IMS president Boles keen to build on Indy 500 success

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Doug Boles

It wasn’t very long ago that factions of open-wheel racing fans were placing their bets for the day the Indianapolis 500 would die.

While attendance figures in the early 2000s were a mere shadow of what the Greatest Spectacle in Racing used to pull, a lack of ticket sales wasn’t the only indicator that Indy was losing a bit of steam.

CART (then Champ Car) and the Indy Racing League were still at odds with one another and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had tarnished its appearance in some fans’ eyes by allowing the likes of NASCAR and Formula One to stage events in their racing cathedral once reserved only for the Indy 500.

Since Indy car racing’s reunification in 2008, the Indianapolis 500 has witnessed a steady surge in strength that runs parallel to the IndyCar Series’ recent growth.  Serving as a shot in each arm, the ‘500 benefitted from its 100th anniversary race in 2011 followed by the event’s 100th running in 2016.

Present through each of those races’ success has been none other than current IMS president, J. Douglas Boles.  For the 2011 race, Boles was less than a year into his tenure as Vice President of Communications at the Speedway.  He served in that role from late 2010 to January 2013, at which point he was named the Chief Operating Officer for a brief six months.

It was in early July 2013 that Boles would be named the fourth president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1990, succeeding Jeff Belskus.  “Everything in my life has some connection to the Indianapolis 500 and this place,” Boles said that summer.

In Boles’ relatively short tenure as IMS president, the track and the Indianapolis 500 has seen growth and stability that the two entities were dearly lacking in the 2000s.  Completed just in time for the 100th running of the Indy 500, the massive Project 100 revitalization of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway brought the historic venue forward with the implementation of many modern amenities.

Another sign of improvement has been the ticket sales for Indianapolis 500 race day year over year.  In 2015 – the year before the historic 100th running – an estimated 220,000 tickets were sold for the Indy 500’s 99th iteration.

It soon became clear to the IMS management team that a boom in attendance for the 100th running was on deck, and a more true sign of growth would be the comparison of numbers between 2015 and then the 101st running in 2017.

With an announced attendance of over 300,000 for race day last May, the IMS ticket team saw their sales grow by nearly 80,000 tickets sold over the 2015 race.  That means the Speedway seized the opportunity of a 350,000-strong attendance in 2016 and brought most of those expected “one-offs” in 2016 back for 2017.

For Boles, 2017 was potentially an even bigger year for the Speedway than 2016 as the sales team tried to retain the momentum from the 100th running.

“We knew that 2016 was going to be a big year,” Boles said to Open-Wheels in March.  “We were really concerned that 2016 could be a ‘last year,’ and that people would view the 100th running as, ‘okay, I’ve made it to the 100th running … and its time to move on and do something different.’

“That’s where I challenged our team to start thinking about that one-on-one customer service with the people that are most passionate about the brand to understand that, yes, the (100th) is a big deal but every year the Indy 500 is a big deal.”

Boles continued to explain the importance of letting fans of the race know at the conclusion of the 100th running that they needed to be back at IMS in 365 days for the 101st running, and that even prompted leadership to promote a new 500-hour renewal period following the race’s conclusion.

This follows a new tradition of revealing the next year’s race logo during the current year’s race weekend as well as the ‘100 Days Out’ party held at the Speedway that now precedes the Indianapolis 500 each February.

Boles knows his team had a huge impact on the race’s 100th running.  Realistic in his approach, though, the track president understands it was the fans decision to either come back to a place they once loved, or finally take the leap and go for the first time – something the team may not have had as much of a hand in.

“The 100th running allowed fans to say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is why I fell in love with this place,'” Boles explains.  “They’re saying, ‘I fell in love with the electricity, the energy, all of the pre-race, and the sea of humanity that is here,’ and that is as much about the fan as anything we could have done.”

Finding the next generation

As various forms of racing continue to struggle with declining attendance and television ratings, IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 have been one of the outliers that have defied those trends.  Part of their success is the way both IMS and the series have approached promotion to the next generation of race fans, the people who will be laying the foundation of Indy 500’s for decades to come.

For the Speedway, it started in 2011 with the rebirth of a Speedway-sanctioned Snake Pit which allows (mostly) college-aged adults to party out to EDM and other forms of raucous dance music in what is essentially a race day Lollapalooza.

Coupled with strategic “This is May” advertising, which allows fans to interpret the month in the ways that it is important to them, the Snake Pit is the Speedway’s tunnel to the future race fan.

Boles notes that the most difficult balancing act the Speedway faces is finding the happy medium between honoring the tradition of the track and its crown jewel event, but also finding new avenues to which fans (and younger fans, at that) view the Indianapolis 500 and become attracted to it.  Enter the Snake Pit.

“(How) do you attract that next fan who, right now could care less about your history and tradition,” Boles asks.  “That is not what attracts them here, so the Snake Pit in 2011 was our attempt at taking the name that does connect to our history and try to re-purpose it in a way that we can appeal to the new generation in a way that they want to experience the ‘500 for the first time.

Snake Pit

Over 27,000 wild party-goers fill the Snake Pit at the 2017 Indianapolis 500.

