The Captain Takes The Helm With a Higher Purpose in Mind
There was little question of the the biggest news in this racing off-season. The announcement that long-time racing stalwart and auto industry Roger Penske was purchasing the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a surprise. It was, and is, a big deal.
After all, to the skeptic, such a move from the man who spent most of the last 50 years trying to win one of the world’s greatest races (and has 18 times), could be seen as the ultimate competitive advantage.
It’s becoming more obvious that to Mr. Penske, this purchase has a higher purpose, made even more evident by the announcement of the initial investments and improvements at the Speedway for the 104th running of the race in 2020. He clearly views the series and the track as an investment, and the right mix of business and fan loyalty to the series as tantamount to the future success of both.
Mr. Penske’s prior business success, and sizable self-worth offer the series a change to drive change over the long-term with an ability to weather any short-term revenue shortfalls.
In short, it’s the first time in many years (definitely since the Indy Racing League / CART split reached its natural end in 2004) that this level of resource and focus can be devoted to bringing American open-wheel racing back to its nadir in the early to mid-1990s.
The goal now needs to be and maximizing the meaning and purpose of the race and series for a new generation less remniscent of A. J., Mario and the Unsers and more familiar with social media, self-expression and eSports.
Indeed, the first round of changes announced appeal to the all of primary groups that the race and series need for long-term success: the teams, the TV networks, the fans and the sponsors.
Let’s break down these changes, and how they help drive buy-in from each of these groups.
Indianapolis 500 Purse
The event purse for the 104th Indianapolis 500 will be the largest in the history of the event. The purse will grow by $2 million to more than $15 million, boosting the prize pool for NTT INDYCAR SERIES teams and drivers.
Long and short, this one is for the teams, for whom many the Indianapolis 500 is at best a break-even proposition. When you’re looking at a million-dollars to run a serviceable Indy 500 campaign, and the lowest end of the purse is roughly 1/5th of that, you can easily see why teams are doing this out of the love of the sport and any kind of business sense. And with sponsors continuing to be tough to come by, even for top teams, there is a natural point where this hard math does not add up any longer.
Indianapolis 500 Qualifying
Qualifying weekend for the 104th Indianapolis 500 – Saturday, May 16 and Sunday, May 17 – will feature a variety of changes to its format and broadcast to create even more memories and drama.
Multiple attempts will return to the Last Row Shootout, expanding it to 75 minutes. Previous versions of the Shootout featured one attempt per car. While fans enjoyed that format, feedback indicated they wanted even more drama as drivers try to seize one of the three final spots in the field.
A boost in turbocharger level will see speeds climb this year during the Indy 500 qualifying sessions. Turbocharger boost will increase horsepower by 45 HP this year.
An expanded weekend TV schedule will ensure NBC televises coverage of qualifications on both Saturday and Sunday, with total network exposure increasing over 2019. Full weekend broadcast details will be released soon
Everyone wins here.
What brings fans back to Indy year-after-year? Speed and drama. The last two years have seen their fair-share of headline level drama, as some of the motorsports world’s most popular and largest teams got sent packing. And, now the dynamic of that drama will shift to more attempts (benefiting the teams) and the increased definition that made Indy a must watch in years past.
The speed will start to edge closer to the mid-230 mph seen in the early 1990s, as a great precursor to the speed jump expected with a new rules package in 2021.
NBC wins too, as they get more programming to air, on the mainline network, and on over-the-air channels including their NBC Sports Gold service which saw modest success and offered expansive coverage of the month of May in its first in 2019.
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES and IMS will add six new major sponsors in 2020. Pennzoil, Verizon, Snap-on Tools, DEX Imaging, Road & Track magazine and Global Medical Response will make significant investments in the racing series and Speedway.
Here’s where Roger Penske’s rolodex will ultimately bear the most fruit. In introducing new sponsors and additional commitment from existing ones, a more solid framework grows for the series to invest.
After all, this is a man who currently has racing connections with General Motors, Honda and Ford – bitter rivals in the showroom and on the track.
In investment, there is safety in numbers – sponsors who are hesitant are more likely to hop in where they see stability and competition making investments.
Multimillion-Dollar Fan Experience Investment
The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016 saw large investments made to the Speedway. Beginning with this year’s GMR Grand Prix, fans will experience many new upgrades to IMS. These enhancements are all projects that will be finished before gates open, with several additional opportunities under consideration for future seasons.
Technology upgrades are a major component of this plan. More than 30 additional large-screen video boards will be added, including 24 along the Paddock seating. The Paddock screens will bring race action and vital information to an additional 25,000 fans. In addition, all seven large infield big-screen monitors will receive a running order addition.
Another exciting addition is the IMS Media Wall. This video board, measuring 100 feet wide by 20 feet tall, will be installed at the base of the Pagoda facing the Pagoda Plaza as a cornerstone of a plan to transform the popular gathering area for fans. It will also provide data-driven race insights to fans from NTT.
Verizon and their 5G Ultra Wideband network will transform the iconic Speedway into a first of its kind technology-led entertainment complex. IMS will be the first motorsports facility with commercial 5G service that will enhance both the consumer experience and track operations.
Infrastructure improvements will be noticeable inside and outside of the fabled, 110-year-old facility.
Pedestrian traffic on Georgetown Road will be widened by two lanes to make ingress and egress easier for more than half of the venue’s Race Day customers.
More than 125 restrooms are being renovated inside IMS. New pavement will be added to the Parcel B lot near the IMS Main Gate to improve the parking experience and create a cleaner look for the “front door” of the facility. Approximately 3 miles of fencing will be added to the entire grounds.
The winning driver and team of the Indianapolis 500, Grand Prix and Brickyard 400 will receive higher honors, as the winner’s car will be elevated to the same level as the Victory Podium after each race. This will give fans a better vantage point for pictures and social media sharing of the most prestigious Victory Lane in global motorsports.
The atmosphere of the massive facility also will be enhanced through detail-oriented improvements throughout IMS.
Night light signage will be installed over Gates 1 and 2, while IMS will assume responsibility for the beautification project along Crawfordsville Road. Fans will notice fresh paint and new signage on more than 50 concession stands inside IMS, picnic tables added throughout the grounds for more gathering space for families and friends, and the placement of more than 230 racing-themed flags around the facility and Crawfordsville Road.
All aspects of this fan experience investment plan are underway and will be completed before IMS gates open for the Month of May on Friday, May 8.
This one is for the fans. After attending the last 8 500s in person, I can bear witness to the changes that have already started to happen, but there’s still a lot of opportunity to give IMS a fresh coat of paint. IMS is a special place, and can always rely on the magic to draw crowds year after year, but the opportunity to be more on par with the best sporting facilities in the world remains untapped.
Combine that with the changing pace of technology and its ability to immerse fans in the race, and the race in the fans, and you have a recipe to skew the demographics into more attractive territory for sponsors and networks alike. “Being there” has never been more tied to technology at any time in IMS history.
These early announcements set the stage for many more to come, and will put the IndyCar Series and our favorite race in the best possible light. It’s a great start. Here’s hoping the momentum continues.