The Quest For New Indianapolis 500 Fans

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One thing I’ve always had a strong conviction for was trying to introduce the Verizon IndyCar Series and specifically, the Indianapolis 500 to young fans. In the past ten years, Susan and I have taken her son Eric, and several of his friends to IMS for qualifying and the race. Eric became a lifelong fan after he attended his first race in 2004. Although he didn’t win that day, Eric took a liking to Tony Kanaan and the 7-Eleven car. Soon after that, Susan’s home was decorated with Andretti-Green and Tony Kanaan memorabilia.

Over the years, many of Eric’s friends joined us since my own son really showed no interest in attending the race anymore. Some of Eric’s friends became fans, while others didn’t. You could tell pretty quickly who was being bitten by the bug and who was looking forward to getting back home. But I always felt it was my duty to try and introduce this sport to as many young people as I could. They are going to be the ones counted on to carry this sport in just a few more years.

Taking all of that into account – one of my two brothers is not going to be able to make it to this year’s Indianapolis 500. I thought I had his four tickets sold back in March, but the buyer backed out last week. In a panic, I immediately let it be known on Twitter that I had four extra tickets for sale. The good thing about Twitter is that you get an almost instantaneous response. As the responses came in, I could tell who was first, second and so forth.

I don’t post a whole lot with Facebook, I just look at it. If you are connected to me on Facebook, most of what you see from me actually comes from Twitter and it automatically goes to my Facebook. Most of my high school and college friends are connected to me through Facebook and have no idea what I’m talking about when most of my posts are about racing. That’s when I was surprised to see that the third person that expressed interest in the race tickets was a college buddy that I haven’t seen in almost twenty years and had spoken to only once in that time. We called him Bubba back then, but I think he may have graduated to his given name by now.

The first person that expressed interest never would give me a definite answer. After several days of waiting, I finally gave up and moved on to Number Two. When he promptly declined, I contacted Bubba. I didn’t really expect Bubba to take me up on them. I had never known him to be a race fan. I assumed when he found out the price and all that was involved, he would politely decline. I was wrong.

Bubba sent me back a single message on Facebook – Sold! He gave me his phone number so that we could make all the arrangements, since Bubba lives almost two-hundred miles away in Memphis.

As it turned out, the Indianapolis 500 has always been on Bubba’s bucket-list. Unbeknownst to me, Bubba has watched every single Indianapolis 500 since he can remember along with a handful of other IndyCar races each year. Plus – and this is the best part – Bubba has two sons, ages 10 & 11 (or somewhere around there). For the past few years, they have joined him in his Memorial Day television tradition. When he told them there was a chance he could get tickets to the Indianapolis 500, they couldn’t believe it. They kept their fingers crossed until I contacted their dad on Sunday to officially offer the tickets to them – hence his immediate response. He and his boys were ecstatic!

These are the kind of people I like to sell the tickets to. My brother wasn’t looking to make a killing. He just wanted face-value, so he could get his money back. I had no stake in this. The tickets are near my seats, but not with me – so I had nothing to gain or lose. But to hear his excitement over the phone; that he was finally going to get to go to the Indianapolis 500 with his two young boys, was priceless. I got so fired up talking to him about it, I’m afraid I may have sent him into overload.

It’s hard to contain your excitement when you hear someone so eager to attend something that you have been passionate about for so long. But I’m really glad that Bubba is getting his young sons involved. That’s what this race and this series needs to sustain itself – more young people getting interested in it. That my generation is still watching is great – for now, but what about twenty years from now. I’ll be seventy-five, if I’m still kicking. That’s not the demographic they’ll be seeking by then. Bubba’s sons will be in their early thirties by then. That’s who the series will be seeking – and needing.

IndyCar can’t wait until then to snag them. They need to start now.

My memories of growing up in the sixties and attending the Indianapolis 500 every year are so vivid to me, they have literally stayed with me for a lifetime. I was only six, when I went to my first one in 1965. Some might say that’s too young. But in my case, my father had taken my two brothers in 1964 and left me behind. I wasn’t sure what I was missing, but I knew it was something big. I was not happy.

When they returned with books, souvenirs and that all-important Indianapolis 500 program, I devoured everything – that is, as much as a five-year old could. By the time the 1965 race came along, I knew exactly what I was in for and I was ready. I was pulling for Parnelli Jones in that beautiful gold Lotus. I was not happy when he finished second to Jim Clark, but I remember the events of that day like it happened last week. As I grew older and returned each subsequent year for the race and Pole Day (except for 1966), my understanding and appreciation of the whole event grew. Then, as now, I lived for the Month of May.