“The best marketing tool we have is the Snake Pit.  Last year we hosted over 27,000 young adults under the age of 30, most of whom don’t even know a race is going on.  The challenge we have is converting them, at some point of time, to grandstand ticket buying.”

While the Snake Pit can produce a list of attendees that the Speedway can reach out to year-over-year in an effort to build their attendance on the “other side” of the fence, one of the most pure strategies of attracting new lifetime Indy 500 fans falls with current fans bringing first-time spectators to the race.

A trend that has been growing over the last five or so years, bringing Indy 500 rookies to the race has been all on the current fans, and that is something the Speedway has had little control over.  Its organic, and part of the reason why the event is thriving.

“There’s nothing better than going to the Indy 500 with someone who’s never been before,” Boles exclaims.  “It is the coolest experience to watch someone’s face (at their first ‘500).  That is the best sales tool we have.

During his nightly phone calls to current Indianapolis 500 ticket holders, Boles makes a point to ask individuals who brought them to the race for the first time.  Normal responses are the father, grandfather and so on, and that is something that resides in Boles himself.

“It brings back some of my first years with my dad,” the track president explains.  “Every time I come to work, I think about my dad.  I think about walking through Gate One in 1977 and just how magical that was.  Our best sales tool for young people are our current fans… our best marketing tool (from the track’s perspective) is the Snake Pit, but frankly, its better when it comes from a family member.”

Moving the Speedway forward

As Project 100 (the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s major revitalization plan) sits firmly behind us, Boles and the Speedway continue to try and move forward in making the facility a modern venue for fans to experience the race in the best possible way.

Lately, the biggest changes have included increased connectivity for cellular providers to help manage the largest single-day sporting event in the world.  IMS is working with these providers to increase the strength of signals across the venue’s 1,000-plus acres of land during race day where over 300,000 spectators will test its mettle.

“We continue to try and figure out how we add more connectivity,” says Boles.  “Its difficult in a place where the top of turn one to the top of turn three is essentially a mile in distance, its so big to manage, but to continue to give people more access that way.  We continue to work with all the cell providers so that we can figure out how to get their cellular towers on wheels so that the connectivity on (the fans’) phone is even better.

“We want that interactivity for every fan in the grandstand to interact with us and our friends on social media, and eventually, we would love for them to have the ability and the bandwidth in here so you can watch in-car and telemetry using the IndyCar app.  We continue every year to try and expand on that, and I think that’s probably the thing that will be the biggest difference going into this year from last.”

Boles also notes the challenge of adding technology where keeping up with the times is always a moving target.  He mentioned in 2015 how the Speedway added 20 new video boards around the track to help increase the fan’s viewing experience while inside the facility, and how almost overnight the technology was obsolete.

“We are at some levels sitting back wondering, ‘do we continue to invest in video boards?’ or is technology going to be such that in five years from now your phone will be your video board?”  The Indiana native continues to evaluate how to keep the facility current for spectators of the next ten, twenty and thirty years.

The team at IMS has also spent time working on the track itself, as Boles notes the crew has looked to smooth the surface a bit off of the racing line where Helio Castroneves caught air ducking underneath the vicious crash Scott Dixon sustained in 2017.

Additionally, after listening to the words of Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe following the October test session at the Speedway the two drivers persuaded Boles to take a look at the track where some surface separation was beginning to appear.

Investigation of the issue spawned a core sample of the track that captured the imagination of thousands during the offseason.  The sample is expected to be displayed in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum by the time festivities kick off in May.

Track safety crews worked on the surface through the winter and it passed the test at the end of April when teams arrived for three days of testing.  Additionally, the concrete pit boxes in pit lane were dug up and replaced with a new slab of pit boxes.  The exit lane outside of the boxes will remain asphalt.

Keeping steady with effort

For Boles, success at the Speedway will always coincide with customer service.  A lifetime fan of the Indianapolis 500 and the 109-year-old facility, it takes a willingness to input long and tedious hours around the entire year.

It includes walking the grounds in 90-degree heat in a suit to show that he is part of the same crew working Safety Patrol, taking tickets and selling pork tenderloins.  That’s why you will see Boles picking up trash while on his walks, stopping every once in a while to speak with fans in the stands during the Indianapolis 500.

He has hardly seen ten laps of the race since becoming track president.

“I watch the green flag and the first lap, and then I hop down and get back to work,” Boles adds.

Boles understands the importance of putting the customer first and how that will be the ultimate indicator of longevity for this race and this facility.

Boles’ passion for the Speedway isn’t an act where he grew up a baseball fan and then became a racing executive.  The Indianapolis 500 runs through his core where spending 95% of his day in the grandstand and logging 25,000 steps on race Sunday is the norm for the Indiana native.

The general consensus in the paddock, the grandstands and through the IndyCar family is found in complete support of Boles and his love for the facility.  Returns on ticket sales for the 2018 Indianapolis 500 have shown more progress year-over-year that supports the fan reaction to Boles’ decision-making.

For the Speedway president, it really is about the fan experience and that bodes well for all involved in the Indianapolis 500 for years to come.  It is stories such as the one he hears on phone calls each evening on the ride home that make each day a great day.

“Listening to someone talk about how they fell in love with (IMS), there is nothing more magical than those conversations.”

Images courtesy of INDYCAR Media.

Tanner Watkins

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