Mike Lopresti: Emotion mixes with excitement as iconic track changes hands

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Ladies and gentlemen, start your Penskes.

Up there on the dais Monday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a tale of two men. Roger Penske, on one of the most fulfilling days of his life. And to his left, Tony George, on one of the most emotional.

Fulfillment first.

Since his relentlessly winning team has produced 18 Indianapolis 500s victories—roughly one of every six names on the Borg-Warner trophy drove his cars—we knew Roger Penske owned the Speedway. But we didn’t know he would own the Speedway. Not until Monday.

And really, once the Hulman-George clan decided it was time to sell the family keepsake, could you think of anyone better? Anyone at all? Penske has the magic name and the money and the expertise and credibility and the track record—both on and off the track.

He knows the acreage on West 16th Street like he knows his own backyard. Well, at least the pits and the garages. Oh, and one other site. “I like the winner’s circle. I do know what that looks like,” he said Monday at the press conference. He plans to take a walk to every corner of the Speedway to learn about everywhere else.

Tony Hulman purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1945 from Wilbur Shaw. (Photo courtesy of IMS.)

Penske appreciates the tradition and the importance of giants of the past. He dropped the names of two men he had called Monday morning before the press session: A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. Yeah, he understands Indy, and has the trophies to prove it. His life has been a gilded success story, and a lot of that is because of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His father took him there in 1951 as a teenager and he fell in love with the place, and soon he will truly own it.

It’s not every day you see a man accepting one of the biggest challenges of his career at the age of 82, on the spot he learned to cherish at 14. “Today I hope my dad’s looking down at me and looking at this group and saying, `Son, you did a good job’” Penske said.

Do fairy tales get much better?

Ah, but not everyone gets a 100% happy ending. Did you see the look on Tony George’s face Monday morning?

The thing about the start of a new era—it means the end of an old era. And there George sat Monday, his voice breaking twice when he talked about how he grew up just down the street, and the Speedway has not only been his home but his life. On Nov. 14, it will be exactly 74 years to the day his grandfather Tony Hulman bought a dilapidated Speedway that had begun to crumble in disuse during World War II.

Some reports back then claimed Hulman was partly motivated by the belief it’d be a swell marketing tool for his baking soda. Whatever, he saved the day, and the track has been in the family ever since, through 74 races and 13 U.S. presidents and one civil war in auto racing. It could not have been easy to be the face of the Hulman legacy, on the day it was announced the Speedway will soon belong to someone else—no matter the renown and the respect given the new owner.

“It’s obviously emotionally difficult, hence the choking up,” George said Monday. “We all love it and we care deeply for it, and I think we all realized that as a family and an organization, we probably had taken it as far as we can.

“Everybody who comes here has their own story, the memories and the accomplishments that make it special for them. We’re just fortunate that our family has had a 73-year run being part of it.”

You wonder what was going on in Tony George’s heart the moment he and the family decided to sell. Or the mixed feelings when he pulled Penske aside this fall and said they needed to get together to talk about “stewardship” of the Speedway. “He got a very serious look on his face,” George said, and added further conversation developed with “an email, then another email the next morning.”

Grandpa Tony didn’t communicate that way when he was looking into buying the place back in ’45.

You wonder what was echoing through George’s soul when Penske said yes, and the deal could be done.

Seventy-four years. The end of the line.

“We, with emotion, are happy to be here today,” George said. “It is somewhat bittersweet, but we’re very, very proud.”

His own legacy must include the messy split between his Indy Racing League and CART that nearly wrecked the sport and the Indianapolis 500. But he has put a lot of love—and money—into the Speedway, and been around for the recent revival as well. He’s proven to be a survivor. He need not step aside worried about the future, and should be delighted about turning over the keys to the front gate to Roger Penske.

That doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.

IMS could be rightfully excited about some of the possibilities under Penske. He mentioned a 24-hour race. An IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader weekend. More investment. Anything might be on the table. George, still with a racing team, perked up on that.

“If Roger has a 24-hour race, by George, I think we’re going to try to be here,” he said.

But a family business that crossed the boundaries of centuries is no more. Can’t be easy. While the racing world applauds the new owner of the Speedway with one intriguing thought—what will Roger do?—another question surely had to wander through Tony George’s mind on this momentous Monday.

What would Tony Hulman be thinking?

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5 thoughts on “Mike Lopresti: Emotion mixes with excitement as iconic track changes hands

  1. Great news all around. I was a little surprised that no one has mentioned Roger’s age and what the succession plan is for his organization and the company he just bought. Perhaps I missed it.

    1. I agree, although I wish him a long life and great health, we know that at best Mr. Penske will only have a relatively few years to oversee the future of the Speedway. What happens next?

  2. Roger Penske loves the IMS and has the years here to prove it, but what happens when he moves on? Who are his successors? Have they ever been here? What’s their commitment to Indianapolis and the IMS? Would they just be interested in the money to the detriment of the fans, racing teams, track traditions and city? All that real estate would be a developer’s dream. Would they sell it OR increase tickets so much that average fans can no longer attend to justify selling it? Will they fail to make improvements unless taxpayers pick up the bill? Has the Hulman-George family extracted the kind of in-writing promises to make sure Penske AND HIS SUCCESSORS must protect this racing icon and the fan base which has sustained it?

    The Penske purchase has provided short-term delirium, but at what long-term cost?