The ALSD caravan drove earlier this quarter into Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where IMS President Doug Boles sat down with ALSD.com to chronicle the historic track’s recent renovation and how all industry venues can attract the next generation of fans.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Let’s start off by diving into fan experience. Can you describe the changing demands of the customer and how this track is meeting those demands?
We've been around for 108 years, and there are some things that our fans expect when they come to the speedway in terms of the experience. So much of it’s about tradition – parking in the same place, sitting in the same seats. But as the world has changed, stadiums are built, and 20 years later, they're built again, and the experience continues to change.
We just put about $125 million into this facility over a couple of years. Our challenge was how to make it feel like a new stadium with the amenities that people expect when they go to an event, and at the same time, not offend them by making it a brand new facility. Because the tradition and what they expect is important.
As we all compete for dollars, we're not just competing against sports. We're competing now against every opportunity. So if you can't make the fan experience better, you're not going to get a customer to continue to come or that new customer to come back again. It's critical that we think through how that fan experience changes almost every year.
How do you give the general fan a premium experience while still maintaining the integrity of a premium ticket?
That [question] highlights the challenge we had when we redid the facility. In our upper deck seating, for example, which is just a general ticket, we now have some of the amenities that you would expect at another stadium. There are stadium seats, cup holders, but also concession stands with more options than just a hot dog or a hamburger.
“If you can give people the sales and service that makes them feel like they're special, they're going to keep coming back.”
– Doug Boles, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
There are other things we have to start doing as we think about how much we all rely upon our iPads and our phones. How are we getting information to our customers so they know when there's an autograph session, or so that they know there's a special somewhere or that we can deliver to their seats? Those are the things that we have to start doing to make those customers who aren't in a club or in a private suite know that they're just as special to us and that their experience is just as important to us.
Even parking, right? It starts at parking. If you can give a regular fan a good parking spot or the ability to park somewhere easier, those are all the things you have to start thinking about to make sure that the customer’s experience, even at the general admission level, feels like they're at the highest level in terms of premium suites.
And how are you making it special and exclusive for your premium clients?
When we first started building suites here in the mid-70’s, we had a suite bank in Turn 2, which still exists today. We really focused on one suite and one option. Until this club that we're sitting in, if you wanted to come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, you bought a [general] race ticket or you bought a $110,000 annual suite. There was no option in between. And so whether you were a small company that wanted to be involved or even an individual that wanted something more than just the traditional seat, we didn't have it.
So we're sitting in a club today where you can buy one ticket or 20 tickets, and it gives people that flexibility and a way to entertain or enjoy the speedway at another level without having to go all in on the premium suite. And then on the premium suite side, the most important thing for us is not necessarily changing the box of the suite, but changing the way our team interacts with [suite holders].
Over the last couple of years, [suite holders] have gotten more personal interaction from our team. Our team understands who they are, what they want, how they activate, or how they use [the suite], so they can make sure they have the best experience possible. And then when something's wrong, they've got somebody to talk to, and our team is empowered to solve those problems for them.
It’s almost that one-on-one, sort of in-the-trenches sales and service. And if you can give people the sales and service that make them feel like they're special, they're going to keep coming back.
Walk me through the pagoda and any other area that you feel differentiates this track.
The one thing that differentiates us is that history and tradition. At 108 years and 101 Indy 500’s over the course of 108 years, we're pretty unique in terms of our age, our history, and just what happens here. We've held onto our traditions in a way that's allowed us to be special. Our challenge is how to change enough of the way we present it so that we're attracting that next generation.
The racetrack itself is special because it's historic, because the drivers that race today are racing on the same layout [as 108 years ago]. They've got asphalt on top of the bricks, on top of the limestone and tar that they first started racing on. But it's the same width, same layout. It hasn't changed.
And then the pagoda is sort of our iconic image. It is our fourth structure like it that we've had at the speedway. We had a couple of pagodas before, then we had a control tower, and this one now is sort of a blend of the two. It has some premium hospitality in it. It has some of the ops side in it. It's fully functional across everything we do here at the speedway.
Another area that I know is important to you is Project 100. Can you tell us more about that?
Project 100 was completed over the course of three years with about $120 million invested in the facility. Almost $100 million of it was specific to Project 100. The idea was that we wanted to invest in the facility in preparation for the 100th running of the Indy 500 in May of 2016.
