske asserts no part of his ownership of IMS or IndyCar has been about a profit.
“None of this is to line our pockets with gold,” he said.
Since the acquisition, Penske told IndyStar he poured $15 million into recent renovations – nearly all centered around guest experience, safety and general upkeep to further the facelift IMS received ahead of the 100th running in 2016.
“This isn’t about waving a fistful of bills. This is an investment, and it’s about the history of all this,” he said. “I want to be sure we’re not selfish, that we’re guided to do the right thing, and that we have outside support.
“This is not all inside. We have the right people – some state and some city – supporting our decisions. We’re not doing it by ourselves.”
Multiple times, Penske said he’d be satisfied with what he calls a “Super Bowl crowd” for Aug. 23 – ranging from the max capacity of 2020 Super Bowl host Hard Rock Stadium (just over 65,000) to the max the Cowboys can cram into Jerry World (beyond 100,000).
And those would be spread across a facility where some guests are separated by nearly a mile and that could physically fit all 14 Big Ten football stadiums (combined capacity nearly 1,000,000), or a combination of the Vatican, the Taj Mahal, Churchill Downs, the Rose Bowl, the White House, New York’s Liberty Island, Yankee Stadium and the Roman Coliseum.
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“We don’t know yet what the number will be. We could end up with 80, 90 or 100,000. We don’t know yet today what the people want. We know some want to come back, but is that half? Is it a third?” he said.
Though he wouldn’t clarify whether IndyCar and IMS would stand to profit with a half-full IMS for this year’s race, Penske asserted again that this current attendance plan wasn’t as much about his own financial statement, as much as the viability of the entire series. And though he owns the whole thing and stands to succeed as it does, his passion for open-wheel racing thriving in America extends far beyond the profit he can turn.
He wants it to because, frankly, he needs it. He cares that much and believes in it that deeply, stemming from his first trip to IMS with his day in 1951 and his decades in the sport that would follow.
To reap success and show strength is to be active, not reactive. And to have faith is to take on risk on the backs of others. And he’ll be the first to tell you he has reached the pinnacle of his business career because of those he’s surrounded himself with – race fans included.
Together, he believes, they can show the rest of the world come August the potential that lives in continuing to work among a tough, sometimes unclear circumstances.
“We’ve got to be sure that the IndyCar Series is successful, and that’s built on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so a failing IMS could affect the IndyCar series,” he said. “And there are teams’ sponsors that need this race. Even if there’s a smaller crowd, or people can’t bring everyone they want, at least we can execute the event.
“And the whole world is going to be looking at this thing. We’re gonna be under a fine lens in many different areas, and my goal is to be responsible and execute, so we can show people we know we have what it takes to get it done. It has to be orderly, and somewhat scientific on a lot of things we do, but you can execute it if you have the right people.
“If you asked me, ‘Would you do this all again?’ I’d say, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.