After All, IMS Is Still A Business

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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.

George Phillips

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19 Responses to “After All, IMS Is Still A Business”

  1. Mike Silver Says:

    I know the sponsor of the Grand Prix- won’t use the name, not a fan of theirs- was entitled to signage, but the front stretch -long banner was over the top and unattractive. I have no problem with IMS bringing in banners, but do it tastefully. The Sunoco signs are unobtrusive and not a problem, and the Allison banner is fine. Just don’t have invasive, unattractive banners like that on the wall.

  2. I agree with Mike about the Angie’s List signage, both across the track and on the walls. While it seemed sorta appropriate for the GP, I hope it’s long gone by this weekend. The rest of the ads (that I could see) seemed reasonable.

    I miss cars called “Specials.” I always remember the Bryant Heating & Cooling Special, don’t know why exactly.

    As far as a presenting sponsor for the 500, I’m afraid it’s coming, I just hope it’s subtle. The Indianapolis 500 is a strong historical and emotional trademark, I’d hate to see it spoiled by being presented by Cialis or Yum! or something.

    • Mike Silver Says:

      I miss the Specials, too. I sometimes will call Dixon’s car the Target Special. I too hope the presenting sponsor is as subtle as possible.

    • The Angie’s List signage is already gone. Yesterday for practice, the walls were white and the banner across the track was gone. The frame across the track was still there yesterday, but it should be gone soon. – GP

    • billytheskink Says:

      I guess it is not really the same, but the current 500 entry list shows the following “specials”:

      Townsend Bell – The Robert Graham Special
      Conor Daly – FUELED by BACON Special
      Alex Tagliani – Alfe Heat Treating Special

  3. I noticed on the t.v. coverage of the Indy GP with the green and white vinyl over the white walls of the front straight, the alternating white and green from the in car cams really enhanced the speed the cars were traveling. At 185, or whatever the claimed terminal velocity is on the main straight with the RC/SO aero kits- the alternating colors on the walls magnified the speed. That alone visually makes the coverage more mesmerizing. So that is good and someone is getting some advertising in at the same time.

    Overall I like the changes. It adds color to IMS. It can be a little drab at times but at the same time I am sure it could be overdone and could easily become tacky but Doug Boles mentioned the awareness of balance and being careful not to tip the scales. What they have done is tasteful IMO. To me it visually brings the place alive and lets people know there is something important about to go on there. Traditionally it is not the norm but like George said, it is a sign of the times.

  4. I could deal with whatever corporate sponsorship they want if we could return Pole Day to Saturday and use the old qualifying rules. Those are the changes that hurt and that I think are foolish.

    Hopefully they will use some of that sponsorship money to buy black paint to finish painting the bathroom walls in the infield.

    Welcome to the 100th Running of the Cialis “Never Suffer Erectile Dysfunction Again” Indianapolis 500! Well, hopefully it will never come to that.

  5. I completely agree that the business side has to work if the racing is going to survive. I would point out however that, unlike many of the other things you mention, IMS is a designated ” National Landmark.”. I wonder what people would think if the NPS started putting advertising signage at let’s say Mount Rushmore? I also wonder where the profits from this additional advertising is going – to bolster the series? – to increase purses? – or straight back to Hulman and Co.?

    • Phil Kaiser Says:

      Well the NPS doesn’t advertise per se`, but they do offer lots of stuff for sale at their parks which goes straight into their coffers….

  6. Phil Kaiser Says:

    Practice report from yesterday:

    The place was empty. Yes, there were weather problems but I went out at 3pm and I’ll bet there weren’t 1000 spectators there, and most of them had either Bronze badges (like me) or were with business groups with one day only Pit passes.

    Dario Franchitti was walking straight through Gasoline Alley in the Garage area with absolutely nobody around him, not a soul! There wasn’t a crowd to attract!

    I’ll be there the rest of the week, hope it picks up. Today is going to be absolutely perfect (except some windy conditions) so we’ll see.

    By the way, LOVED the 7pm finishing time, wish they would adopt it permanently. It really helps leaving there because all the rush hour traffic is gone on the interstates. I’m so selfish! LOL!

  7. jhall14 Says:

    I applaud what Doug Boles has done.The place was immaculate on Saturday,something that could not be said about his predecessor.All the little things pertaining to detail were handled.

    If you ever enter via the Credentials gate,just take a quick look to your right as you proceed.There is a tremendous amount of equipment there. It all takes money.Thanks Doug and staff for all you do.

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    I agree with virtually everything that George and the others have written here, but I would prefer that there is not a presenting sponsor. Those of us in Big Ten states (or Big 17 or whatever the hell the Big Ten is these days) still refer to the ultimate venue as simply the Rose Bowl. I hope that in the future fans and race announcers can continue to refer to the race as simply the Indy500.

    As Mr. Hall has stated above, attention to detail on the grounds is important and appreciated so money is needed for that.

