I am riding with the king. I am riding with the boss. I am riding with the man in charge of the entire Super Bowl.
He’s checking on a fence.
“Will that be finished by today?” Roger Penske asks through the window of his car.
“Yes it will,” a hard-hatted worker says.
“OK, great, good work,” he says.
I am riding with the sultan. I am riding with the chief. I am riding with the Big Daddy of the biggest sports event in the world.
He needs some litter picked up.
“Uh, yeah, this is Roger,” he says into his cell phone as we roll off a highway. “Exit 220, they need to do a little more work, OK?”
I am riding with the pasha. I am riding with The Poobah. If there is one man who has the power to do this, that and the other thing in Super Bowl XL, it is Mr. Roger Penske.
He is paying for parking.
“Do you want a receipt?” the woman in the booth asks.
“OK,” he says, folding the one dollar bills back in his pocket. “Thank you.”
What is it like to be the man who runs a Super Bowl? I had wanted to hang around Penske, the chairman of the Super Bowl XL Host Committee, for a few hours as the game approached, maybe crawl inside his head. The problem is, I can’t fit in there. There are a million gears grinding, with ideas, improvements, suggestions, people’s names. He remembers everyone’s name. And projects. He remembers every project – every fence, wall and window. Football? The game? He knows who’s playing. Maybe he knows the quarterbacks.
But if you think Penske – who has worked for six years getting this Detroit Super Bowl together, all for free, despite the fact that he is personally worth somewhere around $2 billion and could be watching Sunday with his hands behind his head from the biggest luxury box in the world – if you think Penske took the gig so that he could hobnob with athletes and movie stars, you don’t know him.
Spend a few hours in Penske’s presence, listen to the things that bother him, engage him or make him proud, and you realize this guy does not see his job as building a game.
He is trying to build a city.
A man of action
We continue down Woodward. We turn on Division. He points out newly flattened lots. He points to newly renovated buildings. He has never lived in downtown Detroit – he isn’t even originally from Motown – but the project he is heading up has done more for urban renewal than a calendar full of City Council meetings.
“Look at that,” he says. “You see how those windows are and see that, they’re fixing those potholes … the front of that building has been we gotta that’s good you see the lights on that one ”
Penske does this a lot. Takes you down the street of one sentence, then jerks the wheel and bumps you over to another. Hey, what do you want from a guy who, by the early 1960s, was Sports Illustrated’s sports car driver of the year? He raced cars. He flies in a private jet. He may be 68, but you’re gonna go fast with Roger Penske, or you’re not gonna go at all.
“And you see that there?” he says, pointing to an empty lot. “That’s where we’ll dump the extra snow if we get too much.”
Extra snow? There hasn’t been a flake in days.
But that is Penske’s mantra – anticipation. Be ready for anything. He has a designated snow dumping area. For all I know, he has a designated sunshine dumping area – in case of a heat wave.
Something beeps. A car alarm.
“You need to buckle up there,” he says.
“Oh, sorry,” I say.
We take a few more streets. We make a few more turns. We pull up to a building and are whisked upstairs. It’s the local FBI office. He greets the officers, the state police, the Homeland Security people, the secretaries. “Roger Penske, how are you?” he says offering his hand to everybody. “Roger Penske, nice to meet you ”
He wears his red Super Bowl jacket over a sweater over a tie. He walks briskly. He checks TV screens with six images from six different cameras, surveillance, information, data. He thanks the officers and the computer people and the planners and maybe a few janitors.
We are back in the car within a half-hour.
We drive down Cass. We drive down Grand River. He has a pass around his neck that is green and says “Roger Penske” and “Super Bowl Host Committee” and “AA” which means All Access.
“It doesn’t get me into the game,” he says. “Just the sites during the week.”
It doesn’t get him into the game?
We hit another parking lot, near the Dime Building downtown. He pulls in. He takes a ticket. We park on Level 5.
“Better remember that, Level 5,” he says.
We stop in the offices of the Downtown Detroit Partnership. There are maps and easels and huge images of the city. There are color-coded projects. There are photos of buildings – torn-down buildings, reworked buildings, improved buildings, newly lit buildings. This is Penske’s pride and joy. Not the parties. Not the network TV shows. All the construction. All the clean-up. All the renovation.
Not a football in sight.
“He doesn’t want me to say this,” whispers Kate Beebe, an outgoing executive with the partnership, “but when you get a leader like him, all of a sudden, things start happening. If Roger had not been in charge, some ideas just wouldn’t get done.”
We leave the office. We return to the parking elevator. The doors open and he gets out.
“This is Level 4,” I say.
“This is 4. We’re on 5.”
“Oop,” he says, stepping back. He laughs. “Lately, I’ve been forgetting things ”
The door closes.
Quick to share the credit
I ask if he sleeps.
He says, “Oh, yeah.”
I ask if he works out.
“Oh, yeah, this morning.”
I ask what his biggest worry is this weekend. I figure a terrorist attack. Ford Field collapses. Paul Tagliabue can’t get room service.
“Weather,” he says.
“A snow dump on Saturday.”
Given the amount of work he has done, you wonder if Penske and the Almighty have worked out a plan on that one.
But here’s the thing about Penske. Sometimes he ends his sentences with “you follow me?” and you’re not sure if that’s a question or a command. But you want to do it anyhow.
Although racing is his passion, Penske is more football coach than he suspects. There is a hop-to-it effect that he has on people. They sit up straighter. They move a little faster. He has an aura of energy, a stern but loving father delivering the chore list. You get the feeling if you do a good job, there’ll be a pat on the back and a flush of pride.
So people work for him. They move. They hustle. And more than anything, that may be the reason that this Detroit Super Bowl, when it’s over, leaves more on our streets than piles of litter.
He gives credit to Bill Ford. He gives credit to Susan Sherer, the executive director of the host committee. He gives credit to Ken Kettenbiel, who handles communications. He gives credit to the NFL. He gives credit to his office staff. He gives credit to the workers in jumpsuits on the highway. Your head can spin from all the credit he dishes out.
When you point out that he deserves a little credit, he squirms as if a bug was crawling up his back.
“I didn’t take the job,” he says, “because I felt there would be no work.”
We drive down Jefferson. We hop onto a freeway. We pull up to City Airport. He points to the cleared runway for private jets. He points to new carpet and ceiling tile in a terminal, all from his insistence. This airport is miles from the stadium. No matter. To Penske it is part of the mission. Make it nice. Make it welcoming. Make it a city.
“What’s the best thing that could come out of your efforts?” I ask him before he drops me off.
He thinks for a moment.
“Enthusiasm for the city,” he says.
Enthusiasm he has plenty. Effort he has plenty. Accomplishment he has plenty.
I just hope he slows the car down before I get out.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. Contribute to the S.A.Y. Detroit charity to help the homeless at 313-993-4700 or www.DRMM.org.