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Spending at the Speedway

The band ’63 Burnout has a song called “Trouble at the Speedway,” a very Dick Dale-ish surf guitar instrumental.  Good stuff.  The title made me ponder some of the current troubles at the Speedway.  Money was one that came to mind immediately.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am all for free enterprise and charging whatever the traffic will bear.  The object of business is, and always has been, profit.  I applaud IMS for finally monetizing everything in sight.  It’s the American way.

For years, IMS was the best value of any major sporting event in the world.  They could afford to be.  The track made money every year by having massive crowds for both Pole Day and Race Day.  Limited and very reasonably priced concession offerings sold well.  The corporation did not own a money-hemorrhaging racing series and simply mowed, painted, and repaired the facility until the next May.  Life was good.  All of the Hulman family had some folding money in their pockets and seats in a convertible for the parade as well as being Midwestern royalty reigning over a rather provincial outpost.  Who could ask for more?

Well, it seems the Speedway tired of being a once a year monument to speed, so they spent money like the lottery winners they were to make IMS a world class venue for other racing.  They erected the Tower Terrace Suites, made a goat ranch into a world class Pete Dye golf course, built a new Pagoda and garages, and added a road course in the middle of the once sacrosanct oval.  With all this building came NASCAR, F1, and the PGA.  The money train was on the tracks and rolling.  At least it was until F1, as it always does, found a better offer, until the golfers moved on, until the blush was off the NASCAR rose and the crowds dwindled, and until the formation of the IRL killed the popularity and profitability of the series and, to some degree, the Indianapolis 500.

There are a couple of different ways to deal with the loss of profitability.  The easiest way is to cut costs as IMS did.  Defer maintenance.  Sell your private jet.  Hire a skeleton crew to run your money-sucking series.  Deny requests to add much needed personnel.  Another way is to apply modern sports business knowledge to the idea of making more money.  Promote the product.  Hire the right people and let them work.  Add events.  Start charging for everything that has value.  This is Indy today.

Want to glamp? It will cost you.  Need preferred parking?  Pay up.  Need video boards?  The tickets cost more.  Hungry for a new cuisine or thirsty for a craft beer?  Pull out your wallet.  Want to watch practice?  Peel off a fin and a sawbuck ($15) for the privilege.  IMS should have marked everything up years ago but held onto the outdated notion of Tony Hulman that the facility and the race were public trusts.  While it is true that the track is on the National Register of Historic Places, it is still a business that needs to profit.  Do you really want to see the patrons howl?  Wait until the Speedway decrees that coolers are no longer welcome as a safety decision.  Talk about a new revenue stream!  And it is right for both safety and profit.  Nothing makes a capitalist happier than being able to justify profit in the name of Homeland Security.  The customers cannot argue.  I’m holding out hope that IMS uses a sponsor to offer a spectacular beer and cooler deal to the fans when the time comes, though.

Get used to it.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is going to get deep into your pocket for all the right reasons: profit and sustainability.  The old FRAM Oil Filter commercial used to have a mechanic saying, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.”  For fans of the Indianapolis 500, later is now.  Pay up.

 

 

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Adios, ovals. It’s been good to know you.

History is replete with species that didn’t make it:  the passenger pigeon, the dodo, Dragon Racing.  You can add ovals other than Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Verizon IndyCar Series to the list of auto racing endangered species.  And like the passenger pigeon, the dodo, and Dragon Racing, the reasons for the potential demise are human .

Automobile oval racing is inherently an American product.  The county and state fairgrounds’ horse tracks allowed racing to be brought to the masses.  Indianapolis may have received the publicity, but oval racing came of age on dirt all across the country.  As for-profit board tracks and dirt ovals started popping up, fans had accessible and entertaining racing.  Life was good for many years.

But dirt gave way to pavement.  It was faster, cleaner, and modern.  Fans flocked to see the stars of their day drive in circles in open-wheel race cars.  The modern rear-engined IndyCar has its roots in F1 and road courses, but they were also designed for ovals.  The specs of the two series diverged.

The current DW12 is a robust beast that handles road and street courses well and is extremely competitive on ovals if the series gets the aerodynamic rules right for a particular track.  Let’s face it; it was designed for Indianapolis.  Even de-tuned, it is close enough to as fast as anyone wants to go there.  Recent Indy 500’s have had edge-of-your-seat racing and piss-your-pants passing.  That’s good, right?

Well, with that kind of action, why are ovals drying up like autumn leaves in October?  We can rehash the old reasons like the stubbornness of CART, the willfulness of Tony George, the ascendancy of NASCAR, and the ineptness of IndyCar management.  All are true, to one degree or another, and have led us to this point.  This point being one where no one wants to host and promote an oval and, apparently, no one wants to watch a race on one either.

People want to be entertained.  IndyCar may have the best on-track product of any major racing series, but they do not put on much of a show at an oval.  A road or street course will have on-track action throughout a weekend with the likes of three Mazda Road to Indy series, the Pirelli World Challenge, the Tudor Series, and Robbie Gordon’s Stadium Trucks as well as a circus-like atmosphere at street courses.  Indianapolis gets away with race day because of the tradition, pageantry, and debauchery, but even Indy has lost the shine on qualification weekend.