    And while this may be wishful thinking, perhaps enough advertising money can be gained so that the drunks in the snake pit can be eliminated.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    There is something idyllic and certainly nostalgic about the Speedway carrying limited or no advertising signage. It makes an already special place feel more so. It is also a fairly unrealistic proposition in this day and age, both due to the costs of racing and the fact that the practice is so widely accepted across all sports.

    There is, however, a line. Major League Baseball discovered this when they sold advertising on the bases. Fan outcry ended the practice before an ad ever appeared. I, personally, would hope that line is presenting sponsorship for the 500. Perhaps that is not the best attitude to have, given that the sport does need money to survive and thrive, but surely there are still some things in which pride and tradition are worth more than money.

    And anyone in the 1960s who was bemoaning sponsored race cars was ignoring the fact that most cars at Indianapolis were carrying sponsorship logos by the 1930s. Some of the cars then were as strongly corporate-branded as the cars today (Joe Russo’s Wonder Bread Special comes to mind). Heck, the cars my great-grandfather built and entered in local dirt track races in the 1930s often had sponsorship logos on them.

  10. SkipinSC Says:

    I’ll give you my take on a whole range of stuff in one post.

    First, advertising. Most of us who love the race and the series have long complained that there aren’t the sponsor dollars available that there once were; yet, here we’re ACTIVATING sponsor dollars, and some of the purists are complaining. Be glad that Sunoco wants to spend some money at IMS, but do you really expect them to just sign the check and not put up a sign? C’mon, man….

    Many of us who have spent time in years gone by at the Speedway have been recipients of one of the greatest bargains in sport. In my younger days, we could go to qualifications and spend virtually an entire day being entertained for $5 plus whatever food and drink you decided to bring with you. Those days, however, are gone, and whatever IMS can do to retrieve some of the lost revenue in not having 150,000 folks show up for Pole Day just makes good business sense.

    We take the care and maintenance of the facilities at 16th and Georgetown completely for granted. It saddened me to see the conditions deteriorated when I was there in 2011, but I understand that the maintenance dollars must be spent in an ever-increasing amount just to keep the status quo.

    I am overjoyed to see the vastly broadened menu of food items available at IMS now. When I first started going to the track, it was a hot dog and a beer (or Coke) and that was about it. This was way back in BT (Before Tenderloin.) Craft Beers? Great, bring them on, but make sure that you still have the old “stand bys” for people who do not crave a craft beer price. Maybe there are some people with fussy palettes who actually LIKE the $9.00 tenderloin, just make sure that you still have the original available. It’s still the highlight of any trip I make to IMS. In short, whatever IMS can do to improve the bottom line, I’m all for it, because as George put it, I too would much rather see an Angie’s List sign inside than a for sale sign outside.

    I find it very interesting that Angie’s List spent a lot of late 2014 and early 2015 trying to get further funding and tax breaks from the city and the state, then complains about the RFRA (essentially biting the hand they were asking to feed them,) yet spends BIG dollars for the naming rights to the GP of Indy. If I was a stockholder in Angie’s List, I’d have serious questions about the financial wisdom of this combination of decisions. And, believe me, Wall Street analysts are asking the same questions.

    With all due respect to Curt Cavin and what he does for racing through his writing for the Indianapolis STAR, do we really need their newest sports guy, Greg Doyel questioning if the GP of Indy is CURSED? In a relatively short time at the paper, he’s managed to call for Tom Crean to be fired, said that the Pacers have almost no chance of winning an NBA title anytime soon, and questioned Ryan Grigson’s draft strategy for the Colts. Anyone else you’d like to piss off Mr. Doyel?

    And one last thing. I appreciate the years that we had Jim Nabors singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” at the 500, but Mr. Nabors’ health no longer allows his annual pilgrimage from Hawaii. To play a RECORDING of him is just not an option, so those of you who maintained that was the way to go, please GET OVER IT. (God help you all when they decide to retire Florence Henderson.) Give “Straight, No Chaser” a chance to start a NEW tradition

    In sum, as much as we love our Indy traditions, time passes and there is far more competition for our entertainment dollars than there used to be. In any business, you must adapt to stay current or get left behind. When it comes to the 500, getting left behind would be the saddest day of all.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Angies List, a whole lot of other Indiana companies, and other major companies from outside of Indiana were understandably outraged by Indiana governor Pence and his clown posse. If I was a stockholder in Angies List I would be proud of the position they took.

  11. I can live with all of the advertising and presenting sponsorships and I expect to. No problem here about it. As a little kid I had an STP t-shirt and an STP jacket so why not everything else? Go for it!!

    • Those were the days. I remember going to the gas stations asking them for an STP sticker so I could put them on my bike just like the race cars. They would always give us one.

      • in case anyone is thinking about it, don’t plaster an STP sticker on the back window of your dad’s new Plymouth Fury. it won’t end well, take my word for it.

  12. I know a family in Daytona who would buy the place if Hulman-George cannot make it work. There is a nervous thought.

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