IMS, Indianapolis Set Gold Standard

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By Paul Dalbey

Note from George: Most remember Paul Dalbey from “More Front Wing”, which has sadly gone the way of many of the IndyCar blogs. I have always offered this site up to Paul, in case the writing bug ever bites him again. For the Month of May, it has – so I was very happy to give him this space to express his thoughts. Although we are practically a generation apart in age, we think a lot alike. That either makes me a very immature geriatric or makes Paul a very grumpy young man. Draw your own conclusions. – GP

As most of the people who visit this site on a regular basis are likely die-hard fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and by extension the Indianapolis 500, it’s understandable how many readers have become jaded by the magnitude of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. We’re used to it. We know there is nothing else that compares to it in the world of sports, and we have become somewhat numb to how massive the race really is. Step back for a moment and consider just how vast 230,000 reserved seats are. And then add another 75,000-100,000 people to account for suites and general admission. Conservatively, let’s say there will be 300,000 people at the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Three Hundred Thousand people.

To put that in perspective, there are nearly 260,000 people in Fort Wayne, Indiana’s second largest city. In fact, 300,000 people would rank the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the 65th largest city in the United States on race day, just ahead of Cincinnati and right behind Anchorage, AK. Bump that attendance to a still-realistic 325,000 and IMS will be the 58th largest city.

In terms of other sporting events, last weekend’s Kentucky Derby had an announced attendance of 167,227. For those mathematically troubled, that’s about half of what IMS is expecting. The Daytona 500? Just over 100,000, or about one-third. Super Bowl 50? 71,088. That’s between 20 and 25% of IMS’s expected attendance.

And finally, if IMS was a country, it would be the 174th largest country in the world, right behind Iceland.

There are some people who scoff at the notion that IMS selling all its reserved seats is indeed newsworthy, hearkening back to an era more than two decades ago when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would announce a sellout of tickets in July for the following year’s race. The reality is we don’t live in an era from 20 years ago. In today’s times, there are more activities than ever vying for the paying customer’s already thinly-stretched dollar. Indianapolis has the Colts, the Pacers, the Indians, a soccer team, a hockey team, and many other attractions. TV, and perhaps more prominently the internet, has progressed now to the point I don’t have to go to the stadium or the racetrack to enjoy the event. I can watch it on my phone in the backyard. We live in a vastly different world than we knew in 1995.

Would IMS have sold out every year since 1995 if The Split never happened? It’s impossible to say. Recall that the tobacco companies were on their way out, and anyone who tells you those companies didn’t prop up the series mightily is either naïve or straight lying to you. Their money and promotion cannot and never will be overstated. Nobody could have considered through the last decade that NASCAR attendance would falter as it has, so to believe that CART was immune from attendance woes, especially in light of losing many very high-dollar sponsors, is just not realistic.

But IMS has not sold all 230,000-plus reserved seats just because people came flocking to the Speedway. It sold those tickets because it has worked and worked hard. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the City of Indianapolis has put on a master clinic on how to reach its audience and sell an event.

One need not search far within the IndyCar fan outlets (Facebook, Twitter, Trackforum, etc.) to find those who begrudge the amount of attention heaped on the Indianapolis 500 at the expense, in their opinion, of the other races on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. Their argument, I surmise, is that the Indianapolis 500 is big enough to stand on its own and that INDYCAR (in the all capitals form) should increase attention paid to the other races on the calendar. Those people simply need to look around the City of Indianapolis during April and May and then look around the other cities hosting the Verizon IndyCar Series in the weeks and months leading up to a race. The difference is striking. And that isn’t INDYCAR’s fault.

When INDYCAR signs a contract to bring the Verizon IndyCar Series to a market, it agrees to provide a race and to assist in the promotion of the race, supplying resources as necessary in support of the promoters and track efforts. That doesn’t mean INDYCAR is to take the lead in its various markets. That means INDYCAR will do what it can to make sure the promoter has INDYCAR assets and resources at its disposal (at least within reason). For example, INDYCAR may work with teams to have drivers travel to a market to help promote an event in the weeks or month leading to a race. That doesn’t mean INDYCAR is responsible for setting up those events.

