Last weekend, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway launched its inaugural Kroger Super Weekend, featuring the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series, Grand-Am Rolex Series and Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge. The first joint oval/road course weekend featured an estimated attendance by NASCAR of 125,000 people; IMS does not release official attendance numbers. RACER web editor Tony DiZinno spoke to IMS vp of communications Doug Boles (LEFT) to recap the weekend and discuss preparation, expectations and further plans of Super Weekends to come.
Q: From the first Grand-Am test through to announcing Super Weekend last year, what was the process in assembling this weekend, knowing you'd have multiple series and where the Speedway would embark on a joint oval/road course weekend for the first time?
DB: With respect to the first test in 2009, I don't think it was considered at that time that Grand-Am cars would run on the same weekend as one of the oval events. It was more a compatibility test to see if those cars could perform on the Speedway, could they handle it, would they be fast, and could they pass and be racy enough. Then we began the dialogue of wondering, is there a time or place Grand-Am could race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and that included conversations of a possible standalone Grand-Am event. We tested again a year later to see how things stood.
I'd say the conversation on a full NASCAR/Grand-Am Super Weekend didn't really start until the spring of 2011. It was a short period of time from the time we thought of it to then seeing if it could work for middle of the summer this year.
The biggest challenge on the front end was for our facilities and operations team to figure out how to convert the track quickly to have it be used for the oval weekend. The schedule was important; ultimately we had the Nationwide practice on Thursday, and converting to the road course event on Friday, then back to the oval on Saturday.
Originally, we talked about only having one conversion, but that would have forced too much activity (Nationwide practice, etc.) into the weekend. We went ahead then, and decided to do it twice.
It took 12 months to prepare, and with the additional Grand-Am tests (held July of this year), we knew our guys were prepared for MotoGP, so they had some ideas. It was Mel Harder and his team trying to figure out efficiencies – by that I mean, what portions of the facility could be put in place ahead of time to where they didn't need to be moved a second time, where they'd be set up one way or another – for the road course or the oval. As they did that, they found other efficiencies, say with some tire barriers and walls, to where they didn't need to move the entire track every time.
I think when the track was originally built for Formula 1 in 2000, our engineers thought it would take 15 days to convert the track. Twelve years ago it was a couple-week process, and I think the first night they got done in seven or eight hours. Friday it started again in the night after the Grand-Am races, but on Thursday, they got to change part of the track in sunlight.
Q: How did the process of the Grand-Am teams' ingress/egress work, with then the NASCAR teams coming in thereafter? And additionally, the call for some Cup teams to use the F1 garages?
DB: The ingress/egress was a challenge, as was parking on Friday. One of the things that was helpful was the (Grand-Am) test. We had 75-plus cars on site, and we were able to bring the transporters in for both of the paddocks, for Rolex and Continental Tire Series. We learned how to be more efficient, where to stage the trucks ahead of time, so we could make it easier. That test was a great opportunity to figure out where to position the transporters into the facility, get set up in the paddock.
The pit row garages (F1/MotoGP) came about by necessity as we needed a place to park even more cars. We had roughly 200-plus cars and transporters on the ground overall for the weekend; we needed a place to put them all. Those are high-profile garages and it provided a place for fans to see into garages. They couldn't see every team, but they could see the top ones, such as Tony Stewart (LEFT) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. It was a neat opportunity.
Drivers and teams seemed to like it more too, as they had a little bit more space to work on the cars. With both doors (front and back) open, there was better airflow going through there, so it was cooler from a breeze standpoint.
Friday was a logistical challenge just because of the number of transporters on the ground, all the Nationwide and Cup cars, plus the Grand-Am series. Using the road course eliminates a lot of the infield parking we normally have. We were in a situation where we forced people who normally park inside the facility to park outside. We added additional shuttle service, and some staffing to accommodate that. There was a lot less infield parking. Saturday and Sunday were more like traditional oval events here.
Q: Was there a specific cutoff point when the infield parking filled?
DB: I'm not sure exactly when it was, but there definitely was one, when the Turn 3 portion was filled with vehicles. It was mostly fans, and some crewmembers. Once that was filled, with the exception of some limited team parking, yes, it was closed off and fans had to park outside the facility. This place is awful big.
Q: What were your expectations, and what were thoughts about adding Grand-Am as a sports car race? What are preliminary thoughts or discussions about next year?
DB: In principle, all three parties, NASCAR, Grand-Am and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are interested in trying to do something similar for Super Weekend next year. I know our organization was pleased with it.
