Speedway about to get a shot of ‘Penske perfect’

Roger Penske celebrates with driver Simon Pagenaud after his Indianapolis 500 win this May. It was Team Penske’s 18th Indy 500 victory. (Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

AVONDALE, Arizona—He doesn’t golf, fish or hunt. Roger Penske doesn’t have time for hobbies.

The automobile industry. Transportation. Trucking. Sales. Community improvement. Promotions. That takes up almost all his time.

And, of course, racing.

A man with a rich career that is woven through America’s fabric—last month he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Donald Trump—Penske is celebrating what is probably the crowning achievement of his 82 years: the acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

This year is already on track to be one of the best ever for Penske.

His teams won the Indianapolis 500, the IndyCar championship, the IMSA sports car championship and the V8 Supercars championship, and he has been honored three different times this year by Trump at the White House.

But the jaw-dropping announcement that he had purchased the national landmark in Indianapolis and most of its assets from the family that had owned it for 74 years has given Penske a new legacy. He needed only six weeks to complete the deal, starting the process to become just the fourth owner of Indy in its 110 years the day after Tony George approached him on the pre-race grid at the Sept. 22 IndyCar finale.

The speedway was for sale, George told Penske, and, well, Penske is really the only one who could be entrusted to protect the 2-1/2-mile palace and its iconic Indianapolis 500.

“He’s the Warren Buffet of the automobile industry,” said rival team owner Chip Ganassi. “He’s the right person for this.”

Penske’s purchase warded off the potential of a corporation or group of investors snagging the speedway and trampling over the tradition that looms large on the corner of West 16th Street and Georgetown Road. He made it emotionally easier for George to part with the property his grandfather Tony Hulman had restored after World War II because George knows that “The Captain” and his ironclad corporation will only protect the property.

Penske recalled the first meeting about the potential sale with George and Hulman & Co. head Mark Miles. “My stomach was going 100 miles an hour at that point and I was thinking, ‘How can we do this? We need to do this if this makes sense,’” Penske said. “From that point, we never put our pencils down, maybe it took six weeks, and that’s how we do business. These things that linger, linger, linger put a concern on the people that work here already, and the fact is, we know these people and we aren’t just a lightning rod that showed up one day.”

The deal, believed to have cost Penske $300 million, is expected to close in January. But he already has walked the property, met with the existing management teams and started looking ahead to May’s Indianapolis 500, a race Penske has won a record 18 times.

He credits his success to the way he was raised by his parents, who groomed Penske to be a titan. He spent three childhood summers at Culver Military Academy in northern Indiana, where young boys gathered for eight weeks at a time to learn about leadership, teamwork, integrity and accountability.

His standards have been almost militant since and his work ethic relentless. He and “The Committee” of executives who surround him are always draped in crisp white shirts and pressed black slacks at the racetrack. The Penske work areas are immaculate; literally no detail goes ignored. Penske has been known to oversee the placement of a sponsor decal on a racecar. The beverages in his hospitality coolers are lined up identically, with labels out. Everything is “Penske Perfect” at all times.

Business casual doesn’t exist at Penske Corp. His 64,000 employees are extremely loyal; they understand the Penske mantra, “Effort equals results”; and they strive to meet his standard of excellence.

“Just the way you dress is such a big deal to what Team Penske is all about,” said Penske NASCAR driver Joey Logano. “He is not slowing down at all. Most people in his position might just say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a great company,’ and just ride it out because he’s already established. But he is always looking to better himself.”

Another of Penske’s NASCAR drivers, Ryan Blaney, likened his boss to Yoda, the wise and powerful Jedi master from “Star Wars,” and cited a 2015 discussion with Penske after Blaney had given away the 2015 Xfinity Series win at Indy to Kyle Busch and was immensely disappointed to have failed his team owner.

“He likes to text—he texts me a lot—and so I got the lead from Kyle with, like, 25 to go and I messed up off of [turn] 2 and gave the win to Kyle. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I lost a race at Indy for Roger—that’s so embarrassing,’” Blaney said. “And he texted me to come to his bus the next day. And I was so scared. This was just a couple years of me into driving for him, and I was certain I was going to get fired and it was terrible and my career was over.

“But he sat me down and he was very reassuring, helped get my confidence back up and told me, ‘We all make mistakes, but it’s how you learn from those mistakes and grow from them that is important.’ It was something really special, for him to dig me out of that hole, something I will never forget.”

George and the Hulman family won’t ever forget what Penske did in stepping up to claim stewardship of their family heirloom. George struggled several times with his emotions during the news conference announcing the sale and has declined further interviews.

“It’s obviously emotional, emotionally difficult, hence the choking up. We all love it, and we all care deeply for it. I think we all realize that, as a family and as an organization, we probably had taken it as far as we can,” George said. “I think that Roger, his structure, his resources, his capabilities that he demonstrates, [are] only going to take this to another level.

“We’re supporting that—elevating this asset and staking a new claim on its future. We, with emotion, are happy to be here today.”•

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Mike Lopresti is off this week.

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