What Did IMS Learn Last Weekend?

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Monday’s post about how well the city of Indianapolis did in hosting Super Bowl XLVI sparked some interesting discussion – not only in the comment section, but in some e-mail exchanges between myself and others. Among those I conversed with was our friend Pressdog, who raised some interesting points (and also celebrated his birthday yesterday – Happy Birthday, Bill!). In fact, he posted a much more eloquent offering on the subject than I could write, on his own site here.

This was also discussed last night on Trackside, so this is not an original topic. Some of the discussion has centered on whether or not the powers that be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway took note on the staging of a world-class event. Many feel that after one hundred years of running the Indianapolis 500, the folks at 16th and Georgetown know what they’re doing. After all, if something lasts that long, they’ve got to be doing something right. Right?

Well there’s an old saying in business that says if you’re not constantly striving to improve your product, you’re falling behind. I don’t think it should be considered blasphemous to suggest that IMS could improve the way they do things. As we die-hards all know, they have a fantastic product. It’s exciting and is steeped in more tradition than almost any sporting event anywhere. Some would have a strong argument that the Kentucky Derby is older and just as famous. That is correct, but it also lasts for only two minutes. Is it really a great event if it takes longer to find a bathroom than the event lasts?

From what I can tell, the NFL and the Super Bowl committee in Indianapolis came up with some fairly innovative ideas – things some patrons had never seen before. Super Bowl week became an event like no other in Indianapolis. Every day there was something new and different around Lucas Oil Stadium, all the while leading up to the crescendo of Super Bowl Sunday. I can’t recall many, if any innovative and new ideas at IMS in quite a while.

They did move Carb Day from Thursday to Friday a few years back, and that was a good move. Most of us from out of town can’t really justify taking that Thursday off before the race, especially since there’s really nothing going on until Race Day. I always say that I’m too old to go to Carb Day and try to hang with the twenty-two year olds. But if you look at the acts that have played concerts at Carb Day, I’m probably about the right age. Last year, Carb Day featured ZZ Top. This year, Lynyrd Skynyrd gets the nod. Both of those acts hit their peak when I was in the tenth grade. If they’re trying to grow their fan base and attract younger fans, might they consider bands that aren’t eligible for Medicare?

Maybe, just maybe, if younger fans that were coming just to party and hear a concert they can relate to – they just might watch some of the hour and a half of on-track activity. If they’re still sober at that point, they might actually be fascinated by what they see. Who knows, they might even decide to come out on Sunday to check out the race from the infield – and of course; party.

It’s probably too late to try and convert forty and fifty year-olds. If they haven’t been gotten by now, they’re not going to be gotten. But the twenty and thirty-something crowd? That’s where the next generation of long-term fans are. Some say the future lies with the ten year-old kids of today. Possibly, but they have a million distractions to contend with. Go after those that are entering real adulthood just after college. They are the ones most likely to convert. But something tells me they aren’t quite sure who ZZ Top is. Now do I have a suggestion for whom they might get instead? Of course not. I’m too old to know who contemporary bands of today are. Then again, my whole theory was shot down when I just asked my twenty-two year-old son his opinion and he thought Lynyrd Skynyrd was a great choice. Hmmm.

So let’s look at Saturday – the day before the race. At 10:30 that morning, there is the mostly ceremonial drivers meeting (Zzzzzz!). Then for $14.50 for bleacher seating and $19.00 for reserved seating – you can rush downtown for the 500 Festival Parade complete with floats, high school bands, the drivers atop convertibles and of course – the sighting of the 500 Festival Queen (Yawn!). After so much excitement, there is no need for anything to take place at the track – therefore nothing does, which I’ve always found just a little bewildering.

We always get into town around 1:00 on Saturday, check into the hotel and hit the track. As a die-hard, I enjoy it because except for the museum – the place is deserted. We always go to the main straightaway and check out whose pit is directly in front of our seats. It’s always a surreal moment to look out over the silent track and empty grandstands.

