Race Weekend Central

Roger Penske’s First Indy 500 Hasn’t Been Going to Plan

It’s safe to say that Roger Penske‘s first Indy 500 as owner of both IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hasn’t gone as planned. Between a global pandemic, a chopped purse, a fanless event, and his own team’s significant problems at the legendary track, things honestly seem like they couldn’t have gotten much worse. But Penske’s handling of the struggles have only proved that he’s the right man for the job. 

“Roger Penske continues pulling rabbits out of his hat, so to speak. The fact that we have any schedule at all is testament to his level of prescience,” Sam Schmidt, co-owner of the Arrow McLaren SP team, told Motorsport—and he’s right. 

We’ve seen some whiplash decisions made with the IndyCar schedule lately. Cancellations followed by reschedulings followed by more cancellations followed by sudden, last-minute doubleheaders have been brutal, but the only way they could be negotiated is with a competent leader at the helm. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Roger Penske making this complex IndyCar season work. 

Fans were looking forward to seeing what Penske had done with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He intended to improve seating, video boards, parking lots, and restrooms while creating other entry points to more easily get fans into the track. He added three miles of fencing around the track and built a lift out of Victory Lane.

Anyone who has been to IMS in recent years knows that changes have been much needed—especially with those bathrooms. The track is over 100 years old, which means it’s a constant improvement project, but Penske seemed to understand better than most others what it would take from a fan’s perspective.

And there were big promises for the 500 itself: the addition of $2 million fo the race purse, with 15 minutes added to the “Last Row Shootout” in order to enable potentially bumped teams to try to get into the field more than once. It was a recipe that promised to keep building the prestige of the Indy 500.

Things haven’t played out that way, much to everyone’s disappointment: the fans’, the drivers’, and certainly Roger Penske’s.

This Sunday’s event will be a difficult one, a crown jewel in a strange and difficult season. But it’s difficult to imagine what would have happened had Penske not been at the helm. He is The Captain, after all, and he’s kept this ship from taking on water before disaster could strike.

The 2020 IndyCar season continues Aug. 23 with the 104th Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The race will air at 1:00 p.m. ET on NBC.

About the author

Elizabeth Blackstock is lead IndyCar writer for Frontstretch, a freelance journalist, and a novelist. She earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Texas at Austin and is currently pursuing a dual MFA/MA degree at Arcadia University. She is in love with her car, a 2013 Mazda 2.

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