Local embrace of new IndyCar road race at IMS key to its success

The new IndyCar Series road race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway early next May will begin to answer a question I’ve wondered about for more than 30 years.

How many people in central Indiana are open-wheel racing fans (now IndyCar fans) and how many are only Indianapolis 500 fans?

That may seem like splitting hairs to some degree, but the answer to that question will have a lot to do with the success or failure of Speedway officials’ most recent effort to raise the IndyCar Series’ profile and bolster the beleaguered month of May along with their bottom line.

Miles has already said he thinks the IndyCar road race at IMS will be a much more local draw than the nationally heralded Indy 500. So the embrace the local community gives this event will be paramount to its success. Miles and his staff must find a way to maximize that.

If a great many local and regional folks who attend the annual Indianapolis 500 are merely fans of that particular race, Miles’ bold plan to add another IndyCar race at the IMS in May could fall flat.

Many sports marketers will tell you myriad Indianapolis 500 fans go to the race because they love the being part of the greatest spectacle. They go to see and be seen, to watch and be watched.

And in the end, lots of fans only have a passing interest in who wins the race, much less the IndyCar Series title.
If that’s the case, I’m not sure an IndyCar road race in early May is going to draw much attention from locals. Initially, there will be some curious onlookers, but it’s unclear how sustainable that will be.

The U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis Formula One race drew about 200,000 the first year in 2000, but attendance declined after that. I’m not sure the most optimistic person would predict the same kind of crowd for the first IndyCar road race that came to the inaugural F1 race here.

An IndyCar road race here simply lacks the intrigue the international F1 race brought. Not only was F1 a new phenomenon here in 2000, but the road course was completely new then. And many oval-loving Midwesterners have been slow to embrace road races.

On the other hand, Speedway officials have promised to upgrade the Speedway’s road course to make it more exciting. And several IndyCar drivers—including Graham Rahal—have raved about the course’s potential to host a thrilling race. An IndyCar is significantly different from an F1 rig and there will be some interest in how the still relatively new DW12 chassis performs on the serpentine Indy road course. If the IndyCar Series ever gets aero kits, that could add to the intrigue.

It’s difficult to say if this move is brilliant or desperate on the part of new Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles. That answer will be provided in the years to come.

Last December, shortly after he took the helm of Speedway parent Hulman & Co., I asked Miles, “Do you favor bringing in more events to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?”

“Whether it’s about the IndyCar Series or [IMS], I don’t start from the point of view that more is better,” Miles answered. “It’s all about what the opportunity is and what it adds.”

Miles must think the opportunity to add an IndyCar road race adds a whole lot of potential. I admire the guts Miles is showing in making such bold moves. Doing nothing really wasn’t much of an option. Interest for pre-Indy 500 activities during May has seriously waned.

Miles is a smart guy with lots of experience in sports business. If he’s launching an initiative this big, I know one thing. He didn’t do it without conducting some serious due diligence.

The worst case scenario for Miles is that the new race, as A.J. Foyt fears it will, cannibilizes the Speedway's golden goose and steals fans from or otherwise waters down the Indianapolis 500, which still draws more than 250,000 each year.

Concerning the new event, Miles and his staff have lots of work to do. They have to nail down a title, presenting and/or other sponsors. Those discussions are now underway. Speedway officials have to decide how they’re going to price and market tickets. It’s too late to offer a combination deal for 2014 since Indy 500 renewals are already sent. Miles could smartly offer Indy 500 ticket holders a fat discount for tickets to the new road race. And I’m sure he and Speedway President Doug Boles will think of other ways to leverage the Speedway’s sizable database.

But Miles has to be wondering if any amount of marketing will matter if this town has many more fans of the Indianapolis 500—and all it represents here—than the IndyCar Series itself.

Instead of the usual snark that fills the comment space of this blog every time I write about IndyCar, let's try something different. If you attend or have attended the Indianapolis 500, tell me if you'll consider attending the new road race at IMS. And how much would you pay for a ticket? I'd sincerely like to know. And I'm sure Miles would too.


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