After All, IMS Is Still A Business
Anyone who has read this site for very long knows how much I loathe change. One would think that I would be experiencing my own personal nightmare, with all of the changes that are going on this year at IMS. But those same people will probably be surprised at the theme of this post.
Granted, I’m not crazy about a few things, but there are many that I like. But I understand the reasoning behind most of those changes that I don’t particularly care for. The reasoning is simple – money.
There are some purists that think that IMS has sold their soul by turning the walls green for last weekend’s Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. The name itself for last week’s event speaks of commercialism. There are also vinyl banners across the top of the Gasoline Alley Suites that visibly announce that Allison Transmission is now one-hundred years old.
While I would prefer that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway stay pristine and pure, that is very naïve thinking. I actually think they may have gone too long without trying to leverage their giant audience for advertisers. As much as we all hate to say it, these are completely different times from when Wilbur Shaw convinced Tony Hulman to purchase the track from Eddie Rickenbacker in the fall of 1945. For sports entities to survive today, everything must be considered prime real estate for advertising.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been valued at around a billion dollars – that’s billion, with a “B”. To not utilize that platform to generate revenue is almost negligence. Some consider it a crime for The Speedway to try to make money. Many are outraged that the holy ground that made the names of Foyt, Andretti, Shaw, Rose and Vukovich immortal, would stoop so low to host a non-racing event such as The Rolling Stones this July 4th. Word has it that IMS will clear well over a million dollars from this mid-summer concert. That can buy a lot of paint to spiff up the restrooms.
If you go to IMS on a practice day this week, look around at everything. Imagine the staffing needs for the place. The yellow shirts, concession workers, program vendors, merchandise sellers and medical workers are just some of the people required to be on hand for each practice day. It is greatly multiplied on Race Day. Then there are the cleanup crews on the day after the race that are required.
That doesn’t even mention the full-time maintenance crew that serves as the backbone of the operation. They are the ones that spend the offseason doing all of the improvements we are all enjoying this spring. The upkeep on the facility is much more overwhelming than we tend to think. We don’t think about it because they do their job so seamlessly. It’s only when there are problems like no lights in a restroom that we even give track maintenance a second thought. That’s how well they do their job.
Make no mistake, operating the Indianapolis Motor Speedway costs money – a lot of money. Keeping an eye on future upgrades and improvements, costs even more money. That’s why the folks at IMS have gone to additional sources of revenue.
It just takes a little getting used to. I remember in the mid-eighties, it was announced that the Sugar Bowl had sold naming rights to insurance giant USF&G. The SEC purists could not believe that the major bowl that would host their champion had sold out. As it turns out, the SEC was simply on the cutting edge. Soon afterwards, there was the Mobil Cotton Bowl, the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl and the FedEx Orange Bowl. The Rose Bowl was the lone holdout, but even it carries a presenting sponsor now.
One lesson learned in the eighties took place in my state. FedEx is based in Memphis and approached the founder of the Liberty Bowl, Bud Dudley, about becoming their corporate sponsor. Dudley proudly (and foolishly) turned them down, saying his bowl game would not be prostituted. FedEx took their money to the Orange Bowl instead and the Liberty Bowl quickly went from obscurity to near bankruptcy, before Memphis-based AutoZone and Conference USA brought it back to some form of relevance. Dudley’s inability to change with the times nearly brought an end to his event.
Nowadays, we think nothing of a bowl game with a title sponsor. It’s almost a sign of prestige. If your bowl game is sponsored by AT&T or Allstate Insurance, chances are it’s a big game that has aligned itself with major companies. If it is named the Duck Commander Independence Bowl – it’s a pretty sure bet your team had a disappointing season.
When I first started going to Indianapolis fifty years ago, cars carried very little sponsorship livery – except for the name. AJ Foyt drove the Sheraton-Thompson Special, but the look of the car was pretty much up to Foyt. Jim Clark’s winning car was painted in their national colors and was simply a Lotus powered by Ford. Later on, more and more paint schemes took on the look of the sponsor, most notably the STP cars of Andy Granatelli in their signature day-glo colors. Traditionalists grimaced as they felt the sport was becoming too commercialized.
In the seventies, cars became more of the rolling billboards we see today. Names like The Olsonite Eagle, The Norton Spirit, The Texaco Star and The Gould Charge became more prevalent as the word “Special” got lost somewhere.
Like the bowl games, now a car without a major sponsor is looked down upon. Blank sidepods are frowned upon as it announces to the world that the team or driver was unable to land any sponsorship.
If it’s now OK in fans eyes for drivers to wear patches all over their fire suit and to mention every sponsor in every interview, why is it considered heresy for IMS to have a Fuzzy’s logo painted on the grass inside Turn One?
Consider it a necessary evil. The first time I saw a logo painted in the grass, I cringed. The second time, it didn’t really bother me. Now, I don’t give it a second thought.
Corporate sponsorship has always been the lifeblood of racing. It should be no different for tracks than for cars. Some have portrayed IMS President Doug Boles as the devil who is interested in only the bottom line. Nothing could be further from the truth. Doug Boles is a fan first, a traditionalist second and a businessman third. He grew up going to races there since the mid-seventies. When it comes to IMS and the Indianapolis 500, he gets it. He appreciates the history and tradition of the historic oval. He keeps one eye on the past and another on the future.
But that eye on the future tells him that if he sits still, then he’s falling behind. To rest on the laurels of the past 106 years would be foolish. So Boles is putting his traditionalist personality aside and making some decisions that are sure to be unpopular with some of the core fans. He’s making the tough calls to make sure that the facility is still relevant and up to date for the next generation of fans.
Boles has gotten creative with things like free admission for the first day of practice for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He allowed free access to the garage area on the day of qualifying last Friday. Just yesterday, he extended yesterday’s practice by one hour, until 7:00. Personally, I’d like to see every practice day and qualifications go until 7:00, in order to recreate the old Happy Hour, before Indiana went to Daylight Savings Time. Still, a lot of people that work can still make it out to the track to see the fastest time of the day for practice. Boles has said he will look at how yesterday went and make a decision about the future later.
Doug Boles is a creative guy, who also knows the nuts and bolts of this sport. He works tirelessly all year long to make the IMS racing season a success. Not everything has worked perfectly. I think the jury is still out on Levy’s concessions, but at least Boles understands fans affection to the old classic tenderloin.
So, if you were turned off by the green walls last weekend, the new Panasonic sign on the side of the Pagoda or the Sunoco signage that has popped up in the most conspicuous spots – just know that they are helping to fund the future of the oval that is so important to so many of us.
I would rather see Sunoco signs on some of the traditional spots instead of seeing a For Sale sign out by the roundabout. We did hear yesterday that Mark Miles has said that the Indianapolis 500 may have a presenting sponsor by 2016. If necessary, I can live with the Indianapolis 500 presented by Sunoco. But while I’m all about moving forward and embracing the world we live in, I still don’t think I’m quite ready for the Panasonic 500 at Indianapolis. Even typing that sent shivers up my spine. Just understand that as much as we cherish the traditions, we sometimes have to embrace the financial growth that sponsorship and commercialism brings. After all, IMS is still a business above all else.