Penske revels in Detroit's resurgence as Grand Prix nears

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Roger Penske has now won the Indianapolis 500 17 times as a team owner.

Indianapolis — The Detroit Grand Prix is important to Roger Penske, a man who has now won the Indianapolis 500 17 times as a team owner.

He lives in the metropolitan area, brought the race to the city, and considers this his home track.

“To be able to race in Michigan, in Detroit and win in Detroit, only winning the Daytona 500 or winning the Indianapolis 500 would be in front of that,” Penske said during an interview with The Detroit News before the Indianapolis 500 won by his driver, Will Power, last Sunday.

But’s it’s not just about that for Penske. He managed the biggest event in the city, the Super Bowl in 2006, and a year later brought IndyCar racing back to Detroit. There was no racing from 2009 to 2011 before the open-wheel cars and support races returned to Belle Isle.

Racing returns this weekend to the 13-turn, 2.3-mile street course on Belle Isle featuring a doubleheader of IndyCar racing on Saturday and Sunday.

Penske loves Detroit and believes in it. He is delighted by its progress featuring new restaurants and hotels and bustling day-to-day activity and heavily credits the late Mike Ilitch and his family and Dan Gilbert for developing the city, not to mention, General Motors and Blue Cross Blue Shield among other companies.

“I go back when I became a Chevrolet dealer back in the early '70s, I used to go downtown all the time for dinner,” Penske said. “We did a lot of things downtown. Then of course the city had its problems, leadership in the city probably was not what we needed to sustain a world-class city. But as I came back and bought Detroit Diesel from General Motors back in the late ‘80s, I felt that there was still a core there, managed properly, that we could make something happen.

“I think it was a group of private-sector people, the Ilitiches, Karmanoses, Gilberts, and on and on and on, and then with the opportunity to see that people wanted to have a healthy city and with a governor, quite honestly, who really put the speed into the car when we did the restructuring and with Kevyn Orr coming in as the emergency manager, that was handled in the most professional way that I’ve ever seen.

"There’s no one in that city that can’t say thanks to the leadership in the state and what they were able to do and on top of that, with (Mayor Mike) Duggan coming in, he’s put another 10 mph on our car going faster with what he’s done. He’s a real guy. He’s down to earth. He gets it. He connects. I had the opportunity to really get to know Mike when he was head of the Detroit Medical Center. I was on the board of trustees, and I saw how he operated. It was a terrific commitment for he and his wife and his family, personally, to take on the city of Detroit.”

Penske considers himself a risk-taker and puts Dan Gilbert in that category, as well.

“Gilbert is so committed (to Detroit),” Penske said. “I met Dan Gilbert when he had all his people outside of the city. He talked about building a building in the city, and then he came back and brought his people back. He made a tremendous personal commitment. His father and his family were in Detroit, his core is in Detroit. He’s a successful businessperson and he cares about it, but on the other hand, he sees the opportunities and he’s taking risks. Everybody thinks that he gets maybe some deals that are better, but he’s taking risks. He’s committing his own capital. He’s got very good people who are executing for him.

“I think Dan’s done a great job. He’s a visionary, and most important, he’s a risk taker. He puts his own money on the line and his reputation. When you do that, you know you’ve got the right guy.”

Racing is part of Penske’s DNA, which is why it is important for him to keep the race in Detroit and on Belle Isle. The race last year reportedly generated $58 million in spending in Metro Detroit, according to a study by St. Louis marketing research firm Sportsimpacts.

About 100,000 people attended the three-day Belle Isle event last June.

Race chairman Bud Denker, executive vice president of Penske Corporation, told The News this week that ticket sales for this weekend’s event are up 12 percent from a year ago and there are 77 businesses supporting the IndyCar doubleheader, two 70-lap races. Seven races will be held at Belle Isle this weekend, including two Trans Am series races, and IMSA sports car race and the SPEED Stadium SUPER Trucks series.

“The sport is healthy, even in this environment of sports where there’s some deterioration of fans physically being at events, because you have all the tools you could use in order to stream into the events,” Penske said. “But from a Detroit standpoint, I just love to see, you drive down the streets, and you look at the investment that’s going on. Just look at what Little Caesars has done and what Gilbert has done and the foundations and GM staying downtown and Blue Cross coming down, all the things that are happening,

“I’m just amazed when I go back and think about the Super Bowl back a number of years ago and where we were. Cold city, crime, everything you could say that was bad, we came out of there I feel with a pretty good face, and to me, when we look at Belle Isle now coming up, the two days of television that people will see how great our city is along the water and what’s going on, it’s going to be a positive. You can’t buy that publicity.”

This is the last year of the race contract with the city, and it is a priority for Penske to maintain the event.

“Our plan is, we have a contract that runs out,” Penske said. “We have to negotiate with the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) and the city and I think we’ve shown we can build the track and take it down effectively, efficiently with very little disruption. Unfortunately, there’s a small group of people who continue to drive negative feeling about the race, but when you think about the economic impact and you think about what we’ve done on that part of the island from the standpoint of the investment, when you look at the Belle Isle Conservancy — we’ll have a fantastic dinner Friday night and raise well over $1 million, and that goes right back into the island.

“We’ve been a positive for the island. Obviously, some people might feel that they’ve been put to some trouble because we’re building (the track), but we’ve tried to keep it open. On the other hand, and I’ve talked with the mayor, as you know the mayor goes out and has these neighborhood discussions continually throughout the city, and he’s told me he’s never had anyone mention anything about the race being a negative for the city of Detroit, which I think is a positive.”

But there is a small group of individuals who protest the use of Belle Isle for the race and the five weeks it takes to build the track.

“You’d like to sit down with those people and have a rational discussion,” Penske said. “We want to have our race here. We think it brings a lot do the city. What can we do on the island for you other than stop the race that would be meaningful? I would be very willing to do that. Can we make that happen, I’m not sure?”

Penske, who considers himself part of the “evolutionary process” of Detroit since he guided the successful Super Bowl here, plans to continue his commitment to the city is through this race.

“The footprint we have, really on the west end of the island, is perfect,” he said. “You’ve got water all around us, you can see it. The Great Lake right there. You’ve got the Scott Fountain. The way we’re able to lay it out and yet we don’t impact the bigger piece of the island which is key. I think what we want to do is have the success on the western end and the investment in the western end along the conservancy and start to move all the way across to the east so that island becomes as premiere as any park in any big city in the country.”

He has sat back and enjoyed the view of where the city has been and where it is now and where it can go. Penske has watched it evolved from a close, personal level, and he believes this weekend of racing is a big part of the city’s future.

“To see the success in the city when you wrap it all together,” Penske said, “it’s a big Christmas present.”


When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Belle Isle

IndyCar: Dual IndyCar races on Saturday and Sunday, 3:30 p.m.; each day, 70 laps each


Support races

Saturday — TransAm Challenge Race, 8:45 a.m.; Super Truck Series Race 1, 10:05 a.m.; IMSA SportsCar Championship, 12:30 p.m.

Sunday — TransAm Dash Race, 11:45 a.m.; Super Truck Series Race 2, 2:05 p.m.