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Sports Business

New Speedway president asked to 'save our track'

July 10, 2013
KEYWORDS Sports Business

Shortly after news broke Tuesday that Doug Boles was promoted from chief operating officer to president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one commenter on IBJ.com pleaded: “Good luck Doug. Save our track!”

Wow! Does the Indianapolis Motor Speedway really need saving? Perhaps.

One thing is certain. The famed Brickyard is at a critical crossroads.

It may still host the Greatest Spectacle in Racing—the Indianapolis 500—but many race fans have told me it’s no longer a venue worthy of such an event. They say it’s not anywhere close. And now it’s up to Boles—and his boss, Mark Miles—to do something about it.

Race fans complain the Speedway is a “turn-off” that is hurting attendance at the IMS’ cash-cow event, the Indy 500 in May.

Racing insiders also tell me the vaunted Speedway, despite its history and gargantuan size, is second-tier compared with the soon-to-be-renovated Daytona International Speedway and the new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, which hosts a major Formula One race, among others.

Although the Indiana General Assembly this year voted to give the Speedway a $100 million tax break over 20 years for needed repairs and upgrades, some think it won’t be nearly enough. The IMS has agreed to kick in another $40 million over the same period, but that total still pales in comparison to the $400 million Daytona International Speedway is pouring into its facility.

Boles clearly must first prioritize how to spend the money he has at his disposal to make needed upgrades to maximize attendance at the venue’s three major events. Then he must find ways to raise more capital to bring the 1,025-acre facility into the modern era. That might mean some serious breaks with tradition, with Speedway officials acknowledging they must consider things like selling naming rights to the Indy 500 and the Speedway itself.

One normally very supportive commenter on IBJ.com caught me off guard Tuesday when he said, “The track is starting to blend in with the ghettos that now surround it on almost three sides.”

I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s certainly not good.

The commenter, who calls himself Disciple of IndyCar, noted that he’d been visiting the IMS since 1959 and is appalled by potholes in the museum parking lot, cracked and crumbling sidewalks, and pipes leaking raw sewage in rest rooms. He even noted that many of the grassy areas this year were uncut and unkempt.

“If it’s Boles’ [responsibility to stop such deterioration], he has his work cut out for him,” the commenter noted. “IMS has fallen well behind most other big-time tracks in terms of amenities and access and that situation must be corrected now.”

Remember, the comment came from someone normally rather supportive of the Speedway and its initiatives.

Boles’ predecessor as IMS president, Jeff Belskus, was great at tightening the belt on the operation. Now, the insiders say, some smart spending is in order.

IMS officials have identified three immediate needs: improved disability access, video monitors within the track, and possibly lights. Night racing could begin as early as 2014, but 2015 is more likely, Speedway officials said.

Racing fans and sponsors offer a much longer list of needed improvements, including better entrances and exits; more comfortable seats; improved viewing platforms; upgraded rest rooms, concession stands and hospitality areas; an expanded and improved museum; and more interactive fan activities.

“They have to do something,” said Paul Henry, a 58-year-old Indianapolis resident who’s been to every Indianapolis 500 since 1968. “The facility is dated and it has become a turn-off. There are not a lot of attractions for what I’d call the casual race fans.”

Bloomington resident and longtime race fan Jeffrey Henderson, 46, called the track’s amenities rudimentary.

“What opened my eyes was the new track in Austin,” said Henderson, the principal at Bloomington North High School. “A state-of-the-art facility like that shines a light on just how much work needs to be done at the [IMS].”

The Speedway’s corporate constituents were crueler in their appraisal.

One racing industry executive called the IMS’ condition “horrendous.” An executive with one of the IndyCar Series’ corporate partners said that on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the best sports facility, “the Speedway would get a three.”

“The luster is gone from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” said former race car driver Derek Daly, who now serves as a racing analyst for WISH-TV Channel 8. “It creates an unattractive sports platform for commercial sponsors to get involved. The problems will take years to fix. The sooner they get started the better.”

Boles, a 46-year-old with experience as a team owner and manager, motorsports marketer and lawyer to various race organizations, knows his problems don’t end with the infrastructure.

Brickyard 400 attendance has been in serious decline in recent years and the MotoGP motorcycle race may be on life support.

Boles must focus on drawing more fans to see NASCAR’s Sprint Cup headliner in July but also integrate the Nationwide Series the IMS wrestled away from Lucas Oil Raceway along with sports car events held the same weekend to make the Brickyard 400 extravaganza bigger and more lucrative.

Belskus always said the NASCAR and MotoGP races were profitable, but clearly the Brickyard 400 isn’t nearly as profitable as it once was—when it was capable of generously subsidizing the IndyCar Series—and more than one source has said the margins on the motorcycle race are perilously thin. Outreach to motorcycle groups has to be improved and an event like Motorcycles on Meridian has to be expanded and converted to race ticket sales.

Miles, CEO of Speedway parent Hulman & Co., understands well the gravity of the crossroads his company faces.

From the very first in-depth interview I had with Miles after he was hired as Hulman & Co. boss late last year, he stressed the need for facility upgrades at the IMS.

“If you think of any major successful professional event or high-level collegiate event, the facility has a lot to do with the vitality of the event aesthetically and for the fan experience and economically,” Miles said.

He knows the ability of that facility to raise big piles of cash is paramount to the success of his company. That’s why Miles knows there’s a lot riding on Boles’ promotion.

If it backfires, Miles knows the massive operation could well go up in smoke.

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