• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Monday, May 25, 2015

CHANGE IN INDIANAPOLIS

Once again U.S. Air flight number 500 took me from Phoenix to Indianapolis for my 37th Indy 500.

My overwhelming feeling from the experience is how much the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has changed in the last  year and how much more it will prior to next year's 100th running of the "Greatest Spectacle." From a physical standpoint, the change has come from useful and overdo improvements such as the scoring pylon and video boards. If all comes together as reported -- and it will be a challenging time window for construction given Indiana weather -- things will be even more dramatically different by May 2016.

We'll see. Remember, IMS is eligible for up to $100 million from the state to accomplish this work. The stark comparison is International Speedway Corp. will spend as much as $400 million for its "re-imagining" of Daytona International Speedway. That's supposed to be finished in time for next February's Speed Weeks.

New and previously not available corporate signage is now most apparent at the Speedway. The infield lot where, for decades, the media parked has become a site for corporate display tents. The media parking was moved outside the track, on Georgetown Ave. (This could be the subject of several writings, but I'll pass on that.) Prices are up: I spoke with several suites holders who were outright angry at the steep price increases for food and beverage service. Sure, sometimes things are said in the heat of the moment, but a friend of mine who coordinates services for a number of suite holders told me the talk is they plan to put up with this through next year's 100th race and then not renew.

What I felt was very dollar that could be, or can be, squeezed out of the existing IMS assets was and is the absolute highest priority for Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, IMS President Doug Boles, and staff. The impression left is that the Hulman/IMS business must have been in much worse financial shape than imaged by any outsider, and Miles' mandate from the Board of Directors is to clean-up the books and bolster the bottom line. Not that I have any direct knowledge of that this is in the works, but it's a business fact that sometimes the kinds of things Miles is doing are done in preparation for a sale, to make the enterprise much more attractive to potential buyers.

My feeling is that everything is now done with the marketing and sales imperatives in mind. If there's a new revenue stream to be tapped, no matter the other implications, that money must be gotten. The human relationships of earlier times -- Tony Hulman greeted me and many others with a handshake and a "Welcome back to Indianapolis!" -- are gone or, at least, very much a secondary thought. 

Those who think of the Indy 500 for great racing got what they wanted last Sunday, after an embarrassing first 10 laps, and it would be nice to think that high-level of competition (as long as you are a Penske or Ganassi fan) and entertainment will carry over for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Next up, the Detroit doubleheader, of course, isn't a venue for such a show so I have my doubts.

How I'll remember my time at the 2015 500? The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and that much touted "Hoosier Hospitality," sure has changed.


POWER PLAYERS for the week of May 24: This week's 10 most influential people in the Business and Politics of Motorsports, as selected by long-time journalist/publicist and industry insider Michael Knight. 

  1. Roger Penske -- A record 16th Indy 500 win and now hosts the IndyCar series at Detroit. The standard of racing excellence, after a five-year winless streak, has been re-established. 

  2. Juan Pablo Montoya -- He won't be Danny Sullivan (30-year anniversary of his "Spin and Win") out on the national media circuit, but this as hard-nosed a racer as you'll ever find doesn't care. He won the Indy 500.

  3. Joe Gibbs -- Carl Edwards puts his Toyota into a NASCAR victory lane for the first time at Charlotte.


  4. Mark Miles -- CEO of Hulman & Co. identified many news ways to make money for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To what end?

  5Eddie Gossage -- Texas Motor Speedway president gets his chance to see what an exciting Indy 500 and winner Juan Pablo Montoya can do for ticket sales for the next high-speed oval race.  

  6Jeff Gordon -- His appearance as Indy 500 pace car driver drew more media enthusiasm than any of the 33 drivers in the race -- maybe more than all of them combined. And he'll be a Fox NASCAR analyst next season.

  7. Donny Schatz -- Charlotte was the 11th win of the World of Outlaws season for the driver who dirt-track fans come to see. 

  8. Erica Enders-Stevens -- Keeps carrying the ball for NHRA's troubled Pro Stock class with Topeka victory.

  9. Davey Hamilton -- He's running USAC's day-to-day racing operations now, but as an Indy 500 Radio Network analyst, his unhappiness with the aero kits is obvious.

10. Bernie Ecclestone -- The glamour of Monaco is over for another year and now Formula One's leader still most resolve the serious financial issues facing all but the top teams. 


more next week . . . ]