Penske comments on Detroit GP, IRL future and Helio
Roger Penske orchestrated the return of the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix to the Motor City in 2007 following a six-year absence.
His decision to cancel it this year because of the chronic state of Michigan's economy was a personal blow to the Birmingham race team owner and businessman. But it was the correct call, he says.
While on vacation during the holidays, Penske responded by e-mail to questions from the Freep's Mike Brudenell regarding, among other things, the cancellation of the race and the future of his IndyCar Series driver Helio Castroneves, who is scheduled to appear in a Miami court in March on tax-evasion charges.
His answers appear below:
Question: How tough was canceling the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix?
Answer: Postponing the 2009 Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix was certainly disappointing. The decision that Bud Denker (Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix Event Chairman) and I made on the postponement was disappointing also to the fans, our volunteers, the racing series, to our city and state, and for our sponsors. However, in the light of the economic environment in our region, it was the right decision at this time.
Q: What were your main reasons?
A: The primary reason for postponing the 2009 Grand Prix was driven by the economic difficulties facing many of our local, regional and national sponsors. Over 50 companies supported the Grand Prix in 2008, and their support made the experience a world-class event. For the 2009 period, it is not the appropriate time to ask our sponsors to give to the Grand Prix when businesses and budgets are being tested like in no previous time. We felt that it would be difficult to provide the first-class event and experience that is expected from the fans, race series, teams and drivers.
Q: What was the city's reaction and sponsors?
A: The city and the state certainly shared my disappointment. In fact, we discussed the situation with the city, state, our key sponsors, with the Downtown Detroit Partnership board and with the IndyCar Series and American Le Mans Series management and (race) teams weeks before the decision to postpone was made. All our sponsors supported our decision in light of the current challenges, and I am pleased to say that almost all requested that they return if the race is held again.
Q: Where does it leave the Grand Prix in 2010?
A: It is difficult to gauge the region and national economic recovery in 2009 as most people view it as a challenging year ahead of us. Our region, our businesses and our citizens are resilient, and while I am optimistic and hopeful that the economy will return to positive territory, we must be realistic and evaluate 2010 as this year develops. We should always remember that the Downtown Detroit Partnership continues on with its many important initiatives this year, including "Clean Detroit," "2-1-1 on the Go" and the ongoing promotion of downtown Detroit. These programs have made a big impact on our city the past few years.
Q: Will the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix Association/Downtown Detroit Partnership continue to support improvements on Belle Isle?
A: The mission of the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix was to give back to Belle Isle Park with infrastructure and capital improvements. I am delighted that we were able to over deliver on our mission in the first two years of the event. Over $7 million of improvements to Belle Isle were made in 2007 and 2008 ... remarkable by any measure, and this is what I am so proud of. New street surfaces, improved street drainage, new lighting, new grounds irrigation systems, the repair and renovation of the beautiful Scott Fountain, the removal of over 400 dead trees, over $300,000 of improvements to the 100-year-old Casino, two new children's play parks ... all things that were made possible by the Grand Prix returning to Detroit. These are improvements that should never be lost or taken for granted, and such support is what we hope to continue in the future. I understand the Detroit Grand Prix Association, the 1,000 passionate Grand Prix volunteers, are discussing a cleanup initiative for Belle Isle for next summer, in honor the race, which I think is terrific.
Q: Does open-wheel racing have a future -- here or anywhere in the U.S.?
A: Open-wheel racing has a positive future in the U.S. and especially here in the Motor City. Interesting, that for over 70% of the fans that came to the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, their most favorite form of motor sports racing was the IndyCar Series and also good support for the American Le Mans Series. This is in light of the huge NASCAR following in our state and across the U.S. With the unification of open-wheel racing ... we saw terrific crowds at each race, including over 100,000 people at the Grand Prix here in Detroit, new sponsors to the series and a 50% increase in car counts for better racing. We also saw many new drivers emerge on the circuit with much success. Remember also, that every race car competing utilizes an alternative fuel, ethanol, which is important. I remain very bullish on open-wheel racing as an exciting form of motor sports entertainment.
Q: Have you made a decision on Helio Castroneves' future at Penske Racing?
A: We await Helio's court date, which is set for the first week of March. Hopefully everything will work itself out so Helio is able to compete at the first race in St. Petersburg (Fla.) on April 5.
Q: Your feelings about him during the most challenging time of his life?
A: Helio is a great competitor who has provided Penske Racing with much success, and he is a terrific person. We stand behind Helio as he waits the upcoming date and we hope for a positive outcome.