Penske talks IMS capacity, how they came to 135k and why they didn’t add more fans on top of it, future of the series, on more ovals and goal moving forward

INDIANAPOLIS — Roger Penske typically hosts the media in some capacity here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Its went from a dinner to lunches and for the first time, a breakfast this morning. Following the completion of the event, Penske was generous and met with a small group of media to chat on an impromptu level for a little over 20 minutes on various topics. I was lucky enough to be among the select few chatting with the Captain. 

Penske, noted in his speech during the event that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a seating capacity of 235k. That’s been one thing that’s been widely speculated on how many seats does IMS have. No one really fully knew. Was it 200k? 215k?

Well Penske gave us the official count and that is 235k. He said this morning that he’s thrilled that all 135k seats that they were allowed to fill were sold out, but the thing a lot of folks wondered, how did they get to that number? 

It’s 40-percent of if you add it up, 40% of 235k is less than 135k. Well, he divulged on the process. 

“The fact that we sold out, I mean we still have people that want tickets but we have to live within the guidelines,” he told us on Friday morning in the Penske hospitality unit. “Quite honestly, three weeks ago, we hadn’t had the green light to have anybody. Mark Miles working with the mayor. This was the mayor of Indianapolis. The responsibility of that was Mayor Hogsett.”

Penske said that they put together a plan for 135k but said that at the time, they nearly had 200k tickets sold. The problem was, they had no idea how many people they’d be allowed to accommodate out of that number or even how many of that grouping wanted to come this May. 

“So we put together the plan for 135k and quite honestly just to put it in perspective, we gave credits for over 60k so just put that into perspective, it means we had 200k that were ready to come,” Penske continued. “The 135k that were here plus another 60k+ that’s going to come next year. It just shows you the strength of this place. I had never realized at all the commitment that people want to have here. We’re going to continue to fine tune it.”

Could they go over 135k with the new unveilings and CDC recommendations?

“Basically we were glad to get to 135k to be honest with you,” he said. “We used the percentage of 300k or more. That’s a big number to start with but the city was only at 25% but they had to change their declaration from 25% to 50% before we could even get to 135k. To me and the seat number is 235k. It’s still going to look like we had a lot of people and we will. We had 200k ready to come here so we had to come with with a decision on if they’re coming or not so we had to have a discussion with the mayor that we need to know one way or the other. We were committed, we’re happy with it. The good news is that is started to roll here and we’re opening up America and we’re going to be a premiere event in doing so in a couple of days.”

Penske says that while some may question on if he wonders if he made a mistake from this purchase or not, he quickly said that he’d do it all over again if he had to. He’s in this for the long haul. 

“I would do the same transaction again. I just see the benefits on a longer term basis,” he said. “I kind of want to run this business of anticipation not of exception. I think that’s kind of how the people have done in the past. What we need to do is we need to anticipate and that’s our goal moving forward for the next several months.

“I want people to come here to see that we really care about them, their experience. I was thrilled to see the number of young people here. You just don’t see that at a lot of the other races. The track needed work on the outside. It still does. We invested $1 million into the golf course. We think it’s also a product to where we can bring sponsors here. 

“We’re working on taking our NASCAR cars that we won’t be able to run this year and we want to make a dozen of those so we can have ride cars. In fact I looked at one the day before yesterday at the shop down in Mooresville and we can even take the nose and the tail off so if we want to have a Toyota event we can have a dozen Toyota’s or we can even have dozen Fords or a dozen Chevy’s.

“My biggest concern is what have we missed with all of it. I’m not so sure I’m on a straight road right now. I don’t know which way to turn. It’s rewarding personally. I think the fact that we’ve got so many of our people on our team here will make a big difference. I don’t think we’re on a straight road yet. We need to get the pandemic behind us.

“Do we put lights in here, do we have a long distance road race. Those are areas that we’re interested in.”

Penske divulged on other info too. He talked on various topics including TV contract, the future of his No. 2 team in NASCAR and the schedule. 

“We need to get the TV contract wrapped up,” he said. “Our tracks want to do business with us but more tracks want to do a long term business. What I will say is that we don’t need to have 20-25 races. Number 2 if we’re into 15, 16, 17, we must have a mix. We must have short ovals, gotta have 1.5’s potential and have to have big tracks like here. We need permanent road courses and street courses. A lot of these street events get us to a new potential fan that we never would have gotten to. There’s something exciting downtown. I think those are the things first and foremost for me.”

Short ovals?

“I would like to add more,” he said. “We talked about Richmond. We talked about can we go back to Iowa. See Iowa’s a great track for these cars and I think those are all areas that our guys are working on for sure?”

On Michigan making a return?

“I don’t know about Michigan at this point. We haven’t talked about Michigan yet. I wouldn’t say it isn’t but there’s ovals and I think our team is looking at those. I just don’t want it to be a sports car series. We’ve got to be ready to run at the Indianapolis 500. This is an oval series with that being the crown jewel then we just got to build below it. I think the road races are good because you can’t run ovals in cities and then you get the benefit of the fan base and hopefully that’s going to help us grow overall. It’s going to take a step at a time to grow this.”

On doubleheaders?

“Getting date equity is really important. Having these dates getting taken away from us has really hurt us. You think you’re running and then you don’t run so you’re having to get a doubleheader which is really just a bandage on a sore. I think the fact that we’re going to Nashville which is a new track, lots of excitement. If you looked at what we did, I wanted to be sure that we had a training session, a test session. We were here for 2 days. I’ve never seen 32 cars here before the ‘500. 

NASCAR/INDYCAR weekends?

“NASCAR partnered with us. We had a long discussion, do we want to run with the INDYCAR’s on the same weekend and I think we need to do some of that. It’s going to be exciting to come here and see all three disciplines on the same road course on the same weekend. It brings different fan bases together and hopefully it generates them to come together.”

“Rather than rent the track for $25k, we want to build partnerships. It’s special”

TV package?

“We’re having conversations right now with NBC that I think are productive. First thing we had to do was get our sponsor, NTT together to we did it and now Mark is that’s really his responsibility. He’s done well. The partner is good but I think it could be done better. One of the things that you’ve seen, IMSP isn’t involved in Mecum, professional bullriding or anything else. We’re involved in one thing and it has to do with the series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I think that focus will make it even better.”

Missing his old role as a strategist?

“That’s one of the downsides of this whole thing is where do I got to watch this thing. I’ve got a spot on top of the pagoda where I’ve got a screen for the TV feed and the timing and I can watch the cars. I’m not on anybody’s radio but just a spectator with a high view.”

Youth movement?

“I think these younger people, this is the change of the guard. You see it in NASCAR. I think it’s positive. These kids want to race. Remember the group that’s coming up now started off in go karts. They started off in the ladder series. There’s a real process so when they get here, they’re ready to race. The quality of teams up and down the pits have never been better. Look we had bumping here and we almost got bumped out. That’s the way it should be. I thought it was 1995 for a little while there.”

No. 2 car in NASCAR?

“We really haven’t made any decisions at this point. We have a contract with Brad through the end of the year and we’ll make a decision when that’s over.”

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