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Volume 23 No. 24
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Strong crowd establishes ‘new base’ for Indy

Despite a persistent forecast of rain for this year’s Indianapolis 500, the sun wound up shining both literally and figuratively on Indianapolis Motor Speedway in many respects for this year’s 101st running. However, some aspects alternatively underscored the work that remains to restore the event to its former glory.

Mark Miles, chief executive of Hulman & Co., which owns IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said attendance was “right at” 300,000 for Sunday’s race, which fortuitously saw blue skies all day until about an hour after the race, when it started raining torrentially. That figure was down from the approximately 350,000 fans who attended last year’s promotion-rich 100th running of the race, but up solidly from 2015. Premium seating and the track’s Snake Pit music festival were sold out, according to Miles, but some sections of the 250,000-seat grandstands were not full.

“It was a very successful event; it showed that we were able to use the 100th running to kind of build the base of support for the 500 in an ongoing way,” Miles said late last week. “We significantly improved where we were in terms of attendance and the related revenues from ’15, so if 300,000 becomes kind of the new base going forward, that’s a really helpful and important achievement.”

From a ratings and consumption standpoint, the news was positive for IndyCar from a global perspective but not as good from a U.S. point of view. In its second to last year airing the race before its current deal expires, ABC earned a 3.4 final rating and 5.5 million viewers. That is down about 13 percent in ratings and about 8 percent in viewership from a year ago, when the race aired live locally in Indianapolis since the race sold out and avoided a blackout. ABC put heavy promotional muscle behind last year’s 100th running, shooting ESPN’s “SportsCenter” live from the track for multiple days in the lead-up to the event.

Attendance at the 101st running of the Indy 500 was estimated at nearly 300,000.

The news was better for the series globally. With a boost coming from the attention around Spanish Formula One driver Fernando Alonso skipping the Monaco Grand Prix to race in the 500, Spanish broadcaster Movistar saw more viewers for the 500 than the Grand Prix. Movistar also showed an hour’s worth of pre-race coverage due to Alonso, instead of picking up coverage right when the race starts as it typically does.

The series said it saw notable upticks in social media, visits to its website and earned media from international networks and publications.

SCHEDULE UPDATE: IndyCar is still pursuing a possible international race for the 2018 season, with its sights now set on Mexico, according to Stephen Starks, vice president of promoter relations.

The series is talking with a promoter about a race there, though as has often been the case with IndyCar through the years, there’s no certainty this one will come through. The series also was talking to a promoter in China about a race there, but that’s now looking unlikely to come together until at least the 2019 season, Starks said.

Sources said IndyCar is typically asking close to an eight-figure rights fee for an international date, as compared to its $1 million to $2 million domestic fees. Starks added that IndyCar aims to have the 2018 schedule out this month. The schedule should be about the same from this year from a domestic race perspective, Starks said, a welcome bit of stability for a series that has often tweaked dates each year.

F1 driver Fernando Alonso chose the Indy 500 over the Monaco Grand Prix, bringing global media attention with him.
SO CLOSE: It’s not often that a driver who didn’t finish the race can overshadow the winner of an Indy 500, but that may have been the case this year with the ubiquitous Alonso, who was the media darling of the month alongside McLaren executive director Zak Brown.

Alonso, who was in contention for the win before his Honda engine failed late in the race, came back as part of a plan hatched by Brown to both revive McLaren’s illustrious history at IMS and assuage Alonso amid a relatively poor season in F1 (where the team is also struggling with the reliability of its Honda engines). The move seemed to work out for all sides, as Brown said his team earned what he called a positive return on investment from the venture, while IMS got a large heaping of buzz.

At IMS, scores of fans were seen wearing the $30 McLaren-Honda shirt for sale, including many youth, a sign that the McLaren brand still resonated at the venue where it used to race decades ago.

Nicole Garside, IMS senior director of consumer products, said the track “sold through most” of its McLaren inventory.

Brown said McLaren could be back next year running the 500 and will evaluate a possible full-time return to IndyCar. He noted that multiple subsidiaries within McLaren leveraged the program, including its applied technologies and automotive groups, which hosted customers at IMS.

“We got a great return on investment … and it was a feel-good story for lots of people in motor racing; the McLaren brand, Fernando, IndyCar and Andretti all benefited a lot; and it went as we hoped it would go until lap 179,” Brown said, “but that’s racing.”

Crown Royal’s midway activation included giving out liquor shots.
SPONSOR ACTIVATION: IndyCar title sponsor Verizon showed off new activation and new connectivity improvements. The carrier, whose deal expires with IndyCar after 2018, tested out 5G technology at the venue, both at a house near the track where it installed the technology and inside a bus that is traveling around the country to demonstrate the newest wares.

Verizon also installed new equipment to improve cellular service at the venue, and the technology appeared to pay off on race day. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, an IndyCar team, wrote after the race on Twitter, “Shout out to @verizon for the best #indy500 service yet.”

Ronan Dunne, Verizon Wireless’ new executive vice president and group president, was at the race alongside a host of other current and former company executives.

A couple of brands leveraged motorsports’ biggest annual weekend to get the word out about new products and programs. Amazon Prime Video had a significant presence in the media center, where it touted its “Le Mans: Racing is Everything” original series. Shell launched its Gold Status Fuel Rewards program via paint schemes on the car it sponsors in IndyCar, Team Penske’s No. 3 Chevy driven by Helio Castroneves, as well as in NASCAR with Penske’s No. 22 Ford driven by Joey Logano.

Sydney Kimball, Shell’s vice president of fuels marketing, Americas, said this is one of the biggest programs the company has launched in years. She said Shell has about 12 percent of its customers using its current fuel rewards program, and hopes this new version will grow that markedly.

Meanwhile, Crown Royal, which works with CSM Sport & Entertainment on its motorsports marketing, dropped its presenting deal of NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 last year but was back at IMS as a brand activating on the midway for the 500. The brand gave out shots of its liquor in a decorated tent. Other new brands on the midway included Hasbro’s Nerf brand.

Andretti Autosport fielded the winning entry, again with a last-minute sponsor, for the second year in a row, with Takuma Sato behind the wheel this year.
ANDRETTI WINS AGAIN: After winning the Indy 500 two years in a row, both times with sponsors that jumped on board at the last minute, Andretti Autosport chief marketing officer Doug Bresnahan can only laugh. While winning the series’ most important annual race is wholly welcome no matter the case, winning with a short-term partner can come with some risks.

Andretti driver Takuma Sato won this year’s race after Indiana-based sponsor Ruoff Home Mortgage jumped aboard just five days before the race. This comes after NAPA Auto Parts came aboard Andretti driver Alexander Rossi’s Honda last year just before the 100th running, which Rossi wound up winning. Andretti has been able to grow the NAPA relationship this year.

“[Team owner Michael Andretti] and I joked, ‘It’s not really the ideal scenario for our business, but maybe we should always hold out an entry to sell at the last minute if that’s the way our luck goes,’” Bresnahan quipped. “There are downsides to something so last minute: You can’t activate it; it’s more of a brand play with limited hospitality, but for Ruoff, I think it’s put them on the map in a big way, and a much bigger way than they were before.”

A source familiar with the offer said Andretti was asking low to mid six figures for the opportunity to sponsor Sato a few weeks before the race.