Race Weekend Central

Michael Andretti and Roger Penske Need to Talk

NTT IndyCar Series owner Roger Penske and Andretti Global team owner Michael Andretti need to have a meeting Monday morning.

That has to happen. Bring in the staffers and other leaders, like Bud Denker, Mark Miles, Jay Frye and Rob Edwards, but these two long time competitors need to get on the same page, and it needs to be done ASAP after Sunday’s (March 10) race.

Since the IndyCar teams rolled into St Petersburg for the 2024 season kick-off event, there has been more focus on the dynamics of the series operational approach and growth than on the race. The highlight is an The Indianapolis Star story by Nathan Brown quoting Andretti with a very visceral statement: “…sell the series.”

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This is high quality reporting, and it’s important not to jump at that one line, diving into the whole story is necessary to see where Andretti was going in his conversation. But even mentioning that as a counter to what he perceives as a lack of more investment by Penske Entertainment in the series just is a gut punch. 

After all, if not for Penske’s commitment to his investment in 2019 when he bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar from the Hulman family this weekend’s racing events may not exist. COVID shut the world down and IndyCar had to run a majority of their season in 2020 without fans. That included the critical Indianapolis 500 which is the biggest revenue generator for the series. Penske and his consorts of companies have further propped up Iowa Speedway, added the Milwaukee Mile back to the schedule, and rehabbed the grounds of IMS so much that it looks more like Augusta National than the world famous center of toilet troughs. 

Still it’s mind boggling what has happened to IndyCar over the last four to six months between video game challenges and delays in the hybrid deployment. It doesn’t matter who caused the issues, it all rests at the series feet because that’s where the proverbial buck stops. 

But this sharp opinion sharing in the media on the eve of the first race doesn’t need to happen. At least not now. The focus should be on the stories on the track, so the competition can move the needle with fans and later gain the interest of top dollar media companies as the series negotiates a new TV deal, ironically enough to bring in a higher annual fee. Starting the season with an owner suggesting that Penske, of all people, sell the series in which the previous owners led by Tony George hand-picked Penske to pass on “stewardship” of his family’s prized possession is not a smart business decision. 

It’s clear that the way Andretti has gone about this weekend has irked some of the other owners, regardless if they shared his perspective or not. Chip Ganassi, Penske’s most consistent rival in the series, told The Indianapolis Star that he didn’t agree with the way Andretti had shared that opinion to the media.

“Anybody that can run the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with no fans in the stands? He’s got my vote,” the long-time owner told a group of reporters including Nathan Brown.

“He coughed up the money to buy the place, and he coughed it up during COVID and kept the series running. I’m going to give him a pass for a couple years, yeah? Let him get back on his feet. I’m not going to sharp-shoot him. I don’t want to forget about COVID so quickly and all the effects that had.”

Ganassi is right.

There is a lot of behind the scenes stuff going on in the paddock right now. Talk of a charter style system that will provide value to teams in liquid assets to sell hit a wall when it was brought up a $1 million buy-in could be a requirement. That apparently went no where, as it should have.

The teams currently get a participation check from the series in the form of the Leaders Circle program which pays the top-22 in owners points reportedly over a million dollars. 

They receive that cash for competing just like any other season. If revenues weren’t going to go up immediately with the charters, then why on earth would any business owner invest money into a system that they already receive a cut just for racing and finishing in the top 22? If there was a massive increase in payouts such as half of the estimated $5-$9 million annual budgets teams put together, then that’s a better deal. 

Then there is a perpetual feeling that the series slow, steady growth isn’t meeting the desires of the stakeholders who tirelessly work to put cars on track. Other sports series are investing big money into their sport and the sticker shock of network deals probably lend to thoughts of “why not us?” Who wouldn’t want to see a nine-to-10 digit TV deal that would be reinvested into the sport? 

IndyCar isn’t there yet. However it can get there by continuing a positive trajectory, as the series recently pointed to growth in at-track attendance, merchandise sales and television ratings. The St. Pete race is even tracking ahead of their record attendance from a year ago (not like you’d know that though with this drama taking the headline). The evidence suggests Penske Entertainment is gaining some ground. 

