INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles keeps looking for ways to fill seats.
He has a full weekend of NASCAR and sports car races leading up to the Brickyard 400. He’s kept motorcycles on the summer schedule at Indy and added road races and vintage car races. He’s hired headline bands for concerts and camped inside the historic venue. But every year the challenge of keeping racing fans engaged gets a little tougher.
Race organizers increasingly compete against other sports and children’s events while trying to get the fan dollars in a still tough economy.
Boles is sticking to his master plan.
“I think our focus last year and more so this year was how do we make the fan experience really great,” Boles said after Sunday’s most recent race, the Brickyard. “We want to make sure it’s a great experience, and we believe that if we can deliver that, we can deliver on putting fans in the seats.”
Even in the self-proclaimed racing capital of the world and in a city that seems to embrace nearly every sporting event in town, it’s tough.
Formula One pulled Indy off its schedule as attendance figures dropped following the 2005 tire-marred debacle. On Sunday, race organizers covered up some of the expected empty seats at the Brickyard but still had tens of thousands empty. In two weeks, MotoGP riders who have frequently complained about Indy’s road-course surface will get their first shot on the track’s new road course configuration in front of what they hope will be a bigger crowd. Even the track’s signature event, the Indianapolis 500, has struggled to sell out the estimated 225,000 seats.
While Indy ranks at or near the top of the most attended races in IndyCar, Cup and MotoGP, Boles is convinced he can win his race to bring more fans to the track.
He points to the uptick in infield ticket sales on a rainy weekend even though those tickets are cheaper and allow children 12 and under to get in for free with a paying adult. The estimated crowd was about 85,000.
Some argue that moving the Brickyard to Indy’s road course would help. A year ago, many of those same people thought the solution would be making the Brickyard a night race.
Boles doesn’t buy it.
“I think everyone agrees that Indianapolis Motor Speedway under lights would be really cool. But it’s hard to make that case from a business sense,” Boles said when asked about adding lights to the track. “It would take an estimated $20 to $25 million to do it and that’s on the low end.
“Our brand is, especially with IndyCar and NASCAR, on ovals, so I think it would be difficult to move it to the road course, too,” he added.
Drivers don’t want to see major changes, either.
“You have to get it done with a great racecar. You do it on restarts. You have to have good pit stops, pit strategy,” five-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon said. “The significance of this win at this point in the season, what it does for you as a team, confidence, positioning yourself to try to go win a championship, I don’t know how you really rank it. In my opinion, for me personally, this is it. This is as good as it gets.”
The key is making fans feel the same way.
So Boles is looking to add bigger concerts and more races to Indy’s already busy schedule. He already has The Grand Prix of Indianapolis, an IndyCar road race, on May 9 and the 500 on May 24. He expects the Brickyard to be back in late July, hopes to have a new deal for the 2015 MotoGP race finished by the end of race weekend and is considering adding a September race.
But it’s only a start as Boles tries to bring fans back to the track that once served as Indy’s biggest social club.
“The one place I was really surprised about was seeing how many people were on the infield mounds (for the Brickyard),” he said. “We put a lot of effort trying to make those a better viewing experience for the fans and it seemed to work.”