My eyes wander to the spot where Tony Bettenhausen was fatally injured in a practice crash in 1961, or where Eddie Sachs lost his life in 1964. Then I think about how quiet it is right then and how congested it will be in just a few hours. I enjoy that sort of thing, but I realize that most people don’t. There needs to be something at the track on Saturday to create a seamless transition from the mayhem of Carb Day to the excitement of Race Day – at least something other than a drivers meeting early in the morning. Having a full weekend of activities is what potential new fans are going to give up their entire Memorial Day weekend for. They’ve got us, but we won’t be around forever.

Except for a few hiccups last year, this new team at IMS seems to grasp the idea that not everyone is enthralled with traditions that involve Jim Nabors, milk bottles and a yard of bricks. Once they come more than once, they begin to understand and embrace those traditions, but young fans have to be given a better reason to invest time and money on a holiday weekend. I’m not sure an oversized Hot Wheels ramp is what I’m talking about, but there needs to be something new to create a buzz. Remember, this is the “Me” generation we’re talking about here. Nothing is done unless there is a clear and immediate reward.

While we’re talking about Race Day, there are very few changes I’d make to the tradition-laden pre-race format. There was a nice new touch last year, when they raised a giant banner by each driver’s car on the grid as the driver was introduced on the start-finish line. Those little things are the things I like.

Some of the more noticeable changes needed involve the celebrity involvement. Some of the recent choices for the celebrity to drive the pace car have been curious, at best. The list includes forgettable names like Elaine Irwin Mellencamp, Jim Caviezel and Josh Duhamel. The speedway also seems to be very liberal with the word “celebrity” when having someone ride around the track before the race on the back of a convertible. I’m sorry, but seeing Rupert from Survivor just doesn’t really do it for me.

To me, the world’s largest single day sporting event deserves more attention than it has been getting in recent years. It’s a great event, but one that seems to be falling into obscurity except to those of us that attend every year. In twenty years, I’ll be seventy-three. I plan to still be going then (that is, if I’m still alive), but you never know. If the good folks at IMS don’t start attracting new fans, who’s going to fill those stands when my age group can no longer attend?

With some much needed turnover over the past three years with INDYCAR, IMS and Hulman & Company; I have a lot more faith in the new regime that makes the long-term decisions – especially those that involve marketing. I trust that they were watching all of the events of Super Bowl Week with a careful eye. I just hope they were taking notes.

George Phillips

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20 Responses to “What Did IMS Learn Last Weekend?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Personally, I could do without most of the pomp and fluff, please give me more racing related features, displays, history documentries, etc… As jammed as the museum is each race week, and with all of the automotive/race related pieces the IMS certainly has and those they could call in, how about a multi-tented outdoor museum exhibition that is more easily accessible to anyone who has paid to get in the gate. I think there are many racing related things they could do. Drop most all of the other baloney, pipe in some jumpin rock and roll, parade the drivers around the track if you must, continue to always honor our folks in the armed forces, cue Mr. Nabors, drop the flag and race. Drink the milk at the end and reprise any of the interesting moments of the race by interviewing those involved…. I think in general we have lost sight of the actual event and have turned everything into a lighted stage, a perfect example is what the SB halftime show has become. A stage full of quasi talented freaks, dressed like the characters in the Star Wars bar scene, lip sync-ing poorly to soundtracks that are more noise that song jumping around like a bunch of rats on crack… Lets go watch some racing/football and leave all that other drivel to the Hollyweird crowd.

    • I agree Bent, there isn’t a better way to spend the Saturday before the race than at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Of course, guys like us are going to enjoy seeing the track wake up, seeing the drivers at the drivers meeting and a visit to the museum and last years merchandise fair as well as enjoying a tenderloin sandwich. I am not saying to keep things as they are, but except for music, magicians and jugglers I can’t think of much else to present at the track on Saturday. However, Indy does have a first class zoo so maybe the folks who have kids might consider a visit or to one at the first class Children’s Museum. There is a lot to do in Indianapolis on Saturday night, but this old fogey likes to get a good night’s sleep and wake up early on race day, so my evening will be comfortably boring for me.

      By the way, not to take away anything from this learning experience with the NFL’s Super Bowl week, if anything worth while catches the imagination then go for it! I like the all-time grid of winning cars on Meridian Street. That would be cool.

    • Personally, I agree with you Bent on my own preference having the track activity just about the racing. I’ve always felt if you want to attend a concert, go to one at Conseco Fieldhouse. Unfortunately, there is much more competition for fan’s attention than when I was young.

