Roger Penske insists his commitment to Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series remains steadfast as the world waits for the coronavirus pandemic to end.
The American industrialist, who turned his racing hobby into a business empire, agreed last fall to become just the fourth owner of national landmark racetrack in a deal with the Hulman-George family, which had controlled American open-wheel racing since Tony Hulman bought the dilapidated speedway in 1945.
But before he could run his first Indianapolis 500 as owner of both the track and the series, Penske on Thursday postponed the race until Aug. 23, marking the first time it won't be run on Memorial Day weekend since 1946.
"This was a commitment we made not for one year; it's a lifelong commitment for our family and the company and all of our people," Penske said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The disappointment certainly is there. But you know, I've looked at it as an opportunity to show people that we're still committed to the sport. We want to rally the team, let them know we are supporting them."
Penske had his heart set on opening the speedway gates in May to a property he intends to make as pristine and revered as Augusta National. He's put so much personal effort into pumping up the Indy 500 -- from dumping an additional $2 million into the purse to push it to a record $15 million to upgrading the decrepit bathrooms and adding hand dryers -- that giving up Memorial Day weekend and Indianapolis' celebration of the national holiday was not easy.
"You have to make a decision, you just have to, with the number of people involved," Penske said. "If we wait all the way until May to make these decisions, and you make a last-minute decision, now you don't have a television partner because you don't know what the Olympics are doing. Then the Olympics opened up, so I said, 'Look, I want those dates.'"
Penske, at 83 and considered high risk for the virus as a 2017 kidney transplant recipient, still works 12 or more hours a day from his conference room at Penske Corp., which has a skeleton crew practicing social distancing. Penske has 60,000 employees across the world in an organization in constant flux because of the COVID-19 crisis.
"I took the road that gave us the longest distance, five months," Penske said. "If this thing isn't over in five months, we've got bigger problems."
Penske noted that North Carolina, where the vast majority of NASCAR teams are located, as is his entire Team Penske operation, is on lockdown, so there aren't any cars to be built. He's put a team of Penske officials in charge of exploring laws in each state to build a clearinghouse so teams from any series can determine what, if anything, they are eligible for under the $2 trillion coronavirus response bill.
He also said the full-time IndyCar teams will be paid as scheduled from the series' bonus programs.
"We've committed the first three commitments through their leaders circle to pay them. We're doing everything we can to help them," Penske said.
IndyCar had hoped to open its season with the road course race at Indianapolis on May 9, but that event has been moved to July 4, mere hours after NASCAR's debut with the Xfinity Series on the same circuit. It will be an unprecedented doubleheader if it goes off as scheduled on one weekend.
Even though NASCAR is expected to revamp its schedule in 2021, with Penske dealing directly with NASCAR president Steve Phelps and executive Steve O'Donnell. It saved the road course race from becoming a mundane IndyCar event and instead created what could be a first of its kind as the Cup Series is scheduled to run the oval the next day.
"Everybody had their fingerprints on it one time or another," Penske said. "Ben Kennedy came and looked at the track himself to get a look at the track before we could get Xfinity on it. Then with the coronavirus, when it looked like [May 9] was going to be in trouble, we talked about was there an ability for us to run the IndyCar race with The Brickyard? And that was the discussion with Steve Phelps and then the work with O'Donnell and General Motors. We hope we can do something really special."
One loss for IndyCar's Grand Prix is that Australian V8 SuperCars champion Scott McLaughlin will no longer make his IndyCar debut in that event, Penske said, because of the hectic schedule and lack of practice time.
For now, IndyCar is scheduled to start the season with a doubleheader at Belle Isle in Detroit, the one race Penske promotes, at the end of May. It can be adjusted if needed, Penske said, because Belle Isle could run later in the year. He also said he's hopeful a return can be worked out with St. Petersburg, Florida, which had the street course built to host the March 15 season opener until the race was called off 48 hours before green flag.
"At the end of October, there's open dates there," Penske said. "And, you know, we'll see how we come out at the end of the other end. But I think the one thing is the most important race that we have has at least 150 days and, you know, running that is the priority."
Penske said he'll tune in to iRacing for the first time on Saturday when IndyCar drivers and NASCAR's seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson will stage a virtual race to give fans content. He said he's had no exposure to esports, noting his grandchildren play hockey and lacrosse.
As to the notion that Penske will ensure that IndyCar and the Indy 500 weather the coronavirus, he's heard the praise from fellow team owners on his conference calls and appreciates their faith.
"It was a huge relief to get something decided with the 500, not only for me, but the community and the industry. It needed to be locked down," Penske said. "Within this small group, the team owners, I've built the credibility with them both on and off the track. And that means more to me than the next ticket. I've got to use every tool I have, all the people we have contacts with, in order to help our teams make the series the best we can. It's going to be great once we get on the track."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.