IMS, Indianapolis Set Gold Standard
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.