      I’ve read where INDYCAR research has confirmed that the number one thing that race fans of today consider important at a race track is a concert. Why? I don’t know. But if the Indy 500 is to be considered a world class event, then they are going to have to change with the times and combine their history with some of the glitz and glamour that you and I despise. It’s just a sign of the times. Sigh!

      • Concerts? Maybe so, but Lynyrd Skynyrd won’t cut it. If you want an older band at least get the Stones. They still have original, authentic members.

      • Bent Wickerbill Says:

        Nomex, I agree… I enjoy music as much or more than most people, but honestly, music is the last thing I go to the track for and further, it drives me crazy when track announcements are being made (for instance during practices or qualifying and this is not necessarily at the IMS but many tracks around the country) while at the same time music is blasting at 120 decibels making it impossible to hear what just transpired. I think the whole concert midway mentaility speaks to the fact that many people these days need to be constantly entertained and or distracted. It isn’t enough that you are already at a race track with cars doing 230 mph. Its the bottom line too, the longer they can keep you on the grounds no matter the pretext, the more money you are going to spend.

  2. Personally, the traditions of race day itself are fine and shouldn’t be messed with too much.

    Is there any reason Carb Day (and the Lights race, right?) couldn’t be on Saturday? Just to sorta make a full weekend for fans?

    And I like the idea of downtown Indy being the Times Square (and media headquarters) it was for football.

  3. Jack in NC Says:

    One of the things I enjoyed most about the 500 this past year was seeing all the old cars actually running and driving around the track. I would like to see some of that on the Saturday before the race, perhaps with a sweepstakes or raffle to geive one fan a chance to ride in the riding mechanic’s seat of the ones old enough to have two seats. If you want to teach traditiion and racing history to potential new fans, that would be a way to do it.

    • Above and beyond that: Have ‘em ride the mechanics seat in an old timer car, then put ‘em in the backseat of the modern 2-seater. Charge for it. Or hold a raffle, maybe even a free one, by having ticket holders indicate whether they’d be interested in being in a drawing to take one of those rides. Don’t just restrict the dual seater ride to “One Lucky Fan” at the beginning of the race, get that car going around at times the track is free (obviously, outside of qualifying).

      I’m tellin’ you all, having them experience the speedway in one of those old rides, then having them experience it in the latest car would REALLY drive home the impact the evolution of the race. But doing it back to back at the same track would also drive home the things that are constant. I think such a thing would really rock.

      • I would pay almost anything to drive five or ten laps at IMS in a roadster, even if it’s just a replica. You wouldn’t be able to wipe the smile off my face for a year.

    • Bent Wickerbill Says:

      Jack,
      I agree and I think that is a great idea… More of that less parades…

  4. I’m also curious why they don’t run the Lights race on Saturday. Running it in front of empty stands on a Friday afternoon, and letting the track sit quiet on Saturday just doesn’t make sense.

    Perhaps the Speedway Redevelopment will prove to be the impetus to create more activity at/around the track on Saturday. I think most towns would love to have a few hundred thousand tourists showing up on their dorrstep once a year. Give them something to do and they just might spend a little $.

    I like P-dog’s idea of moving the parade to the new Main Street, and having it end at the track, to be followed with the Lights’ race. Throw in free admission to the track grounds on Saturday, and create more of a carnival atmosphere and I think you’ll draw in a lot more of the casual race fan, particularly families. Ending the night with the usual night before the 500 debauchery will draw in the party crowd. That makes something for everyone.

  5. There aren’t many celebrities interested in showing up for the 500. It isn’t the Super Bowl. They get who they get and pay to get the Kardashians for the first 50 laps before they split.

    The Super Bowl crowds in Indy were for a once in a lifetime local event. The 500 no longer interests the Indy population to bring anybody anywhere other than the race.

    Never mind the fact that Indy’s Super Bowl cost at least a million more to host than will be recovered in taxes. Indy can’t afford to roll out that kind of red carpet.