Likewise, it is not INDYCAR’s responsibility to push the event through local media. I’ve had the pleasure of attending many INDYCAR events outside of the Indianapolis 500, and rare has been the race I’ve ever seen promoted when I arrived in town. Just last month, I was in Phoenix and saw no signage or advertisements at Sky Harbor International Airport or on the interstate between the airport and Phoenix International Raceway.

I’ve been to numerous races at St. Petersburg, Pocono, Fontana, Long Beach, Kentucky, Miami-Homestead, Chicagoland, and more. In almost every case, I’ve noticed that I would nearly have to trip over a track before I saw any activities suggesting there was a Verizon IndyCar Series race in town. And that is from someone who was actively looking for race promotions! Even in Toronto, where open-wheel fans are traditionally abundant, signage and promotions have been scarce. I will admit that radio and TV spots might have been abundant before I arrived in the race cities, but more times than not, I hear even those are lacking. Mark Miles should not be telling Bryan Sperber how to market his event in Phoenix. Jay Frye isn’t responsible for making sure Kevin Savoree is reaching out to the communities in St. Petersburg or Toronto or Mid-Ohio. The promoters and track presidents know their communities and must use their local experience to determine the best strategies for reaching the fans en masse. The best policy, however, is never simply opening the gate and hoping INDYCAR has pushed the event well enough nationally. (I don’t mean to imply that either Sperber or Savoree are doing better or worse than any of the other promoters. Those just happened to be the first two names that came to mind.)

At only two tracks – Texas Motor Speedway and Iowa Speedway – have I felt there was a good likelihood promotions reached beyond a 5-mile radius from the track. My experiences in Iowa have been mostly limited to the small towns of Newton (actual home to Iowa Speedway) and Pella (about a 20-30 minute drive south), but in both cases, there was ample community support and outreach for the race. Print, radio, and television media had appropriate and adequate coverage, and businesses within the communities welcomed races fans with signs and banners.

Driving around Indianapolis last weekend while in town for the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini Marathon, activation and promotion of the Month of May was overflowing. You can’t escape the Indianapolis 500 if you try. The downtown area is covered in racing themed promotions and probably half (if not more) of the radio commercials on all the stations I surfed had some tie-in to the Month of May. The State of Indiana pushes the event. The City of Indianapolis pushes the event. The Town of Speedway pushes the event. Speedway Main Street businesses push the event. The families and communities push the event. It is not, and cannot be, just INDYCAR. I will concede that through the Hulman & Company link, the line between INDYCAR and IMS promotions is certainly blurred, but it is clear that IMS and its staff are doing a bulk of the heavy lifting. For example, it is well known that IMS President Doug Boles has continued the long-standing tradition of calling at least ten race ticket holders every day to thank them for their support and let them know they are appreciated as fans. How many other track presidents do that? I’ve never heard of a single one. How many schools and community functions have other track presidents and employees attended to promote the event? I rarely, if ever, hear of it. Yet Boles and IMS Historian Donald Davidson have been crisscrossing the state every day for months to tell their story and to sell their event. That’s hard work, but that’s promotion. The result is that nearly 300,000 people will be in attendance on May 29.

(On a side note, perhaps the best track president who engages his fans, besides, Boles, is Michigan International Speedway’s Roger Curtis. Of course, INDYCAR sadly isn’t racing there. Nonetheless, he is worth a Twitter follow, if for no other reason than to see how well and how often he interacts with the people who support his track.)

If IMS has sold 25,000 more grandstand seats this year at an average price of $110 per ticket (my estimate, not any sort of official number, and it might actually be low), that equates to $2,750,000 in ticket revenue alone. Throw in another 35,000 general admission tickets at $35 a pop (split between $30 advance tickets and $40 current price GA tickets), add another $1,225,000 for a total of nearly $4 million in likely additional revenue from tickets alone above last year’s gate. And those estimates don’t includes money spent once the patron is inside the grounds on food, concessions, or souvenirs (or parking outside the facility, for that matter, which goes directly into the pockets of the community). Did Boles & Company spend an additional $4 million in advertising, marketing, and promotion this year? I find that unlikely. It supports the adage that you must spend money to make money.

