Roger Penske's one year IndyCar revolution

Indycar Racing News

It's one year since Roger Penske bought IndyCar and IMS - as 'The Captain' celebrates his birthday, we look at his impact so far


Roger Penske has already had a seismic impact on both IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 after one year of ownership


Roger Penske has long been the standard when it comes to success both on and off the race track. A man simply known as ‘The Captain’ turns 84 years old this weekend and continues to epitomise the saying, “Effort equals results.”

After a brief conversation with Penske at Laguna Seca in 2019, Tony George concluded with the rest of the Hulman-George family that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR, the sanctioning body of the IndyCar Series, needed a new owner that could take both the track and the series to greater heights than they were capable of – that man was Roger Penske.

The grandson of the man who saved IMS from becoming a distant memory after World War II would no longer be in charge and 74 years of ownership would come to an end for a family from Terre Haute, Indiana. The emotional press conference in November 2019 announced the sale of IMS, INDYCAR and IMS Productions, which was finalised two months later.

Changes were almost immediate at IMS. After Penske toured the entire facility and noted things that could be improved to further enhance the race day experience, work began shortly thereafter on those projects, including renovating over 120 restrooms that were part of the tour.

Perhaps the most visible upgrade was the widening of the sidewalk next to Georgetown Road behind the main straightaway grandstands, giving fans a broader path to and from their seats. New video screens on upper level grandstand support beams now allowed spectators in the lower levels to see more action, as did the upgraded video boards around the rest of the track.

Related article

Some of the more subtle changes, however, are sometimes the ones that stick out the most. While at the IMS last October for an 2021 Indianapolis 500 aerodynamic evaluation test, one could notice that the top of the infield tunnel entrance near the pagoda was now coated in bright yellow paint instead of remaining bare, with new signs indicating vehicular and pedestrian lanes. The eye-catching paint and signs were a reminder; it’s always been about the details for Penske.

On track competitors have known that for decades.

Upon hearing the news that Penske was buying IMS and INDYCAR, many felt that both couldn’t be in better hands, Bobby Rahal included.

“Thank God Roger did buy it,” said the 1986 Indianapolis 500 champion. “Because I really seriously doubt we would’ve had a season last year, that we would’ve had a 500 last year and it’s only because of Roger, his passion for particularly the Indy 500, but all racing, really. His passion is so well known and so strong, that come hell or high water that we were going to be racing for a championship [and] there was going to be a 500.”

Rahal has competed as a driver, a driver/owner and as a team owner against Penske every year since his rookie season in CART dating back to 1982, winning the 1986, 1987 and 1992 CART championships. As a team co-owner with David Letterman and Mike Lanigan, Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing have also won the 2004 and 2020 Indianapolis 500s.

“Thank God Roger did buy it” Bobby Rahal

Rahal’s first concern for his organization was financial. The Ohio native knows of Penske’s ventures and successes, but wanted to make sure the RLLR sponsors were on board with the changes. Rahal hosted a conference call with every sponsor to brief them on what had happened and to answer any questions about who would become IMS’s fourth owner.

“I stated that I felt that this was the best thing that could’ve happened to IndyCar or to the 500,” said Rahal. “To a sponsor, every one said, ‘Yeah, this is the best thing that could’ve happened.’ There’s a lot of support on whatever side of the fence you’re looking in from, so you couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

Especially when the 2020 IndyCar Series was in danger due to the ongoing pandemic. After the March and April rounds of the championship were postponed (or, in some cases, cancelled) and other races were moved around, it was very clear for everybody that 2020 would not be a normal season. Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary leadership, and everybody throughout the paddock felt that.

From the archive

“It was a classic case of everybody understanding that they would have to commit together, that there were going to be sacrifices made and that everybody would follow Roger’s lead,” said Rahal. “Because of that, we had a relatively good season compared to what it might have been.”

While focus has shifted to the 2021 season, the new year offers fans the first chance to see the fruits of INDYCAR and IMS’s Race for Equality and Change hit the track with Penske’s influence.

Announced in July 2020, the Race for Equality and Change aims to develop a more diverse workforce within the IndyCar paddock and larger engagement with more diverse audiences.

One of its first groundbreaking initiatives is the backing of the new all African-American race team Force Indy, set to start out in IndyCar’s variant on Formula 4 – the USF2000 Championship.

Penske’s greeting to Force Indy team principal Rob Reid in their first meeting set the tone immediately:

“Hey, I understand that we’re partners!”

