How video game move underlines Penske's visionary credentials

Roger Penske was unfortunate to take charge of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway just as the global pandemic hit. But the far-sighted leadership that made his team into US motorsport's gold standard is already paying dividends to the series too, with a video game announcement another step in the right direction

How video game move underlines Penske's visionary credentials

Today’s announcement that Roger Penske and Penske Entertainment have boosted the IndyCar Series’ profile and its audience’s horizons with a new video game comes as no surprise.

Penske has reached an exclusive agreement with Motorsport Games (NASDAQ:MSGM) to bring an official IndyCar game to market in 2023, which will open up an untapped mass-market of racing gamers who have for years been crying out for a follow-up to the last licensed game featuring the series’ cars, tracks, drivers and teams in 2005.

It’s the latest significant step taken by the legendary team owner since the 84-year-old took custody of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2019 and to those who have observed and listened to ‘The Captain’ over the decades is merely the latest evidence of his forward thinking.

Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time IndyCar champion Rick Mears, who has remained part of the Team Penske set-up since he retired in 1993 as a driver advisor, has worked with Penske for over 40 years and is well placed to provide an insight.

“Apart from talking about drivers and some of the racing itself, I usually stay quiet and just listen to Roger,” he says. “Any of the bigger stuff about the sport itself – where we’re going and so on – I’ll have opinions, but whatever I think of, he’s already thought of… and usually months or years before it ever crossed my mind!  

“That’s just how far ahead of the curve he always is, and I’m sure it’s the same in his businesses. That’s why he’s successful.” 

Now tie that farsightedness with ambition. Team Penske President Tim Cindric recalls a comment made by RP after his team had finished 1-2 in the 2001 Indy 500 - its first time back at the Speedway since its 1995 failure to qualify after the CART-IRL split - when Helio Castroneves led Gil de Ferran as a clear example.

“I'll never forget in Victory Lane I said to Roger, ‘You know, this might be 11 for you but this is something - my father has worked here all his life and never accomplished that,’” says Cindric. “He looked at me, and he just said, ‘I want 20!’ I'm just like, in the moment, trying to comprehend one, and he's already thinking nine ahead!” 

Roger Penske, Team Penske Chevrolet

Roger Penske, Team Penske Chevrolet

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

Cindric is the man tasked with steering the team to more Indy 500 wins (currently on 18) and IndyCar titles (currently 15), with Penske now directing his main focus on the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway since formally taking over from the Hulman-George family in January 2020. It was his extreme misfortune to do so in a year when the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the globe, and it was impossible to get even a fraction of return on his seven figure investments. 

“This is a big bump in the road, it hits a little more in the pocket book,” he said last autumn.

“But… it’s helped bring the teams even closer together. I think our investment in the series and the Speedway has given team owners confidence that we’re in it for the long haul. Hopefully it also gives companies outside IndyCar some confidence in our stability, so we can get a third manufacturer and more big sponsors.” 

IndyCar, like the world at large, has taken steps back to normality in 2021. There were apparently 135,000 fans in attendance for the Indy 500 this year, but it felt like more. Certainly, there were enough people to create a good atmosphere, and a couple of weeks later Penske admitted he got a touch of stage fright when he gave the formal command to start engines.

“I thought to myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” he said. “I was shaking like a leaf, to be honest with you. You don’t know what it’s like until you are in that type of situation.” 

Penske, who provided Castroneves with the car to achieve his first three Indy 500 wins, said that the excitement surrounding the veteran Brazilian’s record-equalling fourth for Meyer Shank Racing this year went some way to compensating for only 40%-capacity crowd. 

“We checked all the boxes,” he said. “I was really excited with the outcome and to see Helio win it and get his fourth Indy 500 victory. It was pretty special.” He later added that although he would never try and emulate his former driver’s ‘Spiderman’ clamber up the front-straight catch-fencing to interact with the wildly cheering crowd, he chuckled, “I climbed the fence virtually!” 

Penske was as sharp as ever as his legendary team was celebrated at the Goodwood Festival of Speed last weekend, and he took great pride in driving one of its cars – the functionally handsome Porsche RS Spyder – up Lord March’s famous hillclimb. but don’t mistake celebrating the past for living in it.  

Roger Penske at Goodwood FOS

Roger Penske at Goodwood FOS

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Bud Denker, Penske Corp. president, has long proven himself capable of helping RP turn mission statements into successful missions, and they remain crucially aware that racing can’t exist in its own vacuum but must take account of societal/social changes.

Last summer’s announcement of the Race for Equality and Change has seen new prominence given to the NXG Youth Motorsports programme to “teach life skills and STEM education to underprivileged youth and mainly minority youngsters through motorsports,” and also enabled Paretta Autosport to find a firm foundation for its “women forward” IndyCar team. And just a couple of months ago, Penske and Denker also announced the target of a zero-carbon footprint at the Speedway. 

This is not to say there aren’t challenges to overcome. The next TV deal has been a hot topic all year and details have yet to be nailed down, while another frustration for Penske is that there only three ovals on the current schedule – IMS, Texas Motor Speedway and Gateway Motorsports Park.

“Track diversity is one of our biggest USPs,” he has said, “and we don’t want IndyCar’s schedule to be where it’s like sportscars without fenders – dominated by road courses. 

“But any deal with any track has to make sense for everyone involved, and so that will mean getting a strong sponsor. So we’ll keep looking and if we can facilitate a deal between an [oval] track owner and a good sponsor, we’ll try and help.” 

Deals that “make sense for everyone involved” is what Penske is all about. That’s why his team has a habit of retaining sponsors, and it’s not unreasonable to hope the same applies for the series and its participants. NTT’s recent extension as title sponsor is an encouraging sign. 

“The thing is, we have trust – more than we did before – that this series will grow,” said one team owner a couple of races into the season. “Roger being in charge, the Penske brand involvement – that gives sponsors faith. You’ll see more than 33 cars at Indy, we’ll be over 25 cars and more at some of the other races.  

“And the next TV deal… I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but if Roger’s involved, whatever the deal is, it will be the best deal that anyone could get.” 

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Helio Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing Honda, fans

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Helio Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing Honda, fans

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

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