There is no denying that INDYCAR can and must do a better job of telling its story at the local, regional, and national levels. INDYCAR also needs most of its sponsors to do a better job of pushing its drivers into the public eye. However, as it has been since the very beginning, the real boots on the ground promotion must come from the local promoters themselves. A well promoted and highly visible Indianapolis 500 raises the proverbial tide for all other INDYCAR races, but most of the other races need to up their promotional game rather than waiting for INDYCAR to do their job for them.

Paul Dalbey

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20 Responses to “IMS, Indianapolis Set Gold Standard”

  1. Ron Ford Says:

    While it can be argued-as Paul has done here- that INDYCAR has no responsibility to get more involved in the promotion of other races on the circuit, I think it can certainly be argued that it would be in their best interest to do so. I believe the series needs to adjust their business model to the realities of today’s entertainment market place. Consider-if you will-your local automobile dealership. How well do you think they would do without all the promotional aids, magazine ads, and TV advertising paid for by the automobile manufacturers? While INDYCAR does not have that degree of resources, at the very least-and I emphasize the very least-they should endeavor to not hinder local promotion. The series has made no effort to work with Fontana on a date. They gave Milwaukee three different dates in three successive years and three different starting times. How well do you think the Indy500 would do if it began at 11 AM one year, 2 PM the next year, and 4 PM the next?

    • To your point, look at the starting time for the Daytona 500 over recent years. From 1979-2000, it started at 12:15. It moved to 1:00 from 2001-2004. Then to 2:30 in 2005 and 2006 and 3:30 from 2007 through 2009. Since 2010 it has been scheduled again for 1:00, except for 2014 which randomly started at 1:30. There was a time when I knew I would come home from church, flip the TV on, and the race would be about to start. Not anymore.

      That being said, if I was attending the race in person, I know I’m going to check the start time and show up when the race is supposed to start. I actually think mixing up those start times is a much bigger deal for the TV consumer than the paying attendee EXCEPT in cases when they push the race start back far enough to make it difficult for fans to get home after the race. That was probably INDYCAR’s or NBCSN’s or Milwaukee’s (or some combination thereof’s) mistake in starting those races so late in the afternoon, especially with little to no track activity going on throughout the earlier portion of the day.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        Starting the last Milwaukee race at 4 PM on a Sunday was done solely for the TV suits, It was a take it or leave it deal for the fans and for Mr. Andretti. So, here we are in the “month of May” at Indy. Again, how well would the event do if next year it was “the month of July” and the next year “the month of August”? IMO the series current lack of promotion outside of Indy and the lack of date continuity is not sustainable. It is a gypsy series wandering from town to town.

        • tonelok Says:

          That was a tough night. I remember I got home around 3 am and got pulled over somewhere between Gary and Lafayette for doing 80 trying to outrun a driver with his brights on for like 50 miles. No one in their right mind would make that drive but I thought if this is the last race at Milwaukee I had better see it.

          I don’t know what IndyCar is thinking. Do they just think “if we have it, they will come”? Really? Either IndyCar is having a tough time keeping up with the times, or ,they just hold an event, kind of like just throwing a hail mary-ust throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.

          • Ron Ford Says:

            I was so happy that you made the race and equally as happy when I learned you made it home safely.

  2. S0CSeven Says:

    In Toronto we have 4 daily newspapers, 2 national and 2 regional. Every year there is (assuming an exchange of $) an ‘official’ newspaper of the Toronto Indy. The effect of this is that you can hear crickets chirping in the other 3.

    One TV station will secure the rights (for $) to broadcast our race and all the other stations are left out so there’s scarcely a mention of the race on the other sportscasts, newscasts etc.

    To compound the problem, we’re talking conglomerates here. Companies control certain TV stations, radio stations, newspapers, websites etc etc. and Indycar certainly becomes either the favoured son or the …well … you get the picture.

    It’s a real problem to get the word out when many avenues are closed to you.

