INDIANAPOLIS – Saturday will mark the sixth birthday for the INDYCAR Grand Prix (3 p.m. ET/NBC/IndyCar Radio Network) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That’s a feat in its own. See, back when the discussions were started to make this race a reality, it was met with a ton of criticism.
The traditionalists thought the series as well as the famed track were out of their damn minds. Really? They want to host an IndyCar race on a road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
The pitch forks were out.
The start of the 2018 INDYCAR Grand Prix – INDYCAR Media Site
Now, we’re six years later and the race is met with open arms. See, the series and track recognized that the fan base was thinning. The Indy 500’s were large but not as large as they could be. The other days of the month, well those were lean. Attednance was scarce at IMS other than race weekend.
The month needed a jump start.
So, in 2014, the IndyCar Grand Prix was born. Simon Pagenaud beat Ryan Hunter-Reay in the inaugural event in front of a decent sized crowd. While the crowd has fallen off a bit from where it started in 2014, Doug Boles said on Friday that ticket sales are up over last year and that the attendance is still larger for this race than it would be if we still had action on the oval this weekend.
“I don’t think any of us were ever concerned that it would dilute interest in the Indy 500,” said Boles in an introductory press conference at IMS on Friday morning. “I think the only conversation on the front end was did it make sense to have an IndyCar Grand Prix in May, or did it make sense to have an IndyCar Grand Prix as a standalone somewhere else. I think Mark’s (Miles) thinking and reasoning behind why it fit well in this weekend has proved to be the accurate and correct one. It kicks the month of May off with a points-paying race in the NTT IndyCar Series that brings in more media attention, it puts us on television two weeks out from the Indy 500, which is another opportunity to promote the Indianapolis 500 in this market. It introduces folks who maybe had never seen IndyCar racing outside of the Indy 500 to see what they do at least at almost half of the other races where they run, so the IndyCar product that some communities know is completely different than the Indy 500. So, I think that was really helpful for us, as well.
“It’s a kickoff that leads into a weekend of television for qualifying, and then obviously the 500. So for us, it never was about cannibalizing. I think it was always about a way to elevate. If we were just today, opening day or tomorrow, opening day for our oval weekend, we would have about a tenth of the customers inside the venue and probably about a tenth of the media inside the venue as we do for an actual points-paying NTT IndyCar Series race. So I think for the most part, it does everything it was supposed to do, which is make the Indianapolis 500 better and get the excitement going as we head into that weekend.
“In terms of our attendance, things are trending up for tomorrow’s IndyCar Grand Prix. We’re really excited about the direction of the race. The first year was our largest year and then we sort of settled into — we dropped off a little bit and we flattened it out last year and the numbers will be up this year, which we’re excited about, and that says a lot about, I think, people getting used to this race being the kickoff for the month of May. It says an awful lot about the last couple years the IndyCar Series has been so competitive, and it’s a race where you get to come in and you can see from all different places, you can be flexible, wander through the facilities, sit in the mounds. It offers a really neat opportunity.
“The other thing that’s really cool about this weekend, it is a very easy weekend to get introduced to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I’ve found and we’ve found lots of fans that brings their kids here for the first time because it’s a little easier to get in and out than the Indianapolis 500. You can wander through the facility. And the beauty of our events here, if you’re 15 and under and your parents buy a GA ticket, 15 and under are free at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so this is the right event to utilize that. All of them you can, but this is the right one to do it because you can wander around the facilities, so just encouraging people of that.”
He’s right in that it has not only given more paid customers through those gates on this weekend, it has also increased the Indy 500 presence too. 2015’s Indy 500 was bigger than 2014. 2016 was obviously bigger than 2015. 2017, was bigger than 2015. 2018 was larger than 2017. See the trend?
“The Indy 500 is going to be up again, I think, for 2019,” Boles continued. “We are — depending on the end of the day, we’re up a little bit or flat, so we’re right in that spot. A lot of it’s going to be walk up, and some of the things over the next two weeks, but really the momentum from 2015 has been really, really strong around the Indy 500, and also I think you attribute that to the excitement of the NTT IndyCar Series and the product that they put on display in the Indy 500 has been some of the best racing in our 103 years.”
So, is the IndyCar Grand Prix a success? By these metrics absolutely. No, the seats are filled but they never were expected to be. But, to have over 35k attend the race compared to 10k max on a practice or qualifying day, it’s doing it’s job. Then, it’s leading to larger Indy 500 crowds and in turn educating the race fans in Indy that these cars do more than turn left.
Boles, also notes that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is at a place now that would make it’s ancestors happy. This is what he feels where Carl Fisher would want it to be at.
“I’ve been following the sport my whole life, and I remember a point in time where 33 drivers in the Indy 500 were essentially American, and then we went through a period of time where essentially everybody in the Indy 500 was foreign. We are at a point now where the diversity in our series is pretty amazing; when you think you’ve got 15 drivers or so that are American drivers and basically the other half is international.
“The Indianapolis 500 is today I think what Carl Fisher envisioned it being back in 1911, a true international sweepstakes, and that’s a credit to what’s gone on on the IndyCar side, it’s a credit to our OEMs, who have attracted some of the best drivers in the world to come here, and it really truly is an international championship unlike any other, and I think the international influence certainly helps our ticket sales and the folks.”