The Indy 500 is moving in the right direction, though.  Concerts and glamping helped this year.  Other venues need to follow suit, and the Verizon IndyCar Series needs to help.  Promoters are treating ovals like the toxic money-loss that they are.  IndyCar needs to pack up its own circus, support series, and musical performances and take them on the road.  Once an oval is popular and profitable, the series can wring more money for its services or allow the promoter to do his or her own thing.

If the series really wants ovals on the schedule, it has to do something.  If a business has a supply that no one want, they need to manufacture the demand.  That’s promotion.  IndyCar has made a big splash with its recent hires and series sponsorship. Now it needs to perform.

William Shakespeare wrote that “What’s past is prologue.”¹  If you don’t mind a moment of existentialism², we are always in THIS moment.  There is no other.  It doesn’t matter what brought ovals here, it only matters what the series does now to save a vanishing breed.  Let’s hope they find them worth saving.

 

1.  The quote is from The Tempest.  In the play, it helps justify murder.  That seems excessive.  I’m just looking for a little promotional help from the series.

2.   existentialism: a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.  I think IndyCar fans should have a strong vocabulary.  It makes it easier to insult NASCAR fans and run away before they figure it out.

 

 

 

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2014 Indianapolis 500: Part I – the good

The new month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is behind us, and as the sunburn, hangovers, tenderloins, and poor choices recede into our memories, it is best that we all reflect on the events before they fade away completely.  So as not to break any new ground with creative thought, I would like to look at recent events through the conceit of the Clint Eastwood movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  This three part series will look at one aspect each day.  Today, we look at the good.

The Good

1.  Ryan Hunter-Reay is absolutely going to be a good Indy 500 champion.  I have always been rather lukewarm towards RHR.  He seems to say the right things and avoids controversy.  Fair enough.  His two passes of Helio Castroneves for the lead in the closing laps of the 500 were gutsy and aggressive and belied his rather vanilla persona.  When Castroneves throws his samba blocking moves on, he’s more than tough to get around.  Hunter-Reay’s quotes in Victory Lane showed an emotion previously kept hidden and that, along with his refreshing honesty, resonated with me.  He truly gets the 500.

2.  Hunter-Reay said in his post race interview that he was “a happy American boy.”  Although it may seem jingoistic, an American winning the 500 is important to a series that currently runs all but one race on American soil.  The lifeblood of the Verizon IndyCar Series is the red, white, and blue flag waving fans that were in abundance on Memorial Day in Indianapolis.  We can only hope that the series is able to capitalize on this American winner of the 500 more than they did the same winner of the series in 2012.  Wait, did I snarkily offer a “bad” in here?  Sorry.  I will try to stick with the script.

3.  As expected, the racing was great.  What more do the fans want?  There were multiple passes for the lead, including those by RHR and Castroneves in the closing laps that required more than a little sand.  The cars once again protected drivers like Scott Dixon and Townsend Bell in HARD hits.  Give me safety over aesthetics any time.  Fie on the fans who decry this ugly beauty.¹  The DW12 is a great race car, no matter how it looks.  And it is ugly.

3.  The red flag at the end of the race, while unexpected and without precedent, was good for the fans in attendance and the TV audience.  As a traditionalist in general, I initially thought that one more IMS accepted protocol was going down the drain.   But after seeing the debris from Townsend Bell’s crash and watching the SAFER barrier being repaired, I realized it made the race better.  Change is sometimes good, even if it causes apoplexy in the hard-core constituency.  Who knew?

4.  The crowd was not just good at the race, it was great.  The Coke Lot was full at 7:30 AM as we arrived at the Speedway.  I have not seen that in 25 years.  Of course the downside of that is the Coke Lot was full of Coke Lot type denizens at 7:30 AM.  Estimates  of the crowd were up to 230,000.  Don’t let those empty seats fool you.  The place was full.  The lines to get into the facility that made life miserable last year were not issues.  The purchased parking credentials in the North 40/Lot 7 were another story, though.  Dang.  There I go again with the snark about one of the “bad” issues.  An official for the Speedway told me that ticket sales were up 25% this year.  Indy is back, baby.

5.  Although the commercials on ABC seemed interminable after I got a chance to watch, the pre-race portion is still the best around.  The network wove in Memorial Day, human interest, and race goodies in just the right proportion.  Watching the race in HD, particularly the in-car shots, is absolutely thrilling.  Although not “bad” by definition, I do find the constant video and interviews of the WAGS a little cloying.  Nobody ever yells “Show us the wives and girlfriends for god’s sake!” as a race winds down.  Nobody.  Ever.

6.  The pre-race ceremonies at IMS for the 500 are nonpareil.  If you have never witnessed it in person, put it on your list.  The fact of the meaning of Memorial Day is always there, as it should be.  I hope that IMS, in its quest for more profit, never turns the pre-race into a sponsored circus to make a quick buck.  It is already the gold standard.  Keep it that way.  With that said, I really will miss Jim Nabors, a B-List singer and actor who found a home in Speedway, Indiana on Memorial Day weekend.  He sang “Back Home Again” the right way.  Please IMS, don’t bring in an oddball assortment of record label sponsored train wrecks to audition.  Find another baritone who gets Indy and can make it each May for the next 30 years or so.  The name is not as important as the song.  Do NOT mess this up.

