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The survival of ovals in IndyCar

As a fan of IndyCar racing, I like all the venues to some degree or another, but I love the ovals.  I grew up on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Saturday and Sunday night stock car races at my local paved ovals of Sun Valley Speedway (now Anderson Speedway) in Anderson, Indiana and Mt. Lawn Speedway near New Castle, Indiana.  Just like you become a fan of a baseball or football team due to its proximity to you, I became a fan of oval racing because it’s what I saw on a regular basis.  If the midgets or sprints were there for a show, it was true exotica.  The Indy 500 was the pinnacle of the auto racing world.  I make no apologies for holding open wheel oval racing in such high regard.  Friends have tried to explain the nuances of road and street racing to me in the hope I will love it like they do, but I keep coming back to the speed, intensity, and danger of the oval track.  As I watch the slow withering of my favorite form of auto racing, I am buoyed by the success of Iowa Speedway.  They have figured out how to make oval racing successful.

Iowa Speedway has become a favorite oval of mine.  The cars are fast and the track is tricky.  The new aero package has them lifting in the corners.  The tires go away making the teams choose to be fast early in the run or save the tires to be fast later in the run.  Setting up a pass may take two or three laps, but passes can be made.  The cars actually need to be driven.  A team needs a strategy to be successful.  And Iowa had on-track action throughout the weekend.  No longer can IndyCar just run one race.  At Iowa we had three IndyCar heat races, a midget race, a Silver Crown race, a Star Mazda race, an Indy Lights race, and the IndyCar feature.  By my count that’s eight races.  Plus, the Indycar practice sessions set the fields for the heat races.  Take note, promoters: put action on the track.  That’s called VALUE.

But a successful race needs more than good racing.  It needs a promoter that knows how to sell and fans that come to the race.  With all of our eyes glued to the success of the series and the TV ratings, we forget that the promoter must make money – money that comes from either the paying customer through ticket, concession, and merchandise sales or from the promoters ability to sell sponsorships and partnerships with businesses.  Oval track promoters should take note of how Iowa Speedway does business.

Andretti Sports Marketing did a masterful job of creating interest and value for the Milwaukee race.  They created value by adding racing events, a midway, and lowering ticket prices.  People in the seats create a profit.  What they don’t have is a title sponsor paying them money.  And that is where Iowa Speedway excels.  Iowa Speedway succeeds because it attracts sponsorship and sells tickets.  Period.  How does this small track with about 30,000 seats manage to survive?  The simple answer is they find local sponsors who want to connect to local customers.

Take a look at the sponsors for the IndyCar, Nationwide, and Camping World truck weekends:

  •  Casey’s General Store USAC Challenge Presented by Messerschmidt Ice and Kix 101 (USAC Midgets and Silver Crown)
  •  Sukup 100 (Firestone Indy Lights)
  •  Iowa Corn 250 (IndyCar)
  •  American Ethanol 200 (TWICE!  Once in July and once in August for the trucks)
  •  Prairie Meadows 200 (ARCA)
  •  U.S. Cellular 250 Presented By the Enlist Weed Control System (Nationwide)
  •  Pizza Ranch Winner’s Circle

Notice anything in the list?  Other than the U.S. Cellular 250 Presented By the Enlist Weed Control System, every other race is sponsored by an Iowa business (U.S. Cellular is Illinois based and Enlist is weed control for corn marketed by Indianapolis based Dow AgroSciences.)   And guess with whom Iowa businesses want to connect?  Yep, those convenience store shopping, grain bin storing, corn growing, cell phone using, weed killing, ethanol producing, pizza eating Iowa farmers.  And connect they do.  The track was packed and the hospitality tents were full.  These local sponsors reaching out to local consumers were activated at Iowa Speedway.  Are the sponsors happy?  I asked Mindy Williamson, the communications and PR director for the Iowa Corn Growers Association, a few questions about their sponsorship of the Iowa Corn 250:

NTR: What is the value of this sponsorship to your organization?

Williamson: We have an excellent return on investment. We have the opportunity to talk with those outside of agriculture about things like ethanol, but also what corn means to our state and the many products we produce. We also have an opportunity to thank our members and give farmers a chance to enjoy themselves as VIP’s in our hospitality tent. We have each year about 1500-2500 farmers and their families that join us for the fun!

NTR: How do you activate at the track?

Williamson: We activate on many levels from advertising, to working with drivers, to promoting ticket sales, to on track involvement. We use traditional media, social media, member communications and more to reach people with our messages. I hope you saw and heard messages from Iowa Corn while you were here!

NTR: What response do you receive from your members?

Williamson: They love racing. In fact, racing is the number one sport among farmers. Some of them are new to IndyCar racing, but they are interested in the mechanics, the technology, and the innovation – many of the same things they invest in on their farms.

Clearly, the Iowa Corn Growers, the sponsor of the Iowa Corn 250, see value in this event.  I would expect the sponsors of the other events at Iowa Speedway see similar value to their sponsorships.  What lesson can be learned from Iowa Speedway?  It’s simple.  Ovals can thrive when the promoters seek out sponsorship that connects to the people who will be sitting in the stands. In Iowa, that demographic had a connection to agriculture.   Milwaukee, Phoenix, and Pocono, for example, would be attracting a different demographic.  But Iowa has a secret weapon.  It is not owned by ISC or SMI.  It is not a pawn in the battle between all the competing motorsport series.  Iowa Speedway is like the small oval tracks of my youth.  Its success or failure is its own.

The sad part of this story is that the locally owned and operated oval that works hard to make each event a success has been replaced by the corporate gamesmanship of both ISC (International Speedway Corporation) and SMI (Speedway Motorsports, Inc.), the owners of most major speedways in America who use their tracks like pawns in a large chess game to deny access to IndyCar or to devalue the series for the betterment of the NASCAR series events they prefer.  The Iowa Speedway model works for ovals.  The problem is there are so few independent ovals to use the model.  So unless IndyCar decides to get in the track-owning business by buying the ovals in Nashville and St. Louis, they had better take real good care of the people who are taking good care of them, or the oval racing that is IndyCar’s past will be relegated to the history books.  And any promoter that wants a model for oval success should give Iowa a call.  They get it.

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