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.



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