I'd like to look at how to add more track time for the Grand-Am guys. We really forced them to use the two test days as their practice, because they got so little practice/qualifying time on Friday morning. Trying to get two three-hour races, plus practice/qualifying time for all those cars was pretty tough. Collectively, we'll see if there are schedule modifications we can make to give the Grand-Am guys more time, instead of just one day.
From a fans' perspective, the crowd for the Grand-Am race was probably the smallest of the crowds for the three days. But it was the most vocal. We received dozens of comments, 95 percent or so positive, who loved seeing the racing, and can't wait for us to have it back. It has great growth opportunity for us. It tends to resonate really well with the IndyCar fan base we have here, and a lot of them are familiar with the 24 Hours of Daytona where some race and it kicks off the year.
Running on a Friday hurts yourself a little bit at the outset, in terms of people taking time off work. And it rained twice during the event, in the middle of this drought. But we got a bunch of comments who may not have realized those cars would continue to race in the rain.
Q: Is Grand-Am the only realistic sports car series you could see racing at Indy in 2013? Might either the ALMS or FIA World Endurance Championship appear on the horizon?
DB: Right now, we have a relationship with NASCAR and the events they have here. We've enjoyed working with Jim France and his team at Grand-Am. That's probably going to be the only sports car race we'll have here next year.
I do know that Scott Atherton (ALMS president/CEO) and Jeff Belskus (IMS president) have continuing dialogue and see each other at a lot of events – Mid-Ohio this weekend or Long Beach earlier this year – and there is dialogue, but I don't think it's anything beyond Grand-Am that's on the horizon for the Speedway for next year.
Q: I know the Speedway doesn't release attendance numbers, but how did it measure against expectations for all three series?
DB: Correct, we don't release – it's not our policy. But just by looking, you can tell there was more attendance for the weekend just by having two additional series and three additional races we didn't have in the past. From that standpoint, weekend attendance was up. We need to build on that, though.
The whole idea behind Super Weekend was to give the fans more than just one reason to come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Historically it's been just one race, the Cup race, and we were probably the only event on the Cup schedule without a support race. It was helpful. The buying decision is based on how much on-track action can you see. Who are the drivers that will participate?
We'd like to see more crossover going forward for the Grand-Am race. We had Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya for NASCAR, and Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon plus Paul Tracy from an IndyCar standpoint, but we'd like to have a bigger presence from both of those series.
Q: What sort of ideas do you think IMS can implement, besides more crossover, to promote an attendance increase?
DB: One of the biggest things going into next year is that now, we have one under our belt. We still did have a significant number of fans that were not aware of exactly all the events that took place on Super Weekend. To some degree, a portion of our fans had not been exposed to sports car racing. Having had the first race with great reviews from the fans who attended, and having the word of mouth will help. Plus, having the content we have now – drivers/cars here – can help us promote what that race is and what it will look like.
We'll sit down post-MotoGP and start laying out our plans for next year with our communication and marketing teams, and figure out what our promotions look like. Now we can say what it did look like rather than what it might look like, and have some real-time, real first person experiences that will go toward building the event.
Q: MotoGP prep coming along smoothly (race is August 19)?
DB: I think it will shake out fine, it's an incredible event, with the European feel. And this year we have 1000cc bikes compared to 800s – Ben Spies predicted 230mph down the straights, but realistically more like 205-10 into Turn 1, which is still crazy fast on a motorcycle. We're excited about that. It's a great motorcycle event for enthusiasts, with the midway in vendor's market, way to spend the day/weekend.
Q: I'm sure it's a popular and common question, but what do you see as the feasibility of adding lights? Is it reasonable for next year or further out?
DB: It's more further out. After every event, the organization sits down and asks, “What can we do better? What's been the input from fans? If they stopped attending, why?” One of the biggest things we face is the heat for folks, especially with TV broadcasting so good, in high-def, and the ability to stay at your house. It has cut into the on-site attendance.
It's sort of surfaced as conversation point in the last 12 months or so. It always seems to resurface on a weekend like the Brickyard. But it literally is not anything more than at the conversation stage. There's not been a formal movement internally to discuss the cost beyond the broad spectrum; it's dozens of millions to light the facility.
Next year is probably not possible. It's a conversation point, nothing's formal.
It goes beyond lighting the track; you have to light the track surface, and the grandstands, under the grandstands, the restrooms, concessions, stairways, parking lots. The other discussion, in terms of working with the community, is what about turning thousands of fans loose at 10 p.m. with cops, and safety for pedestrians, plus how does it impact the neighborhood?
We're an 103-year-old track that lives in the city. It's not like the new tracks in the middle of cornfields. There's a lot you have to take into consideration before you decide to put lights up.