Penske buying IndyCar is like LeBron buying the NBA

The most stunning part of it all? The one photograph.

Don’t get me wrong. There was plenty of stunning to go around on Monday morning. As the American motorsports world boarded various aircraft to return home from Fort Worth, Austin and Las Vegas and the huge late-season NASCAR, Formula One and NHRA events held in those cities, every row on every plane emitted gasps as their social media timelines filled with the news.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series is being purchased by Roger Penske.

This isn’t a retired Michael Jordan buying the Charlotte Hornets. This is more like LeBron James buying the entire NBA while he’s still playing for the Lakers. Or New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft buying the NFL while he still has Tom Brady behind center and is still winning the Super Bowl every year.

That’s why most of the jokes being thrown around after Monday’s announcement were something along the lines of “What’s the big deal? Doesn’t Roger Penske already own Indianapolis?” accompanied by photos of the team owner they call The Captain posing with his 18 Indy 500 trophies, 18 Indy 500 pole positions, 15 IndyCar/Champ Car Series championships and his 2018 Brickyard 400 trophy.

Now he will work to add to that trophy case by competing on a playground that he actually does own. He becomes only the fourth person to have his name on the deed of the fabled 110-year old Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the first new owner since 1945, when Tony Hulman saved the shuttered, weed-covered Brickyard from extinction after World War II.

Which brings us to that stunning photograph.

The image is Roger Penske shaking hands with Hulman’s grandson, Tony George, as they pose for a smiling, symbolic gesture to make the purchase official in the eyes of the public. There they are, on the frontstretch where so many of The Captain’s cars have taken checkered flags and Hulman used to giddily ride on the back of a convertible with his arm around just-crowned Indy 500 champions.

If you were to grab that photograph, get into a time machine and present it to any person at any American open-wheel race of the late 1990s, they would assume that the two men were either being blackmailed or forced to pose for the camera at gunpoint.

These two men were the leaders of the two sides of an open-wheel civil war that literally split the sport in half and kneecapped the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Penske and his fellow team owners ran the series and sanctioning body known as Championship Auto Racing Teams, aka CART. George had only recently ascended to the role once held by his father as chairman of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. CART owners hated the way the Speedway and George did its business, perpetually separate from them because ownership of the biggest race meant also owning the most power. But George hated CART holding all of the sanctioning body cards during every other race. So, after nearly two decades of a slow boil, George announced the formation of a new open-wheel series, the Indy Racing League. He said it would be cheaper, oval-based racing with an emphasis on American drivers (Jeff Gordon, spurned by the CART owners, had recently defected to and ignited NASCAR). George also declared that if racers wanted to participate in the 500, they’d better get on board with his new series.

Penske & Co. called his bluff. But there wasn’t one. George was serious. So, CART took its roster of big stars and paddock of cool cars and left Indianapolis. George took his rebel alliance of smaller budget teams and machines and held the Indy 500 without them.

The schism ran so deep for so long that it divided sponsors’ board rooms, television networks, and lifelong Gasoline Alley friendships. It also threw an axe down the middle of the fanbase, which declared its loyalty to one side or the other and had its anger fueled by seemingly daily nasty soundbites volleyed between the leaders of each series, Penske and George.

But while plenty questioned the two men’s decisions during the fight, no one could question their love for the Speedway. George literally grew up at the racetrack. Penske, who first visited Speedway, Indiana, as a 14-year old race fan and now at 82 has missed only six Indianapolis 500 races since. All but one of those was during that self-imposed hiatus during the IRL/CART split.

Penske and George love Indianapolis so much they were both willing to nearly strangle it to death simply to prove the depths of their devotion. They love it so much that eventually they both gave in, letting the magic of the old rectangle be the force that finally brought them back together in the 2000s and beyond. The enemies became frenemies and the new-age Indy 500 and IndyCar Series that has grown from their buried hatchet has been remarkable to watch, particularly over the past decade.

Penske’s undying affection for the Speedway is apparent whenever you see the stoic, starch-shirted billionaire walking the ground during the month of May. He beams.

George’s love for racing’s most hallowed ground is why he first approached Penske with the idea of selling the track and the series. He made his super-secret pitch during the 2019 IndyCar series finale weekend, on the eve of Josef Newgarden clinching The Captain’s 15th series championship. Since his mother’s passing (one year ago Monday) George had been contemplating the next steps to ensure that the 500 and IndyCar racing in general could keep up its current momentum. His mind kept coming back to his old foe.

That’s why Tony George, a man who for so long came off so cold in public, fought back tears throughout Monday’s news conference. Never one to show emotion or open a window into any personal depth, he talked philosophically about being born just down the street from the speedway, playing there as a kid, and racing there now as a team owner.

Sitting by his side was Roger Penske, sometimes smiling and sometimes drifting into an expression of “can y’all believe this?” that this deal was actually going down.

He wasn’t the only one. We all watched Monday with that same look on our faces. Roger Penske at the helm of this race and place is certainly the right move for the future of the sport. Roger Penske at the helm of anything feels like the right move. What he does and when he does it (he’s already promised “I am prepared to take a risk”) has yet to be seen.

In the meantime, those of us who have been around IndyCar while will be sitting here, staring at that photograph in disbelief.

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