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Car owner Roger Penske steers new path for American racing

While the Indianapolis 500 may be the top prize in American car racing, it is only one stop on the Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit, an April-to-November automotive adventure. That adventure recently visited Michigan International Speedway, where Roger Penske, one of the most successful people in Indy car racing, slowed down long enough to speak about his sport.

Penske, a former amateur sports car racer, is now a multifaceted businessman whose name is carried along the nation's highways by nearly 40,000 Hertz Penske rental trucks - and around the raceways by three of the fastest cars in the history of the sport.

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In May, Al Unser Sr. drove one of Penske's cars to victory in the Indianapolis 500. The victory was Penske's sixth at Indy, a record among car owners.

Penske's cars also have won at many other tracks, and in other racing series. But cars aren't the only things Penske owns. Michigan International Speedway is his. He also is promoter for an Indy car race each summer on the runways of a lakefront airport at Cleveland. And next month he and his partners, among them former Indy winner Danny Sullivan, will open Pennsylvania International Motor Speedway at Nazareth, Pa.

Penske has been successful off the track. The 50-year-old entrepreneur, who holds a degree in industrial management from Lehigh University, has built Penske Corp. into a $900 million undertaking with nearly 5,000 employees.

In 1978, Penske was a co-founder, with fellow Indy car owner U.E. (Pat) Patrick, of Championship Auto Racing Teams, which broke away from the U.S. Auto Club in a dispute over which direction the sport should turn.

USAC's focus was, and continues to be, Indianapolis. CART has taken the sport to new places, races not only on traditional tracks, but on temporary circuits in the midst of major markets.

There are 15 events on the 1987 CART schedule. Only six are on oval-style tracks. Four are on twisting road courses, formerly the domain of sports and formula cars. The other five are being staged on city streets, airport runways, even parking lots.

``The street races are here, because of the proximity to major cities,'' Penske said. ``They have generated more income for promoters so they can pay some gigantic purses, and also have brought us a new race fan.''

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The season began on the streets of Long Beach, Calif., near Los Angeles. There was a race on the parking lot and service roads of the Meadowlands football stadium-horse racing complex near New York City, others on the Cleveland and Toronto lakefronts. The season will end on pavement in a county park at Miami.

``Los Angeles, New York, and Miami are three major markets of the world,'' Penske said.

In addition to new spectators, street races have brought new corporate sponsorship to the sport, making it more attractive for teams and drivers. Two cars on the circuit have Japanese-built Honda engines. Later this season, the German car company Porsche will debut its Indy car. Ferrari of Italy also seems interested.

Drivers have come from Europe, South America, and Australia to challenge the Unsers, the Andrettis, and others. Cities, such as Vancouver, even countries, such as Brazil, seek dates on the CART calendar. Still, some close to the sport have worried that Indy car racing has turned its back on its traditional, oval-oriented, Midwestern roots in favor of European Grand Prix-style competition in major markets.

``We have to go where the race fan is,'' Penske said. ``If it was wrong, we wouldn't be getting the fans and the interest.''

He says CART would like to keep the ovals, but except for Nazareth, Pa., where he and associates are rebuilding a track last used for an Indy car race in 1969, no major oval tracks have been built since the one in Michigan and its twin in Texas. Michigan International Speedway opened in 1968. The same developer later built a duplicate track at College Station, Texas. However, management didn't match the tracks' excellent engineering. Penske purchased the Michigan oval in federal bankruptcy court in 1973. The track in Texas hasn't had an Indy car event since 1979.

The location of traditional tracks, many of which are far from major cities, limits spectator attendance.

``The only way to pay a bigger purse is to have more people [watching],'' Penske said.

Last year purses grew so large, to some $15.5 million,that one car earned nearly $1.5 million and nine others won at least $500,000. This year, all 15 races are being televised nationally, including Sunday's 200-miler in Elkhart Lake, Wis. (1:30 EDT on ESPN).

``With CART, the sport itself is light years ahead of when we split from USAC,'' Penske asserts. ``Time marches on.'' For Penske, that march is measured at speeds of more than 200 m.p.h.

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