Pole Day 2009 – Hits And Misses

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After a late night (early morning) return from Pole Day, I have a few thoughts from yesterday. My companion had volunteered to work in the DownForce (Official Fan Club) booth over in the turn two area, and she was not going to be finished until 2:00. This afforded me the opportunity to hang around the turn two area while I waited for her. This also gave me a chance to observe and take note of a few things that about Pole Day 2009.

There were several hits & misses of the day. First the “Hits”…

The 2009 Official Program
In the past few years, the Official Program had become nothing but a book of Danica Patrick ads. Sure, the same historical records in the back were available and updated; but it was become increasingly filled with fluff. Not so with the 2009 program. With this being the beginning of the three-year long Centennial Era, there is a ton of historical information about the first days of the track. There are also many photos that I have never seen before. They have inserted a packet in the middle with reproductions of various artifacts over the past 100 years. The usual ads are there, but they should be—it’s a program. The price increased for the first time in years, jumping from $10 to $12…but it is well worth it. They are available at the official website.

Centennial Era Logo
For about the past thirty years, each event at IMS has had an official logo, which is very creative and distinctive. This year is no exception, but they have added an official Centennial Era logo, which will put the traditional “Wings & Wheel” logo on hiatus until 2012, when the Centennial Era is officially over. It has an “old school” look and the Speedway has done a good job of incorporating it throughout the entire facility. When you think of all the items, apparel, personnel, walls, signs throughout the Speedway that carried the “wings & Wheel”; to replace every one of them was no small feat.

Merchandise Stands
I could be mistaken, but is seemed that there was a sizeable increase in merchandise and souvenir stands. In years past, if you saw someone carrying something you’d like to have, you had to make a sizable trek to find it. They all were open and seemed to all carry the same items.

And now the “Misses”…

Attractions
In the mid- 90’s, IMS had an attraction called Indy FanFest that took up the entire parking lot inside turn two. This was an outstanding assembly of booths, exhibits and attractions, which was literally like a carnival. There were IndyCar simulators such as the one where viewers “rode” with Mario Andretti as he battled Michael on the track at Laguna Seca. The seats rocked and tilted as you went through each turn, generally giving the participants vertigo as they left their seats. Goodyear had a “Victory Lane” exhibit that gave everyone a the chance to have their picture made in a realistic looking winner’s circle, complete with props and a Borg-Warner trophy. Budweiser had another driving simulator while Firestone presented an enclosed film theater (with air-conditioning). Chevrolet had a large exhibit of Pace Cars from previous years and Kodak had a “Mini-Indy” for young kids. There was a “Gasoline Alley” exhibit, which featured vintage 500 cars from the museum along with a pit-stop competition, which allowed people to change a tire on an IndyCar using an air wrench and competing alongside other participants. All in all, there were 15-20 booths and attractions lined up all for free. The area was packed and the place was jamming. It kept the non-diehards entertained during the mid-afternoon lull of Pole Day.

This had decreased in size and scope throughout this decade. This year, it is non-existent. Yesterday’s turn two area was abysmal. Gone was the Chevy tent, which was there even last year. Susan at Downforce All that remained was the DownForce exhibit and two side-by-side merchandise tents—one for the IRL and one for IMS. While milling around the area waiting for my friend Susan to finish her duties at Down Force (pictured at DownForce, with unknown fan), I talked to several casual fans that talked about how boring this was. One guy had brought his twelve year-old son up from Bloomington. By 1:30, they were both bored and ready to leave because there was nothing to do.

If IMS wants to reverse the downward trend in attendance, they are going to have to get creative and expand the activities at the Speedway…not reduce them.

Parking
We arrived at the Speedway at 11:45 only to be turned away from the infield parking being told it was full. While grumbling about being later than planned, I was encouraged that maybe this Pole Day crowd was going to be significantly higher than in recent years. I was wrong. The crowd was pathetic, but IMS had chosen not to utilize many of the lots we had parked in just recently on Pole Day. We were left to park in the lot north of the track where we had to walk forever. We also had no access to the car since it was outside the gate. I think that IMS has a long-term plan to eliminate fan parking in the infield, the amount of general parking seems to be shrinking every year.

