• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, June 01, 2014

IN THE PAGODA WITH MARK MILES

When I turned off of 16th St. into the Brickyard Crossing entrance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the other week, here's the first thing I noticed. Or, I should say, felt. A big pothole, right at the beginning of the driveway, a few feet in front of where the Yellow Shirt guards were standing.

That pothole, of course, is a near-perfect symbol of the troubles IMS and the IndyCar series have faced since Tony George's disaster of a decision to create his own tour in 1996. You know all the metrics: Lower TV ratings, ticket sales, car counts, sponsorship dollars, fan base, etc., etc. etc. And that pothole represents the challenges that confront Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, IMS President Doug Boles, and everyone else now charged with rebuilding the enterprise. This especially includes the appearance and facilities of the Speedway, itself.

Miles was in charge for his second Indy 500. He says progress has been made on the business front and I think the evidence signals that's true. His re-working of the May schedule to include a road-course race, different qualifying format, and added entertainment elements to the race weekend -- happily combined with near-perfect weather -- appeared to have produced bigger crowds and perhaps a bit more overall media and public buzz for The Greatest Spectacle.

Given the declines of the last almost two decades, any positive movement is, well, positive. There's still a long, difficult, sometimes bumpy road ahead, however, and Miles knows it. 

Last May, I had the opportunity to spend almost 45 minutes with Miles in his IMS office. We talked again before last season's 500-mile finale in California. And, this past May 23, the Friday before the 98th running, I was invited up to the seventh floor of the Pagoda for another conversation. Here are highlights of our 20-minute talk. Please note: The order of questions and answers is not in the exact order I asked. I have moved more overall newsworthy quotes to the top. My questions here are generalized from the way I actually asked them but the substance remains true. Miles' answers are direct from my transcript. 

Oh, and for the benefit of all the chatroom critics, Miles admitted I actually gave him a new talking point. I suggested the Speedway could be considered as a lot like Wrigley Field: An iconic American sports venue, that will never be truly "modern" in terms of amenities and spectator comfort, but that's offset by the historic nature of the stadium. Miles embraced that, so if you hear or read him make the comparison, that came from me. I guess the PR/image-builder in me is still there . . . 

ISC is spending upwards of $400 million of its own corporate money to "re-imagine" Daytona International Speedway by the start of 2016. IMS, in an agreement with the state of Indiana, has announced about a $100 million upgrade, done over a much longer time frame. The "master plan" for this has yet to be revealed and it's more than a year in the making. It's fair to say a lot of people think IMS needs a lot more work than Daytona. Are you concerned with this comparison?


"The net proceeds are likely to be between $80 and 85 million. That is not enough money to remake the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Nor do we want to remake the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I don't think you can compare what is being done at Daytona to what we're doing here. But I do think it's enough money to make some substancial improvements that will make it better from a fan experience perspective and have some ability to increase revenues. 

"The plan isn't done. It will be presented to our Board in June and then it has to go to the state. There hasn't been one (master plan) before so to take a year and really look carefully at how to take a lot, but a limited, amount of money -- you could spend a whole lot more than we're going to have -- and be thoughtful about how you're going to do it, I think was appropriate to take a year. Technology will be kind of a first thing everybody will see. And certain improvement of stands -- targeted, selected, meaningful. And then the creation of some additional stands -- there will be some party decks. I think these will be meaningful improvements but I don't think it changes the character of the Speedway."

One issue is making IMS ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. Won't that use a lot of the available money?


"We have a program over time for ADA compliance. The trigger for changes is if we touch stands. So one of the major threads in planning is we want to do something in a permanent stand and compliance kicks in. We have to be thoughtful about that."

It's been reported at least $5 million was spent to re-do the road course. What about basic items such as cleaning-up the public restrooms?

"The state money isn't for maintenance. If you get around you'll see some changes, not so much in restrooms, that will be next. But in concessions, there's been a fair amount of money put into improving and updating them technology-wise, look and operational."

Do you think of IMS as being like Wrigley Field? An iconic sports venue that will never be the most modern but people love it for its history and tradition?


"I think it's a very good one (comparison) and you've added that to my lexicon. The ones I've used are Wimbledon and the national golf club (Augusta National), where they exude tradition. That doesn't mean they're backwards. I'm not an expert on what Wrigley looks like today. It's been a few years since I've been there. My sense is they probably need more investment. But they've got this special alchemy and special talent of doing it in a way that preserves the sense of legacy and history. That's more our approach."

You've been CEO for about 1 1/2 years now. How much progress do you think you've made?

"I don't know what I would have said in February. But, sitting here today, I feel very good about things we've put into place having an effect. Before the 500, we had five times more television viewers this May than we did last. The total attendance for May will be up at least 30 percent. Concessions, merchandise and the like are up about 50 percent. So the changes we've tried to put into place for May are at the Speedway, but in my mind, about lifting IndyCar. Overall, the television audience to date for IndyCar is up 125 percent. Admittedly starting from a small base. Every race but one was up double digits. Directionally, it's really positive. On top of that, obviously, the Verizon investment (new series sponsor), that partnership is really important. You're just beginning to see the kinds of things they are going to bring to the table."

America became great, in part, thanks to family-owned businesses. The traditions of Indy have been very important to the Hulman George family. There's been a lot of management turnover in recent years. How do you balance tradition vs. business needs? How do you keep the family in agreement with what you believe needs to be done?

"The first step was to have a strategy and to get Board buy-in to the strategy. The next step is case-by-case. So, our Board, starting with the family, is on-board with the notion we need to use the Indianapolis Motor Speedway more aggressively. That gives you a framework. Then we can look at all kinds of different options. The Grand Prix is only one example. The vintage race is another example. So I think we have a clear internal understanding of the strategy that represents a consensus of management and the Board. And when we are breaking new ground, consistent with the strategy, in a meaningful way, that is something the Board would have to agree with and sign-off on. To date, I haven't been told 'no.' I think the mindset of the Board is, 'We need to push the accelerator and move the place forward.' That obviously means you are not simply going to do what you've done in the past. We'll do a lot of what we've done and continue to try to improve on those things and be open to opportunity as well.

"Look, it's a business, and therefore there are risks. I never believed that the Grand Prix was in any way a risk to the 500. I completely believe it builds audience for the 500. That's a good thing for IndyCar. That's just evidence of a tactic in leveraging the value of the series with this place. I think the overall attitude is we should try to do some new things. Some will work and some won't."

You'll apparently start next season with some international, points-paying, races. And there was a news release about New Orleans being a possible venue. What about getting back to major U.S. markets like Phoenix, which would add an oval to the schedule?

"Derrick (Walker) is taking the lead to see if Phoenix is an option at some point. We have not told New Orleans there is a date yet. What we've said is, 'We'd like to be here.' One of the 'ifs' is a date. We don't know yet if there will be a date. We expect to be racing in New Orleans but it's not done.

"It (Phoenix International Raceway) is a place our world thinks very highly of. Some believe if we went back it would take a while but we could rebuild our fan base there. That's attractive. We have more supply than weeks in the summer (so) filling out the (early season schedule) at places that can do it is attractive to us. There's probably one opportunity in March. We'll have to figure out who fits it best. We do have an interest. It's a matter of if there's a date. For now it may be a round peg in a square hole.

"What we're doing is, I think it will be announced fairly soon, is start our season earlier and international. The window is the week after the Super Bowl through the first week in March for international points races. There might be a way to start in North America one week before St. Pete is now. I think we're going to have some very attractive opportunities in that February window."

[ more next week . . . ]