We started the project in the fall of 2013. Our first few pieces of it came online in 2014, and it was completed just before the Indy 500 ran in 2016. Part of it was premium opportunities, seating opportunities throughout the facility, and some new roof structures around the facility. But it was a lot of things to help modernize us, but at the same time, really pay attention to that tradition that's so important.
So for us, the challenge was to make it feel like the speedway people have fallen in love with, the speedway that their dad, their granddad, or whoever introduced them to, but at the same time, give them those amenities that you expect today when you go to a brand new stadium.
To get the ROI from a major renovation, what has been an area or a segment that you focused on the most? What’s giving you the most bang for your buck?
We really tried to focus across the board. We addressed the general admission customer through brand new spectator mounds, for example. So for the guy who buys a GA ticket that doesn't have a reserved seat but still wants to be part of the race, we built spectator mounds that gave him sort of a family picnic feel but also gave him great views of the racetrack. Not just the oval, but our road course. It was important to start with everybody all the way up to the premium customer in a venue like this one. We've tried to balance it across the board.
Our entire team is concerned about our customers. And when you have a 100th running and 350,000 people in this venue, most of those people are regular customers. It was important that when we invested, we invested in that regular customer. A lot of the seating that's behind us is our highest priority seating. They're folks that have been in those same seats, or their families have been, since World War II. So we felt like it was important to give them something so that they continued to come back as they are our best customers.
What are you doing here that emulates what stick-and-ball sports are doing? Or did you study other tracks when you upgraded the facility?
We studied all sports, all of entertainment really. But I think the IndyCar Series and NASCAR Series racing have been on the front end of connecting their stars, their athletes, to folks that are just regular fans. I think other sports have looked at racing to try and make things better.
“While we're not your traditional arena or stadium, we are dealing with the same issues, so there's an awful lot we can learn from each other.”
– Doug Boles, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Our athletes are involved in sponsors. Oftentimes on event day, they are in the premium suites, talking to customers. During our NASCAR event, for example, we introduce our drivers and walk them down our yard of bricks through lines and lines and lines of people. They could literally reach out and touch those drivers as they're coming forward. Those things are all important to give [fans] that experience and the connection to the superstars in order to continue to get people to come back.
I think you can learn a lot from many different venues. Our team is always paying attention, especially locally. We have a pretty neat market here where each sports franchise is helping the other, so oftentimes, our team will go to a Colts game or a Pacers game or an Indians game to learn from them. And vice versa, those teams will come out and learn from what we're doing and share best practices.
On a lot of levels as sports entities, we're not necessarily competing against each other. We're competing against non-sport entertainment. And to the extent that we can get sports to rise and help each other out, I think we're more one group that's really trying to survive.
What else can others in the industry learn from racing venues?
We can learn how to operate better together. We can learn our concession service, the way we're delivering concessions, the ways other stadiums are delivering. We share a lot of common things. The difference in [racing] facilities is that they're just bigger. This track is a mile long by a half-mile wide. It’s 275 acres. You can put 15 Lucas Oil Stadiums inside here.
But we're no different. On event days, we're worrying about the same things everyone else is – making sure we're getting people safely through the gates, not standing in line for a long time, getting them to their seats, delivering information to them. Those are things we can learn from each other. So while we're not your traditional arena or stadium, we are dealing with the same issues, so I think there's an awful lot we can learn from each other. And that's why it works so well in our community for the different facilities to talk to each other about how they're making life better.
We just have to look at it as we're all in this together, and as the tide rises, we all rise.
In closing, where is racing going as a sport and a marketplace?
Like all sports entities, we are having to think through what's next and how to create that next generation of fan. There is some community pride around the speedway because it's been here for so long, but we have to figure out how to create that next fan. What makes them want to come here?
Our fans used to show up here at 7:00 a.m. and not get out of their seat until 3 o'clock. Well, people don't do that anymore. So how are we creating other zones? Which many stadiums do, which you hear a lot of.
In fact, I went to Washington, DC to one of the baseball games out there and was blown away by how few people were really watching the game in the seat. Tons of people were watching the game in the concourse and different bar areas and different experiences. So we have to learn how to do that. And again, it goes back to observing and understanding where other people have been successful.
But it's really important for all of us as stadium operators to understand not just what our current customer wants, but what's that next generation want. And that's the challenge we all have, and we're going to learn from each other as we go about solving that challenge. #
For additional motorsports perspective, watch our exclusive interview with Bryan Sperber, President of Phoenix Raceway.