In the last few years we’ve lost Fontana, Milwaukee and Phoenix from the schedule. On the flipside, Gateway has come along and seems to be doing something right. What’s the secret sauce for making ovals work?
CHRIS BLAIR: One of the first things we noticed in traveling to other races is the importance of giving the fans a full slate of activities. If you look at the road courses, you see that there are multiple support races leading up to the IndyCar finale. Fans get a lot for their ticket, and there are lots of things to see and do. That’s a struggle when it comes to oval racing. We are fortunate in that our track lends to the perfect size for classes such as the Indy Lights, Pro 2000, K&N Series and the Vintage cars. If you get much bigger than that, then some of those classes just can’t run.
We always wondered why you would go to some of the oval races and there would be these huge gaps in action. None of the fans want to come out early while the track is down for pace car and two-seater rides. They want racing action. We decided to take the best aspect of the road course and street races, and apply it to our event. That was a tremendous piece to the success of the first two events. We’ve relied heavily on feedback we obtained through our fan surveys and have tried to deliver.
The next step for all of us is if we can get TV to capture how much fun the fans are having during the pre-race and the other things that took place earlier in the day. Why break away from the national anthem, pre-race fireworks and flyovers to show a driver cooking segment? We need to show the fans having fun, and hope it encourages fans to attend themselves.
CURTIS FRANCOIS: I’m a strong believer in date equity and the right time to have the event. If it’s summertime in St. Louis, then it needs to be a Saturday night shootout under the lights. That was something we emphasized to IndyCar from day one.
Another important aspect for us is our relation to other markets where IndyCar is strong. We are only 3.5 hours from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We have a huge short-track open-wheel market in our area. Instead of focusing locally, we cast a wide net to hit Indy, Kansas City, Louisville and the smaller markets. Our selling point is that our race is a short drive away.
We’ve also put a huge emphasis on the local business community. We keep chipping away to get more and more businesses to use the event as an opportunity for employee and customer appreciation events. We are trying to build the entire race week as a staple of summertime in St Louis. It takes a few years to build date equity, and we are going to keep working on this project.
EDDIE GOSSAGE: There is a tremendous IndyCar heritage in our state, so I think that helped us get started 23 seasons ago. And we’ve run an extraordinary number of IndyCar races in that time – I want to say it’s more than 30. But after Indy, we’re the longest continuously-running IndyCar race. Some could argue Long Beach and cite record books, but they didn’t run Indy cars – they ran Champ Cars. Those are two different cars. I love the Long Beach Grand Prix and Jim Michaelian, and I take notes from Jim, because he’s a tremendous promoter. But the fact of the matter is that they didn’t run IndyCars for a period of time. So we’re the longest continuous-running IndyCar venue outside of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That has something to do with it.
Date equity, two weeks after the Indy 500 – people have always known that. So many things factor into it. But there was such excitement when we opened the doors in 1997, and the quality of the racing here … there have been exceptions, but you’re almost guaranteed a photo finish at Texas. And that’s just spectacular. You’ve got to have great competition, and IndyCar has given us that.
Could a mid-week race ever work?
KEVIN SAVOREE: I would probably not be a believer in that. I guess there could be exceptions, but I think that would present a lot of hills to climb – maybe a bridge too far. It’s what you’re trying to balance between fan attendance, local awareness, that festival atmosphere that hopefully we get at our events. And then you get into the issue of families, kids… maybe when you get into summer you get a way around that, but people love that weekend getaway, and some of our marketing plans revolve around that staycation-type idea. At Mid-Ohio that works really, really well. So I’m not sure about the midweek thing.
CHRIS BLAIR: It could work, but everything would have to align perfectly. Unlike other series, one of the biggest draws for IndyCar is the open access to the paddock, and it becomes more of an all-day experience. It would be tough to cram it all in to a short window and give the fans a great experience. It would depend on the market, and the TV package would need to be very supportive of the event.
CURTIS FRANCOIS: Another important aspect would be location. You need to be in an area where fans understand how mid-week events work. If you are in a location where fans are close to the major metro area, are used to attending NBA or NHL games, and you can deliver a quality experience between 7 and 10 p.m. then it could work. And, it needs to be on flagship NBC to really shine the spotlight on the sport.
EDDIE GOSSAGE: I’m not going to be the first to step out there. I think you’ll see it in NASCAR in the next couple of seasons, a midweek race, and it might end up being like Monday night football in 1970: ‘A football game on Monday night? That’s crazy!’ Except that it became the hottest thing in sports for quite a long time. But the numbers are so big to stage an event of this nature that you cannot afford to make a mistake, because if you make a mistake it costs you millions of dollars.
It’s funny, we hear about how the teams are struggling and we’ve got to help the poor teams, and there are certainly teams that are struggling. But there is a much longer list of promoters that have come and gone because they can’t make it. There’s a three-legged stool that makes this thing work – there’s teams, tracks, and the sanctioning body. And if any one of them isn’t succeeding, then the series won’t succeed. We need stability with the promoters just like we need stability with the teams. And as long as we have promoters dropping out… they can talk about how we’ve got more promoters knocking on the door wanting races than we’ve got races, [but] I’m not seeing that.
So it does the series no good to go and do a different race that’s going to fail. You’ve got to be smart and do business with people that are good at what they do, and that’s why it’s important that promoters like Jim Michaelian, or Green Savoree, or Texas Motor Speedway, or whoever, that you treat them well. The others have come and gone; you’d better be loyal to those that have been loyal to you. Longevity with the promoters is what gives the series stability, and it’s unstable as long as you’ve got Baltimore, and Boston, and on and on and on, falling by the wayside. Nobody wants to fail, but if you fail, you’ve got to be able to be in business the next day.