    • Bent Wickerbill Says:

      With what I am certain was an astronomical TV rights dollar amount the NFL cut with NBC and the kind of cash an event like the SB brings to town, it would be very surprising to me if the Indy town fathers took any sort of fiscal hit…

      • Be surprised then. Do a google search. The NFL made out like bandits but the city is upside down in a big way. The numbers you find will not even count the staffing and maintenance costs that IPS and others will absorb from the legacy projects.

        Concerts, zip lines and a village are not what brought the crowds to Indy the last few weeks. They are profit opportunities that have sprouted to take advantage of the crowds the superbowl has attracted to metro areas even before the attractions were put in place.

        Do you think a quarter of central Indiana residents would show up to the big ten title game village if they spent the same money the city did for the superbowl? Not a chance. The NFL provides the interest and the city commits the spending up front to get the superbowl and it’s crowds to town.

        The concerts, and attractions are he effect of the existing crowds, not the cause.

        Indy needs to regain interest and be the cause of fan interest to generate crowds before spending a minute contriving ways to keep them entertained.

        Should have thought about that before commuting the series to a car that was irrelevant and useless from a mass market perspective before hitting the track.

  6. It’s the Indy 500. Isn’t that enough?

  7. My idea for Saturday is a little geeky, but might appeal to a good number of fans. How about letting people do a track walk on Saturday? They can do a complete circuit on foot and really “see” the track for real.

    IMS could couple that with showing historic footage of exciting events from 500 history on the Jumbotrons. People could sit and watch cool scenes like the “spin and win”, Fitopaldi vs Little Al, the turbines running on the track, etc.

    A final thought: do a random drawing from those who pre-purchased their tickets and allow the lucky winner to be on the flagstand for the start of the race.

  8. Simona Fan Says:

    It’s an interesting question, and I find so many opinions here to be so galvanized. Allow me some perspective.

    I have never been to the Indy 500. I would like to go. The question isn’t “Isn’t the Indy 500 enough?”. The question is what else is there that my family would enjoy as well? Or to put it more bluntly, why on earth would my wife want to go? Sure she would go if I begged and pleaded, but I would love to be able to tell her some of the other things we will do in Indy that weekend.

    A fan village sounds fantastic. A zipline sounds fun. A concert, especially if it’s someone she knows, would be great as well. Meeting the drivers that she’ll see on Sunday would be fantastic. A museum or a Lights race really doesn’t help the cause.

    Let me throw something else out there. Several times now, my wife has traveled with me to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for the greatest aviation fly-in in the world. Airventure, organized by the EAA. It’s 9 days long. Do you know how many people attend? 300,000-500,000 unique visitors with 800,000-1,000,000 daily tickets sold. It makes the Indy 500 look like an Arena Football game. Why do so many people attend?

    First, it is the Mecca of a passionately loved activity: Flying. Second, there are things there that you’ll never see anywhere else, including special deals and technologies. Third, there is always something interesting flying between 8am and 5pm. Four, you can fly your own aircraft in and see other builders and their aircraft. Fifth, it encompasses more than just homebuilt aircraft. It encompasses the best in sport, business, military, ultralight, antique, sailplane, and commercial aviation.

    Considering this, I would advise IMS as follows: Make the Indy 500 the gathering point for all of racing, (not just open wheel racing).
    1. Find vendors to come in to help people with their own race cars. Symposiums, new technologies, deals, trades, advice, great stories told by pioneers.
    2. Keep something interesting on the track at all times, or elsewhere in Indy. It doesn’t all have to take place at IMS.
    3. Have events geared to non-racing fans. Concerts, playgrounds, shopping, outdoor movie showings, great food, a fan village for socializing, all included with your ticket.
    4. Provide transportation for everyone to get around without driving. At Oshkosh that have a complex system of school buses that drive everyone around including to the on-site campgrounds.
    5. More cowbell.

    Just a few thoughts.

    • The 500 used to be that kind of Mecca. But when you ban development in favor of a stock chassis, tires and require that aero kit and engine makers supply a large portion of the field you exclude every other vendor, cottage shop and new technology.

      There used to be racing and race related activity going on. Not just all weekend, but all month. The 500 no longer opens its arms or wallet to anyone.

      If you want other things to do in Indy, they are there. The crowds aren’t bad on memorial at most attractions. Google them and sell your wife on them. It is the 11th largest city. Odds are you and your wife have found things to do in much smaller towns before.

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