Key to success of this year’s Indy 500 could be bathrooms

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When it comes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s $92 million overhaul, it’s difficult to determine which way to turn first.

IMS officials this week are putting the finishing touches on the massive Project 100 in time for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29 and the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on Saturday.

There are new, massive high-definition viewing monitors visible from 98 percent of the seats in the venue, new elevators, and overhauled suites and club-seat areas that look like the interior of a five-star hotel (well, at least four-star). The number of concession stands is doubled—to 1,100, and there’s a fancy new (and much larger) main entry and even a street-side ticket office for the first time at the 107-year-old track.

But those aren't the most important improvements the Speedway has made, according to Ken Ungar. And Ungar speaks from a place of authority.

Ungar, who operates locally based U/S Sports Advisors, was the IMS chief of staff from 1997 to 2005. He also was the first Indy Racing League (now IndyCar Series) chief of staff. As a founding member of networking group Sports Circle Indy and a representative for the sponsorship and marketing interests of Honda, Ungar has seen multiple Project 100 presentations.

He said he's impressed on all fronts. But he’s most impressed—and he thinks fans will be, too—about the upgrades made to the Speedway’s bathrooms. 

Some turn up their noses at talk of urinals and bathroom ventilation, but not Ungar. He said the Speedway’s outdated commodes were long overdue to receive a breath of fresh air, and with the latest project, they did.

The urinal troughs that populated many of the men’s bathrooms are now history. More than a few guys will appreciate the added privacy an individual urinal will provide. But the renovations don’t stop there, and Ungar thinks it is one of the first things race fans will notice.

“Once fans get through the entrance … the thing they’ll remember is how the restroom was and how long they waited in line to get in the restroom,” Ungar said. “The experience in and around the restroom is so important to fans, it can’t be underestimated.”

With many race fans paying $100 or more for Indy 500 tickets, Ungar said fans expect all the comforts of home. And while they’re not likely to get fuzzy toilet seat covers and duck-shaped anti-slip floor decals, they should get just about everything else, he added.

“You’re paying good money to be there, so you expect to be comfortable and you deserve to be comfortable,” Ungar said. “Believe it or not, the experience people have in the restroom can be extremely relevant in terms of fan retention.”

If IMS officials got the bathroom part of the improvements wrong, Ungar said their efforts at bringing people back for future races could be flushed down the drain.

I might be a little skeptical about that had I not spent the better part of two years listening to construction contractors and designers go on about the importance of the number of bathrooms and toilets at Lucas Oil Stadium during the construction of that facility, which opened in 2008.

I listened to architects for Dallas-based HOK wax poetic about the number of bathrooms and the enhanced accommodations designed to make sure women could get in and out of the bathroom in a timely manner at Cowboys Stadium (now AT&T Stadium). 

In Dallas at the 2011 Super Bowl, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones even addressed the matter. NFL and Cowboys officials freaked out as the facility’s bathrooms were pushed to peak capacity when an extra 30,000 fans (total of about 100,000) packed the venue for the big game. More than a few fans grumbled when they missed a couple of minutes of the second half while finishing their business.

With IMS officials expecting 100,000 more fans for this year's race than any year in the last 20, the venue's toilets will be put to a supreme test. 

So yes, bathrooms matter—especially to fans at a sports venue who’d rather be watching the event than standing in line hopping on one leg, and who value at least a little privacy.

The primary objective of Project 100, Boles said is “to make sure fans have a great experience at a facility that feels like the old, historic Speedway.”

I’m sure he wasn’t talking about the bathrooms. No one wants to be in a bathroom that looks, feels and smells like it was built in 1909. The bathrooms at the old Comiskey Park in Chicago had that look and feel when the stadium closed in 1990. It wasn’t good.

Mike Fox, director of Lucas Oil Stadium, said Speedway officials had one big incentive to get Project 100 right.

“Any sports venue has to keep up with the expectations of its fans,” Fox said. “Because it’s very easy to rationalize staying home and watching it with ever-improving at-home viewing technology. It can be hard to compete with the comforts of home.”

That certainly goes for bathrooms.

Race fans will tell Speedway officials soon enough what they think of their much-ballyhooed Project 100 upgrades. IMS officials have hired New Jersey-based Turnkey Intelligence, a leading national sports polling and research firm, to poll fans this month about the recent upgrades.

“We think we’ve met our objectives,” Boles said. “Our fans will tell us. They’ve always been very good about letting us know what they think.”

It’s true, auto racing fans have no problem telling you when they think something stinks. 

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