By Barry Janoff
May 22, 2012: Among the most iconic one-day sports events in the U.S. are the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, Daytona 500, Boston Marathon, Rose Bowl and the Indianapolis 500.
In 2011, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which opened in 1909, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first Indy 500 race in 1911. But because the race was suspended during World War I and World War II, this year will be the 96th running of the Indy 500, which is scheduled for May 27 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (on ABC).
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is already planning a celebration for 2016 to mark what will be the actual 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
Lead marketing partners for the IZOD IndyCar Racing Series include Honda, Chevrolet, Lotus, Avis, Firestone, Fuzzy's Vodka, Mazda, Peak, Philips, Sheraton, SiriusXM, Sunoco and Verizon.
There are more than 80 corporate partners for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway including Coca-Cola, Crown, Dell, Energizer, Hilton, Mattel, Miller Lite, Shell V-Power, Sprint, Tag Heuer and Verizon, as well as many of the IZOD IndyCar Racing Series partners.
Among the 33 IZOD IndyCar Series drivers seeking to continue the tradition of drinking a bottle of milk in The Brickyard's winner's circle are three-time champion Helio Castroneves (2001-02-09), two-time winner Dario Fanchitti (2007-10), 2008 winner Scott Dixon, Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, JR Hildebrand and such rookie drivers as Josef Newgarden, Rubens Barrichello, James Jakes and Bryan Clauson.
Regretfully missing from the race will be two-time winner Dan Wheldon (2005-11), who died following a crash at the the season-ending Las Vegas Indy 300 last October. He will be honored both at the race track and on ABC-TV.
Also missing, by choice, will be Danica Patrick, who this year has chosen to ramp up her Nascar events. However, women drivers will be well-represented by Simona De Silvestro, Ana Beatriz and rookie Katherine Legge. Legge will be the ninth woman to compete in Indy 500 history, joining Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher, Milka Duno, Pippa Mann, De Silvestro, Beatriz and Patrick. In addition, Sarah Fisher Harman Racing will have two drivers (both men): Clauson and Newgarden.
Doug Boles has been a racing fan for about 40 years and has been involved with auto racing for nearly 20 years on the business side as a founding partner of Panther Racing, director of governmental and corporate affairs for former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith, executive at marketing and advertising agency Ignition Inc., a partner in marketing agency i3Worldwide and a lawyer representing drivers, race teams and sponsors.
Boles, who joined the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2010 as director of public relations and is now vice-president of communications for IMS, spoke with NYSportsJournalism about the pros, cons and challenges of marketing and building corporate and fan relationships for the IMS and the Indianapolis 500.
NYSportsJournalism.com: Why have the track and the Indy 500 become sports icons?
Doug Boles: The Indianapolis 500, like the Kentucky Derby, is an American institution. It has been around 100 years. At some level, a vast majority of people have some memory of seeing a race in person or on TV or hearing it on the radio. It happens on Memorial Day weekend. People tend to be off from work, hanging around with friends or relatives. The race has become part of the fabric of being an American. So even if you are not a race fan, there are times when you are impacted by it.
NYSJ: When Carl Fisher and others were the driving forces 100 years ago behind building the facility and creating what would become the Indianapolis 500, do you think they envisioned that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would become a National Historical Landmark and that the Indy 500 would become such a major sports event?
DB: I don't think they had that vision. And I don't think they knew what they were starting. When they built the facility, they were trying to fill a void and a need this community had in terms of what was then the new automobile industry. It was built as a proving ground for the industry here, which at the time had dozens of car makers in central Indiana. The roads were not useable at that time, so the Indianapolis Motor Speedway became, with its paved roadway, a place where they could come to test their cars. A couple of years later they had an idea to race the cars, which became an annual event that ultimately turned into the Indianapolis 500. Some of the folks who were involved with the first race lived well into the 1960s and at that point in time they could see how the event had grown and what it had become. But if the original architects and race promoters could come back today, they'd be surprised not only to see that the facility is still here but that hundreds of thousands of people attend races every year.
"We always had in the back of our minds that it is a great time to celebrate the race, but that we also are setting the stage for the next century."
NYSJ: The 100th anniversary celebration was a major milestone. How do you move to the 101st anniversary and beyond without it being anti-climactic?
DB: That was one of our biggest challenges as we planned for the 100th anniversary. We didn't want that event to be a stopping point. It needed to be a springboard to the next 100 years. As we approached it, we always had in the back of our minds that it is a great time to celebrate the race, but that we also are setting the stage for the next century. The way we have been promoting the race this year is highlighting all of the fantastic story lines and finishes, looking at what would happen next, taking 100 years of history as the starting point for stories and highlights going forward. We have the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016, so we will build up to that over the next few years and develop the brand even more.
NYSJ: Have you had any residual effects from fans regarding the extensive marketing to support the 100th anniversary?
DB: Yes, and that's what we wanted to have happen. We had a fantastic attendance last year due to the 100th anniversary. We had a lot of fans who had never been to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or who hadn't been there for a while and came to be part of it. And we have found that, for the most part, those people are coming back in 2012. Ticket sales are in stride with where they were last year, which is a great thing for us.
NYSJ: What about the response and activation you are getting from marketing partners on the corporate side?
DB: We are having a very good year. Our sales guys have met or exceeded all of their goals. I believe we generated the same amount of sponsorship and corporate revenue in a little over the first quarter of this year than we did all of last year. So last year we reinvigorated some of the brands that do understand that the Indianapolis 500 is alive and well and is a great opportunity to promote a brand. This event is very healthy and will continue to thrive.