There was a reason that I lost touch with many of my high school and college friends – I never cared for them that much. Bubba doesn’t fit into that category. The last time I remember seeing Bubba was around 1995. We just inadvertently lost touch with each other over time. It happens. I’ve never met his wife or his sons. But I’m looking forward to talking with Bubba over the next two and a half weeks about the race and what to expect. I also look forward to re-connecting with him at IMS on race-weekend and meeting his two sons. The future of this race and the series rests on their shoulders – and they don’t even know it.

George Phillips

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8 Responses to “The Quest For New Indianapolis 500 Fans”

  1. Jim Peabody Says:

    George, been reading you for a couple of years now. This particular blog touched me enough to comment. What a spot on assessment of where our beloved sport needs to go in order to survive. Our family got transferred to Indianapolis in 1963 from Colorado. I was 10 years old and had never even heard of the 500. Well it didn’t take long for me to get hooked for a lifetime, after my dad took me to my first race in 1964. Dads still need to do this, like your friend Bubba. I take my daughter and wife to the 500 when they are available and they love going, but more because they love me and enjoy seeing my love and passion for the speedway in May. I’m flying in this weekend from Colorado Springs for the GP and back two weeks later for the 500! I sure enjoy you opinions here. You are always seeing “it” the way I do!

  2. Glad you found a good home for my tickets, George! But tell him this is (hopefully) a one-time deal, due to this being our first year in business as a new Bed & Breakfast. I intend to be at the race next year, and certainly will be there for the 100th running in 2016.

  3. Mike Silver Says:

    This is exactly what the sport needs. The children of one of my college friends, in their 30’s, bring at least 2 new friends to the race each. 3 of them are attending their 5th straight race and have become huge fans. I really like heir recruitment efforts. It works.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    To those of you who are regular readers here this may sound like a broken refrain, but I will repeat it anyway. IMHO I think the best way to get someone interested in IndyCar racing is to take them to a race. Very loud engines, screeching tires, the smell of racing fuel, it is all a treat for your senses that you can’t get from watching TV.

    But here is the problem for many people who might take a friend or their children to a race: There are vast areas of this country that do not have a race and where there is not a race close enough for fans to be able to afford the time and money to travel to.

    The party line is that “IndyCar can only go where they are wanted”. Actually, there are many tracks where IndyCar would be welcome, Road America for example. However, IndyCar has priced themselves out of the market for many tracks. Perhaps instead of looking for a windfall at some offshore country IndyCar should re-examine their business model and find ways to reduce costs. IndyCar is offering a champagne product to tracks with a beer budget. Not as bad as F1, but still very pricey.

  5. The Lapper Says:

    I don’t think you should MAKE a youngster, or anyone for that matter, watch or do something that you would like for them to get into. I suggest that you invite them to join you. My thoughts are that IndyCar has some really BIG personalities that are capable of garnering attention and support from a lot of people and for the new fans or potential fans, they have the personality to draw them in. The way I look at it, the events are exciting and I think that the raod and street courses have been pretty awesome which can translate in new eyes glued to the series. That is my opinion.

  6. Bubba Gower Says:

    Great post if I do say so myself! We are so excited about the opportunity to attend. Glad it worked out. My sons Harvey and Sam have been bragging to their friends at school but nobody believes them. Sounding typical of his generation, Harvey said to me “we’ll wait til they check out my Instagram on May 25!” Looking forward to seeing you on race day.

    • Ryan Johnson Says:

      Enjoy what will be a special event in the three of your lives… I ‘m currently reading this post because I woke up in the middle of the night and am so excited for tomorrow (I’m taking my six and three year old daughters to IMS for all day action of the road course) I cannot fall back asleep. There is a man out there that worked for Hostess back in the late 90’s that is 100% responsible for me falling madly in love with what is the Indianapolis 500 and open wheel racing… He didn’t want the free tickets Hostess gave him so my parents (he worked for my dad), I and a friend were the beneficiaries of that decision. May George’s brother, Jack, be the Hostess man of your lives… And, if either of your kids gets hooked like I did prepare them that the only cure to this wonderful disease is continuous attendance to IMS

  7. Congrats Bubba and Sons! I am jealous and wish this year would be my first too. I agree with everyone else that attending is the best way to earn new fans. If Indianapolis was closer to California I would have already attended. Maybe next year I can pull it off.

    George you should be in marketing for the series!

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