    For example: Toronto has 3 days of almost non-stop track activity for Indycars, Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, F2000’s’, Porsche GT3 Cup a Canadian NASCAR series & Robby Gordon’s Stadium Trucks and um… anyway… in an effort to boost ticket sales a few years ago the Toronto race instituted a ‘FREE FRIDAY’ (I forget their tag name). But the idea is that the Friday is FREE to everyone. You get free admission, can see all the series on the track, sit anywhere you want, see all the cars in the garages, talk to the drivers, get pictures…. etc etc and it’s all FREE.
    BUT NOBODY KNOWS ABOUT IT!

    So who dropped the ball here?? I submit that Indy needs the series just as much as the series needs Indy but getting the word out in such a diverse and yet restricted digital world is truly a challenge. I truly believe that every 4th Indy 500 commercial should be a 20 second clip for each upcoming race. For instance ‘See all these guys in Toronto in July for FREE on Friday’. OK, that’d be 10 seconds. It can’t hurt and it sure might help.

  3. madtad1 Says:

    Paul, Barber does an admirable job of advertising too. They have always had IndyCars at the Birmingham airport when we’ve flown in and billboards around town. Couldn’t speak to radio/tv ads, but there was coverage in the newspaper with ads.

    On the other hand, when they ran in Homestead, you would have never known. Barely any coverage in the local papers, despite having five of the drivers being local to the Miami area: EJ Viso, Rafa Matos, TK, RHR, and Helio. The local promotors set up nothing with any of the local media outlets. I never saw any billboards, and I think I only heard one ad on the radio on race day.

    Sometimes I think the promoters think it’s like Field of Dreams, if you race it, they will come…

  4. Jim Gray Says:

    Word! Mic drop.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    The goal of any race promoter should be to create another Indianapolis 500, or at least get as close to that as possible. That is, of course, easier said than done. The 500 has decades of history, date equity, and a place as a local and national institution that very few races have. IMS has worked hard to achieve this and works hard to maintain it, but it is certainly working with an advantage that other promoters working with the series do not have.
    Still, I do agree, the responsibility for staging a successful Indycar event rests largely on the promoter and not the series.

    That said, I think there is merit to the frustration that some have with the attention paid to the 500 versus the rest of the series. I can’t speak for others here, but it is my opinion that the series is not especially accommodating to promoters. Ron Ford mentions the constant date changes and shifting start times in Milwaukee that likely played a role in its departure from the schedule. Indycar’s documented refusal to compromise with promoters on race dates at Fontana and Houston directly resulted in those two title-sponsored, sanctioning fee-paying events (that, by the way still had years on their contracts with Indycar) leaving the schedule. In these three cases, Indycar’s demands put the promoter at a disadvantage. The series had its reasons, of course, but I and the promoters who lost their events would debate the importance of those reasons versus the health of the racing events themselves.

    This is not to say that I think the 500 is undeserving of the attention it gets, or that I don’t enjoy all of the hoopla surrounding the race. No, I think it is great and I enjoy every minute of it. I don’t want less made of the 500, I want more made of the other races on the schedule. I want to see an end to the staggering schedule attrition of the last 20 years. That’s not wholly Indycar’s responsibility, but there are things they can do to help promoters. I don’t think they’ve done nearly as much as they can do to help, and that should change.

  6. Interesting note on promotion, ESPN had a Soccer Sunday promo for the MLS which explicitly mentioned the Fox Sports 1 games and the ESPN games. No idea if MLS paid for that themselves, or if ESPN did that for them, but Indycar and NASCAR might want to take some notes. If Major League Soccer can do it, maybe Indycar can.

  7. Paul, I think that each city should do what cities do for their NFL franchises and owners. I am not going to argue with the stick and ball sports reporters about the Major League aspect of IndyCar. Any sports fan and reporter should recognize that. When we had the Firestone 200 here in Nashville I was always looking for the “civic pride” to kick in because it was a terrific weekend every time that race ran. Well, we don’t have the 200 running anymore and “our” track is probably going to get auctioned off to a development group for a manufacturing plant. With your points, maybe we might have had something pretty awesome each July that was associated with IndyCar. That would have been awesome.