Force Indy

The Force Indy team aims to give African-Americans opportunities in motorsport

Force Indy

Penske’s words upon meeting Nexgeneracers founder Reid was only the start of a collaboration that would help Reid continue the work he started almost 40 years ago to bring more minorities to motorsport.

Reid ran a Formula Super Vee team in the 1980s with Charles Wilson driving. The goal was for Wilson to become the first black driver to race in the Indianapolis 500. After a racing business deal went south in the late 1980s, Reid and Wilson were distraught and left the world of professional racing behind, at least temporarily.

“We were so upset about it, and we said that we weren’t just going to sit down and be defeated,” said Reid. “Let’s see if we can’t make it to where the next black kid doesn’t have to deal with the [stuff] we’re dealing with.”

While Willy T. Ribbs became the first black driver at Indianapolis in 1991, only George Mack has followed in Ribbs’s footsteps in 2002, and the IndyCar paddock has not diversified as much as many have hoped it would.

Reid met with Penske in June 2020 to discuss not only minority outreach, but whether Nexgeneracers would be able to continue their racing activities in the infield parking lot of the Speedway. Since the mid 2000s, Reid’s program has introduced mainly inner-city kids from all across America to karting with lessons about racing, funding and other mechanical topics, culminating in a Grand Prix racing series. Reid told Penske he wanted to take the next step.

“We’ve always wanted to see the black driver at Indy, but that’s happened. Willy made it, we achieved it, and we had George Mack,’” said Reid to Penske. “’But Roger, the black driver is not what I want. I would like to see a black effort, a full team effort led by an African American,’ and that’s what started the discussion about creating a team.”

Reid is now the Team Principal of Force Indy, a team that will race in the 2021 USF2000 championship. The team is focused on hiring black mechanics, engineers and staff to run a single car effort for Atlanta native Myles Rowe while being based near the Team Penske shop initially in North Carolina. While the team is race ready, there’s one piece of the puzzle that Reid is trying to find.

“The biggest thing we need is a sponsor, and that’s what I’m working on.”

After 15 months, worldwide uncertainty about the pandemic may still be strong, but under the leadership of Roger Penske, there’s certainly no fear to be found in the IndyCar paddock.


Paretta Autosport – the all-female IndyCar team

Paretta Autosport

Another of Penske’s initiatives to help diversify motorsport is the all-female Paretta Autosport team

Paretta Autosport

The first initiative announced by IndyCar’s Race for Equality and Change was perhaps it’s most significant for motorsport as a whole: the all-female Paretta Autosport, set to enter this year’s Indianapolis 500 with Simona de Silvestro at the wheel.

Led by Team Principal Beth Paretta, a first attempt at an all-female Indianapolis 500 effort led her to speak with Penske about a partnership with her then-announced Grace Autosport. The original plan was to race in the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016.

However, Team Penske at the time did not have the personnel to properly assemble a technical alliance to run a fifth car at Indianapolis. While Paretta pitched the plan to other teams for 2016, she managed to secure a deal that unfortunately changed unfavorably for Grace Autosport and the team withdrew from the 2016 Indianapolis 500.

Five years later, Paretta is back with Simona de Silvestro and a technical alliance with Team Penske. Paretta secured the alliance with Penske after nearly going a different route in racing.

“I was actually taking a run at sports cars because I love sports car racing,” said Paretta. “I was pretty close to putting a deal together there but then Roger announced the Race for Equality and Change. I reached out to him after that and I said, ‘Tell me more about this, what are you guys doing and is there anything that I can do to help you,’ even in a broad sense.”

While de Silvestro is the main draw for the team as the driver, the effort is female-organized and run, down to the pit crew. Paretta has been inundated with emails and messages on LinkedIn from women wanting to join the team.

Perhaps the most moving part for Paretta has been seeing how prospective pit crew members have progressed in training. The prospects are working with trainers and implementing the skills they are learning in videoed practices, which Paretta watches.

“To see these women, some of whom have never done this before but have a skillset and have a passion to be trying and working hard towards a goal for themselves to be on the pit crew for this team and watching that, […] all of that, I’ll be honest, it’s been a bit emotional because it’s wonderful to see it all finally happening,” said Paretta.

“There’s all these people trying out for the pit crew, they’re not names who you know, but maybe one day they will be, and watching that sort of spark of passion in them when they’re trying out for a potential spot on the team, and whether or not [they make the team] this year or it happens later in the year or next year, I mean we’ll have to see where the skill level gets to, but you start somewhere and watching the start of that is really cool.”

Paretta eventually wants to also create an Indy Lights team in order to fortify the top rung of the Road to Indy and to hire more women to support the Race for Equality and Change.

You may also like