Apparel
I buy a polo-type shirt each year with that year’s event logo. I also will sometimes buy a polo shirt with the “Wings & Wheel” logo on the front. There is always a huge assortment of polo shirts to choose from—but not this year. What few polo shirts that were available were of the thin Nike dry-fit, polyester type. I still almost bought a white one with the Centennial logo on it, until I noticed that it is completely see-through. Not a good look for me. Tacky T-shirts abound, but the biggest disappointment was the IZOD selection. There were only two polo styles available, both in an anemic tan color. Still, I almost bought one that had the old-style, 1930’s era Wing & Wheel on the chest. However, it had some garish graphics all across the back, like a T-shirt. I put it back. I complained to several in the gift shop about how their selection had decreased. They looked at me like I had two heads.

Concessions
Since we had no access to the car we had to greatly reduced what we carried into the track. Meaning we left a lot of food/snacks behind. Although some concessions were available, I would say two-thirds of the concession stands were closed. They appeared to be set up, but I suppose they are for Race Day only. At least I saved some money.

I spent the latter part of the day in Stand E at the top of the main straight. Looking down on pit road, you couldn’t see the cars for the crowd of people. The stands behind the pits were virtually empty. It was a stark contrast. Was the crowd small because of these changes, or are these changes a result of the crowd being small in recent years? Either way, the crowds will never grow for Pole Day so long as the fans continue to be ignored.

George Phillips

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2 Responses to “Pole Day 2009 – Hits And Misses”

  1. George, I like the review and I am as disappointed as you with the Polo situation. By the way, Mears was on the VS. broadcast yesterday and that was a real treat. As for the VS. coverage, it can’t get any better. It was unbelievably awesome and they took Pole Day coverage to a level that I thought didn’t exist. Beekuis, Buhl and Jenkins were enthusiastic and on target throughout the two day, 12 hour VS. broadcast. Jack Arute delivered his usual stellar coverage as well.

  2. Turbine68 Says:

    “Budweiser had another driving simulator while Firestone presented an enclosed film theater (with air-conditioning). Chevrolet had a large exhibit of Pace Cars from previous years and Kodak had a “Mini-Indy” for young kids.”

    I think you hit on the difference right there. Those attractions were cross promotions by major sponsors, not IRL funded things like Downforce. Things have changed in the last 15 years, and not just at IMS. So many big name corporations have cut back on their sponsorship & promotional spend at events like Indy, long before the current recession. I think the trend is toward online & TV ads, and away from these sort of on site promotional attractions. Not sure it will ever go back to the way it was. Budweiser is now owned by the InBev Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate, and I can’t see them getting more involved in on site promotions in the future. Kodak has been staggering financially for years. Frankly I was amazed to even see a Chevy pace car this year. If the new Camaro wasn’t being launched, I think they’d have bailed. I half expected a Honda due to lack of GM $$$ and interest. At least Firestone is still a committed partner despite being part of Bridgestone now.

    While Open Wheel was busy fighting a civil war, the world changed, and not for the better. Globalization is a big part of it. Companies are transnational now. And Indy, God Bless it, is still Middle America Apple Pie. Like the All American Soap Box Derby, the Kentucky Derby, Little League World Series, etc… it harken’s back to a time when all of America would focus on a single event. We don’t have that kind of world anymore. Now Indy is competing for our attention every day on a crowded stage with behemoths like MLB, NBA, NASCAR, NFL, and PGA, who are all trying to go global, plus a hundred other niche sporting events scattered all over cable TV. (NHL, Soccer, College Baseball, Professional Cycling, etc…) All of these fight for sponsorship, ratings, and ad revenue.

    I think the move to Vs. was inevitable. In the end, it will be the trend for all the big stick and ball sports to move to their own networks (either PPV, or package driven) for the same reason. Not enough ABC, NBC, ESPN to get the 24/7 coverage they crave. Indy needed a partner who has an interest in promoting not just the 500, but the series as well. Versus has stepped up to the plate, and hit the ball out of the park with the quality of the content. Hopefully, the ratings rise enough to draw the advertisers to support this level of coverage. The IRL made a 10 year commitment to Vs. I think they chose well. Better to be a big fish in a small pond these days, than chum for the sharks in the Ocean of ESPN.

    IMS is on the right track. Embrace the heritage. It is the one thing that is unique about Open Wheel racing. Build a brand around the things that make Indy & American Open Wheel racing unique. Sponsors that value those same things will respond. They won’t all be ginormous global brands, but companies focused on middle America like Dollar General, & Target. (God help me but I can’t for the life of me figure out what synergy Izod sees in the IRL) Some of the big global brands will continue to have some advertising involvement just to cover all channels, but they won’t have the type of grass roots partnership that translates to the fan experience.

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