  8. Great take, Paul. It’s a tricky issue, and it likely comes down to simple math. By that, I mean, there are currently 12 non-IMS venues that appear on the IndyCar schedule (13, if Boston gets replaced). If IndyCar were to, say, take 50% of the time, money and effort that they’re currently spending on promoting the events at IMS and redistribute that time, money and effort among the other 12 venues, each one would get roughly 4% of that time, money and effort on the part of IndyCar (actually, it’s 4.16666666667%, but it’s easier to round that down just a tick when you’re typing it). Is that incremental gain likely to net you more than maybe a couple thousand extra tickets sold at each of those 12 venues? I honestly don’t know, but I doubt it, because that won’t be a whole lot of money for billboards, TV/radio spots, extra driver visits, etc. for each of those 12 events. If that’s the case, then perhaps your time, money and effort are better spent on your Big Eyeball Magnet, where you can not only attempt to drive more eyeballs to TVs and more butts to seats, but then you have the cascading effect of having some of those new eyeballs/butts become aware of other events in other locales, which can then also residually drive eyeballs/butts to those events. It’s a little trickle-down-y, but I get why IMS/IndyCar/Hulman Motorsports appears to do it the way they do. Until you have millions of dollars on hand to employ a few dozen marketers that can be farmed out to your other events (which requires salary, health care, retirement plans, plus the nuts and bolts stuff like flights, hotel rooms, rental cars and per diems for any event they’re supporting where they’re not staying at their own homes), you’ve gotta pick and choose your spots.

  9. Ron Ford Says:

    The number of track events disappearing from the schedule every three years on average is pretty simple math also. So as “other locales” disappear from the schedule, the cascading eyeballs and butts increasingly have no where to land.

  10. ecurie415 Says:

    Paul is an estimable writer who raises good points. But let’s consider the fact that a sell-out at IMS is irrelevant to anyone outside of Indiana. The relevant number for purposes of the health of the series is TV ratings, and those must improve. As a non-Indianan, it usually feels like IndyCar is oriented towards the local fan base (i.e., there are two races at IMS in May, but traditional venues go begging or end up as second fiddle, like the Glen – a classic – subbing for Boston). So you have strong local support for an event, but it provides no carryover to the national market. There *was* a day when the 500 was water cooler talk at the office. That is not as true today. No one will buy a ticket for a race in Sonoma in September just because there is a sell-out at IMS in May. Nor do sell-outs at IMS help teams fund seats for a season (rather than a month), drivers, or crew members for the rest of the year (as it is IndyCar, teams can barely afford to keep guys employed all year). When you say that “it is not INDYCAR’s responsibility to push the event through local media”, in fact, it is, if IndyCar wants to maintain a national audience and the prestige that goes with it. I know that Sonoma Raceway buys a lot of local TV time in the lead up to its event. But they have to sell a product, one that is no longer a top draw, and they do not control anything about the marketing of that product until it arrives at their front door. So taking local circuits to task, or suggesting promoters step up, is unfair.

  11. jhall14 Says:

    Well said Paul. As much as I would like to see Milwaukee on the schedule, I understand the plug being pulled. While the event seemed to grow minimally each year, myself and my family loved that trip/race, even NASCAR no longer runs there. That should tell you something to the way things change. In the 70’s and 80’s, the place was sold out, twice a year, June and August. Another thing is at Indy, I could get a hot dog for $2-3.00, Kansas the last time IndyCar ran there, a dog was $6.00. I always heard Mr. Hulman tried to take care of his customers, i.e…bring your own coolers. I have never been anywhere other than Indy that this is allowed. Great fodder though.

    • billytheskink Says:

      You are allowed to bring your own cooler into Kansas Speedway, and many other tracks as well. I’ve brought a cooler into Texas Motor Speedway for over 15 years.

  12. EDGAR Emmitt Says:

    Bring Milwaukee back the week after Indy with a good share of the field and run that race a 1 P.M
    And that race would be successful.

    Just my two cents,but what do us fans know.
    Plus dump most of those snooze fest street races.

    • With the demise of the Boston race, IndyCar is now down to just 5 street races. Two of those are on the same weekend (Detroit), one has been on the schedule for over 30 years (Long Beach), one has been on the schedule for exactly 30 years (Toronto) and the other is in a community that seems to have fully embraced its race (St. Pete). So, I’d say that largely, you’ve gotten your wish to “dump most of the street races” already.

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