That didn’t seem to matter to Andretti, who perhaps is venting too much to the media these days anyway. He’s repeatedly taken to the outlets he can to voice frustrations over his attempts to join the Formula 1 grid, which was officially declined by the organization earlier this year. For a man that has been hugely successful worldwide in Motorsports which makes clear he has an acute business acumen, it’s befuddling that he takes this approach. In military parlance, this is more ‘shock and awe,’ when ‘hearts and minds’ would build a better bridge. 

The aftermath is that the race weekend is already overshadowed and perhaps Andretti has ticked off the one person he shouldn’t – Penske. While his race driver Josef Newgarden took pole, Penske will need to commit some mental energy to address this challenge with his stakeholder. It’s important that he does, because Andretti isn’t just a prominent part in the IndyCar garage, he’s heavily involved in the junior series Indy NXT and possesses the most important name in IndyCar racing. If these two remain at odds it would be like Richard Petty having a significant beef with Bill France Jr. in their heyday. Or Michael Jordan verbally burning NBA Commissioner David Stern at the stake in the Chicago Tribune or Sun-Times in the 1990s.

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Let’s examine a way this can be quickly solved. In the military – sorry for a second analogy like this but it works here – there are officers and enlisted. Sometimes, when things get heated in a formation between the most senior enlisted person and officer (the two most important people in any unit), the officer consults with the senior enlisted and takes them aside to privately discuss the problem, or sometimes, the challenge of authority. All officers are in charge of their formation, i.e. business. While they may not make all day-to-day decisions, it’s their unit, their business to run. There is absolutely no complaining to the rest of the team, and none of their grievances are aired outside the unit.

A similar approach needs to be taken between Penske and Andretti. The officer, in this case Penske, can end the misaligned subordinate where they stand if they so desire. It sends a message but it might not further buy-in and faith in the person in charge. Nor will it prevent future challenges or questioning of authority.  

Another choice is to have a one-on-one conversation. Talk frankly about the vision, openly communicate about expectations and intent, such as why things are going this way or perhaps aren’t happening. Then listen. Penske can give Andretti the opportunity to speak his mind, present his concerns, after all he is the leader of his own formation, a team of not just dozens of employees but families. When all is said and done, the two can either agree to disagree or shake hands, committing to one another a faith in direction and vision. Hopefully there’s talk of engaging with each other directly in future rather than talking business with outsiders. 

And as Andretti leaves that meeting, Penske should pat his rival and key stakeholder on the back and frankly tell him, “Don’t ever suggest I sell this again.”

That’s a way that could go down. There are many others, and that doesn’t matter as long as the meeting happens for the sake of the series, the fans, and the future. 

Now, let’s get back to the race.

About the author

Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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Gang green

God forbid anyone criticize Penske.

Jeremy

The good (and the bad) thing is that in my opinion they have all the pieces in place – the teams are solid, there is a great depth of talented drivers – all with interesting personalities and racing styles. The booth coverage with Diffey, Bell and Hinchcliffe is good. This all culminates to the best on track product out there right now (of the major racing players). The bad is that if they can’t or don’t capitalize NOW, it could all be for naught.

Penske, Andretti, Ganassi, and others are no dummies when it comes to racing and business – they all have extensive resumes and trophy shelves to prove that. The challenge is getting them all focused and in agreement with the same game plan to capitalize on the opportunity that is staring them all in the face.

James Hook

Maybe F1 has just made it’s point of why they don’t want him to buy into their precious series.

Mike

Great article….what I would add is that Andretti has a problem with taking his anger and frustration out by going to the press and it always backfiring. When he and his dad went public with F1 even before they were denied and that cemented their rejection. Andretti has a pile of cash burning a hole in his pocket and like many people in business once they get their funding, it makes them feel like a player and start acting like one. Andretti is calling Penske out like he is a fellow billionaire and he just isn’t…we all know Liberty and Andretti are the people on the sidelines and Penske rejected their offer to buy in so now he organized a mini coup and then bitched about it to the press and called our Roger as a way to get even and plant seeds of doubt among the other owners. This is far from over and I bet Andretti isn’t done trying to create a vote of no confidence or some hostile takeover in some way.

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