RACER spoke with Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles prior to the 98th Indianapolis 500 on a number of wide ranging topics to gauge his views on the present status of the Verizon IndyCar Series and where it’s headed.
MARSHALL PRUETT: We’re about to kick off the biggest event of the year – what’s your take on the state of IndyCar racing at the moment?
MARK MILES: I can give you some of my input of what I was seeing some of the season and then also here at the “500.” I have seen more people at 4:30 in the morning driving up and down, walking up and down 16th and Georgetown, than I’ve seen in 20 years here. I’ve seen more people at Carb Day. The interest is up.
MP: I’ve seen the same things, but are you also seeing the metrics that support the visuals?
MM: Well, there’s the esoteric side of it and there’s the data. And the data is excellent. The Grand Prix had a crowd that was above 60,000. I felt that we didn’t get a big lift in the attendance for qualifying but I thought that the storylines were excellent. And we’ve gotten really good feedback about that. I think the crowd will build as people understand it better. The truth is, we probably took a little air out of the market, given so many people showing up on the weekend before. But I was very pleased with qualifying.
Carb Day, I had a bunch of people come and say, “this is the ’80s.” There was just so much energy and so many people. And then last night, I don’t know if you were out here, but the Jason Aldean concert was a sea of people – there were 45,000 people out there. The concert, the only reason not to do it was whether it would be a commercial success. In our minds, no matter whether they’re race fans or not, if we can get people out here it helps – and by the way, they were showing Indy 500 promo spots, before, during and after, and Firestone spots up around the stage, [to] 45,000 people.
So one, will it work? Yes, it was an economic success. But the other was, will they clear out? Because there’s a lot of work to do to clean up, drop the stage and get 45,000 people out so you can do all the things that you need to do, security things and the like, overnight. They were out of here by 9 o’clock. And we didn’t keep the drivers awake. The band shut down way before they were going to bed. And ticket sales in both dollars and units are up for the 500 and I think they’re going to surprise themselves today.
On top of all that, the place itself has to be vibrant and headed in the right direction, which I think it is. But that relates to the national television audience. We had five times more people watch IndyCar racing this May here, prior to today, than we did last year. Part of that is because we didn’t go back and forth between broadcasters except on Carb Day. ABC has a bigger audience, but they could promote from weekend to weekend to weekend. If you watched “SportsCenter” this week you saw the “500” telecast being promoted. We’ll see what happens today, but already the national audience has had the same kind of lift in a sense that we’ve had here locally.
MP: I know we’re not even close to 2015 yet, but have you had any talks with ABC about continuing the month of May TV package?
MM: Yes. As recently as yesterday (Saturday) with their most senior programming people. They do have an interest and that is available to us. We’re trying to have bigger talks about the improving of the broadcast arrangements for the entire series. But, minimally, I think that we can make, we’ll work for the same kind of coverage here in May next year.
MP: IndyCar has an extremely compact schedule this year – what have you seen from a health standpoint in terms of rating and attendance? Is IndyCar holding its place in the market, losing ground, gaining?
MM: It’s better than that; we’re growing. The television rating – the average rating from St. Pete through just prior to Carb Day here, is up 127%. Every race’s audience share has increased except one. One of them was down exactly 10%. But in the aggregate, that’s 127% up. And it’s not just pulled only by here in May, every race had a greater audience but one. You think of it as the three races and then, I would think of it as three telecasts, even though it was more days. Six opportunities so far, five of six are up. And if you look at other sports and other motorsports, that’s not in the same direction as some.
We’re very pleased about that. I felt like the vibe at the races has been outstanding. The rain in Barber, the rain is tough. We’ve been very fortunate here [at Indy]. But at St. Pete and Long Beach, I mean, those places were bursting at the seams and people were having a great time. We’ve always known this product was off-the-charts for being exciting.
MP: You’re hitting on a theme that I mention quite frequently – that IndyCar is in a place now where it’s essentially the best-kept secret in racing. There are no complaints about the quality of what is put on the track, but the series needs to play to bigger audiences to become better known. How do you make greater inroads in sharing this product with more people?
MM: First of all, you create the capacity to execute. We’ve talked about that before. I think we’ve made great strides there. You’ve got to bring in more partners. Verizon is hugely important. We’ve had now spreads in Sports Illustrated, USA Today – some of the things that we need to do to be part of the national dialogue on sports. And I think we may surprise ourselves how quickly the nation’s sports pundits begin to pay more attention.
