PRUETT: IndyCar's Iowa price hike is a massive gamble

Karl Zemlin/Penske Entertainment

PRUETT: IndyCar's Iowa price hike is a massive gamble

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: IndyCar's Iowa price hike is a massive gamble

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A diehard IndyCar fan wanted to share his love of the series with his girlfriend, so they set their sights on attending the inaugural Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend at Iowa Speedway last su​​mmer. It would be her first IndyCar event, and on top of the price of admission the travel costs would not be insignificant since they live 1000 miles away from Newton, Iowa.

But with three days of on-track action and four giant bands on the card at the event co-promoted by Penske Entertainment and Iowa-based grocery store chain Hy-Vee, they felt it would be well worth the investment of time and money. Excited to see IndyCar return to Iowa, the pair bought good seats for Saturday and Sunday which totaled just over $250 for the four tickets. I got to meet them at the event, and both were happy and thankful to be there.

Then they received their renewal offer for next year’s Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend set for July 21-23, which features another NTT IndyCar Series doubleheader and four more big music acts. This is where a happy story meets its end.

What would keeping their seats next July 22 and July 23 cost? Not $250. How does a few dollars shy of $800 sound? If you want exact figures, the year-to-year increase comes out to 211 percent — more than triple the price — to sit in the same section, same row, and same chairs. A return trip to Iowa, as you might not be surprised to learn, has been taken off their calendar.

Rather than burn their annual event budget on a single event, they’re going to spread the money around and attend a few other IndyCar races in 2023. Paying Iowa Speedway an extra $550 for the same exact thing, they said, would feel dirty.

Their Iowa ticket renewal story was one of many I’ve received since the process started. Beyond the incredible spike in prices for good seats, the other category of messages I’ve gotten have come from fathers and mothers who brought their children to the first Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend. Many of them have been priced out of returning.

For the debut event, Iowa offered highly extremely affordable ‘flex’ tickets at $50 and there was no charge for kids. This was the least expensive ticket available. One fan I know did about 500 miles of driving to get to the Saturday-Sunday portion of the event with his young son, and combined, the ticket output was a very friendly $100 for the event. Factor in the cost for a hotel room, high gas prices with 1000 roundtrip miles to cover, plus food, and while it wasn’t cheap, the outlay was something a middle-class family man could afford.

The same flex tickets — once again, the least expensive form of admission that’s offered — have doubled to $100 per day in 2023. Although the 100-percent increase is hard to ignore, it’s not an outrageous sum if you’re going solo. But kids are no longer free. Charging full price for kids’ tickets has enraged the folks I’ve heard from. For the fan in question, it makes for a 300 percent year-to-year price hike. He’d need to pay $400 to return with his son. And they won’t.

The part that’s hard to process is how the promotions team came to believe hitting IndyCar fans with 50-, 100-, 200-, or 300-percent ticket price increases — while most people are dealing with inflation in far more important areas of their daily lives — was going to be tolerable.

Give credit to Penske Entertainment and Hy-Vee for aiming higher with bigger musical acts. I’m told Carrie Underwood and Ed Sheeran, in particular, are giants who should draw a ton of their fans. But have the fees demanded by those acts, plus Kenny Chesney and the Zac Brown Band, pushed ticket prices to a place that’s out of reach for the average IndyCar fan? Based on the most frequent comments I’ve received, the answer is yes.

If the higher ticket prices result in more fans who are primarily interested in the music, does IndyCar risk becoming a sideshow at its own event? Image by Karl Zemlin/Penske Entertainment

I asked Penske Corporation president Bud Denker, who is centrally involved in creating the Iowa event, for insights on how the skyrocketing prices came about, and here’s what he sent over:

“Thanks to the support of Hy-Vee, the 2023 Hy-Vee IndyCar Race Weekend includes a world-class concert lineup that will feature more star power and entertainment value than most of today’s premier music festivals. The unique blend of four of the biggest acts in music today combined with three exciting races – including the only doubleheader on the IndyCar schedule – will create a once-in-a-lifetime entertainment festival for fans. With 60-minute pre-race concerts featuring Carrie Underwood on Saturday and Zac Brown Band on Sunday, along with 90-minute post-race performances including Kenny Chesney on Saturday and Ed Sheeran on Sunday, the music lineup alone will make this event truly special.

“The adjusted ticket pricing for Hy-Vee IndyCar Race Weekend compares very favorably to the average cost of a ticket to see any one of these incredible bands – not to mention all four over the course of two days. When you include the thrilling racing we’ve seen in the intimate setting at Iowa Speedway from both the NTT IndyCar Series and Indy NXT by Firestone, this event will provide tremendous value for our fans. Hy-Vee has always said it wants to provide a festival-like atmosphere to attract both racing fans and new spectators to help grow our sport, especially in the Midwest. We have seen good response with ticket renewals and we are looking forward to sellout crowds and another amazing event in Iowa next summer.”

Value is an interesting concept. In theory, a brand-new Lamborghini Huracan is a steal at $250,000 when you consider all the speed and performance and prestige that comes with it, but how many people can actually afford to pay for that value? You could also sign Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and have the ghost of Michael Jackson perform next year in Iowa, but none of that matters if the value-rich price of admission takes the standard IndyCar fan out of the equation.

On the surface, I don’t dispute anything Denker said. Take the cheapest $100 ticket, split it three ways, and that’s an amazing bargain to see a motor race and two monster musical acts per day. But there are only so many $100 tickets available. Outside of the 100-percent price increase for the cheapest ticket, it’s the non-flex tickets where the year-to-year inflation has gone haywire.

And I’m not saying IndyCar fans are poor or unwilling to spend money on the sport they love, but I do wonder if we’ve reached a tipping point where IndyCar fans will become the minority at the Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend.

Last July, at the previous ticket rates, and with four big acts on the card, we saw grandstands that were by no means full for the races. Will going bigger on the bands, coupled with doubling or tripling the prices, somehow pack the stands with folks who want to watch IndyCars in action? I hope so, but I fear we have a situation brewing where an IndyCar event with amazing bands is turning into a music festival where the doubleheader is the side show.

The return to Iowa was welcomed by all, but this seems like one hell of a gamble to take at a time where IndyCar can’t afford to see its live audience shrink or risk losing one of the few ovals that remain on the calendar.

If you’re a lover of big country and pop bands, and can afford it, Iowa’s going to be amazing. And if you’re a big lover of IndyCar, and country, and pop, and can afford it, Iowa’s going to be unforgettable. But from what I’m hearing from too many IndyCar fans, they’ll be giving Iowa a pass.​

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