7.  The month of May is back as an event in Indy.  After years of condensing the month due to lack of fan interest, the gang in the blue glass edifice on 16th and Georgetown finally packed in enough activities to interest new fans.  The Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the new Time Trials weekend, Carb Day, the Jason Aldean concert, glamping, and the electronic dance music in the Snake Pit on race day all added fans through the turnstiles.  The numbers for the month could be pushing 350,000 fans.  Do the math.  More fans = $$$.  $$$ = more racing.  More racing = happy fans.  Repeat.

That’s the good, great, and just okay as well as some sub-textual bad that just keeps popping up.  Sorry about that.  Tomorrow brings the defined “bad” of the race.  And possibly a little more snark.

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¹  In my continuing effort to bring culture to racing, I used the oxymoron “ugly beauty” to describe the Dallara DW12.  An oxymoron is when two opposite terms are used together for effect.  Old Billy Shakespeare used them often when describing bear-baiting and cock fights, so there is some tradition of sporting usage.

IndyCar is “Almost Famous”

My mind runs to comparisons.  You name the topic and I can probably list how it is similar to something else.  In fact, this ability to compare unlike things is one of the marks of an agile brain.  We learn new things by seeing them through the lens of what we already know.  So I wasn’t surprised recently when the movie I was watching conjured up images of IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  What movie?  I was watching the fictional rock and roll period piece Almost Famous.  Besides being a soundtrack of my misspent youth, it was also telling the story of the current state of the IndyCar Series.

Just ponder the title for a moment.  With all the exciting racing and interesting personalities, it seems the series is on the cusp of a breakthrough.  IndyCar is Almost Famous. The big question is how to move past the “almost.”  Many seem to have the philosophy of the character of rock critic Lester Bangs as he describes Stillwater, the rock band being profiled by William Miller in the movie.  He describes the article being written as “…a think piece about a mid-level band struggling with its own limitations.”  That’s been the IndyCar Series for the past few years.  It has absolutely struggled with its economic limitations and its decreasing popularity.  What is there to do?

The lead singer of Stillwater, Jeff Bebe, asks the heavens this simple question, “Is it that hard to make us look cool?”  In the case of IndyCar and the Indy 500, it has been rather hard to look cool.  The series has not had a title sponsor in recent history that has activated its brand.  IZOD rolled out the same tired commercial for a couple of years and then just quit.  The drivers swimming and riding on watercraft looked pretty cool, but it not engage the public.  There was an idea, but no follow-through.  The Firestone commercials connected to a time long past, but did not really connect to what is cool now.  Maybe new title sponsor Verizon will finally make the series cool again by connecting a very real and current technology to both business partners and the public.

Maybe the series can take a lead from the new corporate Snake Pit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  In Almost Famous, William Miller’s professor mother Elaine tells her college psychology class that, “Rock stars have kidnapped my son.”  It looks like the Snake Pit at IMS is making a concerted effort to kidnap a demographic that has been eluding IndyCar for years: the hipsters. Mark Miles has gone on record saying that IndyCar is not trying to capture the NASCAR demographic.  Maybe the demographic he is after wears fedoras and listens to dance music spun by DJ’s in clubs.  The Snake Pit has managed to grow that demographic by bringing in DJ’s like Benny Benassi, Krewella, Afrojack, Diplo, NERVO, and Hardwell.  Names don’t ring a bell?  Who cares as long as they ring a bell in the head of deep-pocketed hipsters willing to return year after year until they finally decide to watch the race.  What?  You thought all those drunks who came back to the organic Turn One Snake Pit of yore year after year were there to watch the race?  They came for the party.  The party’s just moved to the other end of the track.

Want more rock star vibe?  The Snake Pit is now selling “glamping” inside IMS.  If you are willing to shell out the dough, you can spend four nights luxury camping in the infield.  That’s only the coolest thing EVER.  If you have the money, that is.  And somebody does.  You can go to the Snake Pit and channel Almost Famous character Russell Hammond as he shouts from the top of a house, “I am a golden god!”  Well, you can as long as you can pay the freight, anyway.  And let’s face it, we all want to be a golden god.

The most famous line in the movie is probably said by the groupie/Band-Aid Penny Lane.  She cryptically tells William Miller that, “It’s all happening” in reference to the tour of Stillwater.  IndyCar is finally able to say the same thing.  New hires have been made.  A title sponsor has been announced.  Infrastructure construction has been planned.  Social media has been embraced.  New events like the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the vintage car races have been scheduled.  Big time performers have been slated for concerts.  The Snake Pit is grabbing a new demographic. Take a real good look at everything bubbling up in the series.  IndyCar is looking at us just like Penny Lane looked at William Miller and saying, “It’s all happening.”  All a fan can say is it’s about time.

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