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