This week, news from the IndyCar side of American auto racing swept over NASCAR’s playoffs like a tidal wave.
NASCAR’s final elimination race, this Sunday at ISM Raceway near Phoenix, was submerged when Roger Penske, billionaire businessman and multi-discipline racing baron, announced his purchase of the IndyCar Series and its iconic home base, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Penske takes the reins from the Hulman-George family that has owned the speedway for 45 years. The announcement of the sale Monday morning was a surprise for most of the racing world. Drivers past and present, car owners, track officials, racing series principals — all were soon singing Penske’s praises in interviews and on social media.
Penske, perhaps more than any other individual, represents the prospect of fuller, more effective cross pollination between stock car racing and open-wheel racing. Speculation about possible changes rippled throughout the competition industry.
The prospect of IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader weekends moved from idle conversation to distinct possibilities. What could that mean for Richmond Raceway, among other venues?
IndyCar’s 17-race 2020 schedule includes just three tracks that also hold NASCAR Cup Series events — Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Richmond Raceway.
And it’s interesting to note that the Richmond track’s president, Dennis Bickmeier, has a long relationship with Penske.
Richmond returns to the IndyCar tour next June 27. It’s back on the schedule for the first time since 2009, when the series ended a nine-year run of annual events on the ¾-mile D-shaped track.
Bickmeier, already immersed in planning to make the return of the series a major event in this mostly-NASCAR region, was pleased to hear the news that Penske was taking the IndyCar reins.
Besides his present-day dealings with Penske as owner of championship-winning NASCAR and IndyCar race teams, Bickmeier counts “The Captain” — as Penske is known in racing circles — as an important influence on his career.
Bickmeier was working in public relations with Major League Baseball’s then-Anaheim Angels in June 1997 when he volunteered to help one of his PR friends in staging the first race at a Penske-owned oval. It was Bickmeier’s first exposure to the racing business.
After a long race day working in one of the media centers, Bickmeier was headed for his car in the parking lot when Penske drove alongside in a big white Suburban, rolled down his window and insisted on giving Bickmeier a ride to his car.
“My car was just a couple hundred yards away,” Bickmeier recalled, “but we rode around for 45 minutes. Roger was asking me how the day went — what did the media like, what didn’t the media like.
“There was Roger Penske himself, asking me what I thought,” Bickmeier said. “My whole drive home I couldn’t believe what had just happened. He wanted details from a volunteer…. That has always stuck with me.”
Bickmeier would later become a full-time Penske employee. He built relationships with key players in The Captain’s organization — notably with Walt Czarnecki, vice chairman of Team Penske, and Greg Penske, son and heir apparent to the 82-year-old Penske.
Bickmeier said Penske’s appreciation of the history of the sport in all its forms makes him the ideal steward of the Indianapolis track and of IndyCar racing and its legacy. And Penske’s experiences as a track owner, combined with his towering achievements as a team owner in racing, give him a broad perspective of today’s complex sports landscape.
“I think he thinks with a promoter’s mindset,” Bickmeier said. “He has owned and operated racetracks before. He understands the racetrack operations side of things. ... Given my relationship with Roger and his organization, I’m looking forward to interacting with him and his folks.”
Could Richmond Raceway one day be the site of a NASCAR-IndyCar weekend doubleheader? Bickmeier hasn’t said much about the possibility. He has pointed to the problematic logistics of housing about 40 NASCAR teams and about 22 IndyCar teams. The track’s garage has just enough stalls for NASCAR.
But with Penske wearing his promoter’s hat, might such a doubleheader be possible?
For instance, suppose the IndyCar set bivouacked in a luxury-tent compound, complete with translucent windows, ventilation, climate control?
The setup could include its own version of the Richmond Raceway Garage Walk, an attraction that has proven popular with NASCAR fans. In this case, racing enthusiasts could get an up-close look at IndyCar teams at work on their sleek race cars. Ticket holders might pay, say, an extra $10 for access to the walk.
For a substantially higher premium, perhaps a limited number of fans could share a buffet/soirée with drivers and car owners on the eve of the race.
Penske the master promoter might encourage, even require, the IndyCar race teams and their drivers to do what some of the NASCAR teams have begun to do — make a point of interacting with the fans who care enough to pay the premium for the Garage Walk.
Such a venture would require careful planning, heightened security, full cooperation. It would not be easy.
But, then, Penske wasn’t talking easy at the announcement of his purchase. Asked about a range of new directions for IndyCar, including more cooperation with NASCAR, he said he was prepared to take a risk in order to reap rewards.
“We’ve got to break some glass on some of these things,” Penske said.