NYSJ: How is that translating in terms of activation for 2012 and beyond?
DB: Going forward, a lot of our corporate partners are expanding their relationships. Shell has stepped up and really expanded their relationship with us. Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka is another that has expanded their relationship with us. We do have some newer ones. We have a good mix of relationships on the corporate side.
NYSJ: One of the key changes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this year's Indy 500 race is putting eight ads for Fuzzy's and eight for Shell on the walls at the track's north end. What do you think will be the reaction to what some might see as trading heritage for revenue?
DB: This is the first year we have done any kind of wall signage on the racing surface itself. We did some on pit lane last year, but this year we moved it to [Turns 3 and 4]. That's the tricky part of operating an iconic sports venue, such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field. That's the balancing act. How do you maintain the integrity of the facility but at the same time be able to compete in this new world of sponsorship sales where [marketing] revenue is important to help us [keep] down ticket prices and get brands involved that will activate to help us build the overall brand of the Indianapolis 500.
NYSJ: How did management decide which ads and how many ads would go on the walls?
DB: We are very concerned about how that looks and making sure it does not override the cleanliness of this facility. Part of what makes coming to this facility so different is that there isn't a sign from a sponsor everywhere you look. So it needed to be the right partnership. You and I couldn't call up the Speedway and say we wanted to buy a sign on the wall. It's a bigger package than that. There's an activation component, a hospitality component, an at-track component. The folks we are dealing with who are on the wall or on the grass here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway also have some sort of investment with one of our teams in the IndyCar Series. So we really wanted it to be an overall package where everybody wins. And we think the fans ultimately win because these companies are activating all around the country and in our market trying to promote our race and our fans.
"That's the tricky part of operating an iconic sports venue, such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field. That's the balancing act."
NYSJ: How important was it to have Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium this year in Indianapolis, not just for the Indy 500 but in getting companies and consumers to view the city as an important player in the national marketing landscape?
DB: For our facility, a couple of things happened with the Super Bowl. The first, as members of the community and as a corporate partner in this community, we knew all along that, as a host, Indianapolis was going to hit the Super Bowl out of the park. There were some folks who questioned whether Indianapolis could pull off an event such as the Super Bowl. We knew we could. We host the Indianapolis 500 every year. And this works because we have a community that adopts it, volunteers who get involved, public safety to help move traffic along. There are hundreds of thousands of people at this facility for racing every year. And like everyone else here, we were proud to say we are part of the community.
From the point of how we were directly impacted by the Super Bowl, a lot of media came to the facility who otherwise wouldn't have come. They are stick-and-ball guys, not Indianapolis 500 guys. So they came to the facility because they were in Indianapolis and they wanted to see the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For many, they were amazed at how big it is. They did some track laps. They took a tour. They did some Super Bowl coverage from the facility. It started some relationships for us that we probably would not have been able to create on our own. Having the Super Bowl in our backyard, having people touch and feel our facility and promote what we do was how we benefited the most.
NYSJ: How important has social media become to the Indy 500 and Indy Motor Speedway?
DB: Social media has grown a lot and is playing more of a role than ever. The IndyCar guys, our drivers, all have adapted it well. Many of them are active in social media. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is trying to get better at that. This is something new we are trying to incorporate into a 103-year-old facility. We are figuring out how to transition into the new media world. But we have a lot of bright, young tech people and marketers here helping us to navigate through the new ways of communicating with [existing] race fans while also generating new race fans. It certainly is an important element in helping to grow and move the brand forward and in attracting new fans. We basically are learning on a daily basis how best to use Twitter, Facebook, our Web site. As a 40-plus guy I am in that learning curve. It is a little odd for me. But it is an exciting time.
NYSJ: There is a lot written about the younger athletes in other sports who are tech and new media savvy. But many race car drivers have grown up with social media and are active on Twitter and Facebook. How has that helped the IndyCar Series and the sport in general to communicate with fans and marketers?
DB: We do have a lot of drivers who are comfortable with and savvy about social media and have adopted it because of their age. Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, other guys who are under 25 are very active in social media. A couple of years ago, I was at a Nascar marketing summit, and they called out the IndyCar Series as being a good example of how to really use social media. We didn't have the number of followers that Nascar had, but we had a lot more interactivity between our drivers and fans. This is a new medium that is important for Nascar and the IndyCar Racing Series. One of the things that we can do so well is connect our drivers to fans and [marketers].
NYSJ: Danica Patrick won't be driving at the Indy 500 this year, but there will be a significant female presence on the track. How will this impact the race?
DB: Katherine Legge, Simona De Silvestro and Ana Beatriz all qualified to race. Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing has two drivers in the race. Sarah for several years was our most popular driver when she was racing. Then Danica came along and obviously ramped things up as our most popular driver. But Sarah being an owner, being a new mom, she's invested in our community with her race shop. And she is building a new race shop just about a quarter mile away from the front gates of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. She has endeared herself even more to our fans because she chose two young drivers, Bryan Clauson from Indianapolis (pictured right) and Josef Newgarden (pictured left) from Nashville, as her drivers for the season. So the combination of Sarah as an owner and these young drivers trying to compete at the Indianapolis 500 has been a great story.
NYSJ: What do you see moving forward for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500?
DB: We are in a good position. The 100th anniversary event [in 2011] was a platform for us to move forward. And, as I mentioned, we are building toward the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. The new cars, new and established drivers, developments on the IndyCar side all open up a lot of opportunity for us. Now it's a matter of trying to figure out what the right opportunities are and how to capitalize on them so we can continue to help the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway to grow.