What Did IMS Learn Last Weekend?
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.