But there’s no one thing. There’s a lot of things we’ve got to do. We will be adding sponsors, new sponsors, in addition to Verizon, with some announcements soon. They will be working together to create a plan for 2016, the 100th running of this event, and that’s a great story. That isn’t just a birthday party. And it’s not just 2016. The plans will be about how ’15 leads to ’16. So we’ll have a couple of years of phenomenal stories.
Again, the focal point is Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 race, but in our minds it’s all about IndyCar. You’ll see increased IndyCar branding at our other tracks. I think you’ve see it here. If you look at branding, you didn’t see a lot of IndyCar logos and the like here at IMS last year. That’s a different story. The flags are all over the place, the banners are outside and inside.
Basically, we see it almost with respect to the tracks, including this one, like an NBA or NFL. That [NFL] shield means it’s authentic. Same here with IndyCar. Whether you are in Long Beach or the Texas Motor Speedway, or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, we’re going to use the strength of our best events to lift the series in lots of different ways. So to have our broadcasters and increasing paddock of sponsors thinking together about opportunities, collectively acting in both advertising and brand, the way they project the brand will be part of it. And we’re going to get better at telling our own story.
MP: Edsel Ford recently made some exceptionally strong statements against IndyCar. It read more like something from 1996 than today. When you hear something like that, knowing that IndyCar is trying to engage more manufacturers, does that embolden you to prove him wrong and sign other manufacturers?
MM: It was such an over-the-top statement that I don’t think it had any credibility. All you had to do is see how Chevy reacted instantly about the value it creates for them. It felt like there was something else going on there [with Ford], and I don’t know what it was. We’re very focused on continuing to try to bring at least an additional manufacturer into the series. The lead times are really significant, so it’s not going to have an impact in 2015. But there are definitely some encouraging conversations. We’re hopeful that at least one will get over the line.
MP: Of the big things I see that need to be fixed – and this is inside baseball stuff – one of the major items is the business model on the team side. IndyCar lost a few teams from last year – the car count isn’t bad but it’s certainly not as great as you’d want. But I’m less concerned about car count, the physical amount of cars, as I am the number of teams actually running this current car, in this schedule, and the costs to campaign a competitive entry.
If you and I decided to start an IndyCar team, we’d have to find a pretty big nut to make that happen. Are there any plans or initiatives going to improve the economic side for team owners, or to improve the business side to encourage new owners that IndyCar is a place where they can go and make money?
MM: I think you’re right about the focus of the question. It’s important and it’s a high priority. I think there’s two things. One is the general growth of the series. Teams will have a better ability to sell when we have higher TV ratings and are part of the national sports dialogue. All those, all that work that we talked about earlier, is at least as important to the team owners as it is to the enterprise essentially. Improving the business-side economics in the bigger sense comes from growth, and we’re trying to expedite that growth as quickly as possible.
Specifically, an important reason that we are focused on adding a couple of international races at the beginning of 2015, is that they will enable us to substantially increase the Leader Circle money in 2015. I think it will be as little as a 20% increase year-over-year. This year to next. And I hope it’s closer to a 50% increase. That would depend on the final outcome in terms of the number of races that we have for 2015. These will be races that would reflect really well on the series. That will be clearer when we get closer to finalizing those plans. But they’re also going to be helpful to us economically. We’re going to pass through a lot of that to make sure the teams are as healthy as we can help them be in the short term.
MP: On the international front, are you still looking at front-loading the 2015 schedule, some trips abroad prior to the takeoff of the domestic championship? If so, I look at those events as an opportunity for some European drivers to maybe hopefully take part, but part of me says it could be an excellent vehicle to engage some European teams if you make the equipment available for them to run.
MM: First, yes, the schedule we have in mind, the strategy for the schedule, hasn’t changed a bit. We want to go in the period immediately following the Super Bowl and through the first week of March. And whether that ends up being one or two international races for next year – and I think ultimately there may be three or four – there’s room for that. And then we’ll be racing solidly seven months. Plus testing prior and more activity. So we’re looking forward to showing that to folks when we get it in place. I don’t know exactly where we will come out of it.
The first priority was to make sure that it was a helpful economic event for the paddock, for the teams. And it will be. We hadn’t really thought about trying to invite new teams to take part, but if there’s interest, we’d be open to the idea. There could be strong interest based on the venues – we may be in places, at least one that is really dazzling, that will help IndyCar sparkle.
MM: Actually, think something like Dubai. Street race. It would be an unbelievable sort of sparkling, star-studded way to start the new season abroad. And what that exposure would do for us, we’ll see; whether it’s more interest from investors for teams and drivers or simply to add an upscale, sophistication that comes with some of the international opportunities. Or all of the above. We’ll see. It will be a good thing.