Q&A: Kevin Healy on Milwaukee IndyFest Year 3 planning, ovals, festival model

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Throughout the year, MotorSportsTalk has been chronicling the preparation for the ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest Presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers. As the race nears, the Wisconsin State Fair has just concluded with a record 1,030,881 patrons, most of whom will have seen race signage. On-track action begins this Friday at Wisconsin State Fair Park with Mazda Road to Indy testing for the Indy Lights and Pro Mazda divisions.

Heading into the weekend we caught up with Milwaukee IndyFest general manager Kevin Healy of Andretti Sports Marketing for a wide-ranging chat of topics before the race. In part two of this two-part interview (view part one here), Healy discusses year three of the promotional efforts, the new date, and what it takes to promote an oval race in the current Verizon IndyCar Series:

MotorSportsTalk: How critical is year three to the future of the Milwaukee IndyFest, now that the date’s moved and Andretti Sports Marketing has two years worth of experience?

Kevin Healy: Every year’s event, you get incrementally better. The third year you now understand the operations better. Quite frankly, this August date, we couldn’t have done it the first year. Without having two years of understanding where things need to go, we can do this in a fairly quick turnaround. The third year is where you make the incremental entertainment improvements.

The infield festival, the idea came because I’ve been going to Milwaukee for years, and right up until green flag there was nobody there. We had to bring the idea of a street race inside, and have a race breakout around it. We’ll have pro beach volleyball, which will be a cool addition with working with the National Volleyball League, as there are people wanting to see NVL. There’s a much greater appreciation of seeing pro players play volleyball.

MST: As an oval event, how do you build up that atmosphere to attract more fans given there’s generally not as much on-track action as on a road or street circuit? 

KH: This situation is not just unique to racing, in that you have to build. The most successful baseball stadiums – or really any stadium in the last 10-15 years – have more than the game. Miller Park is a great example. There’s a lot is going on. Turner Field in Atlanta was built for people to come early and provide entertainment. The new Amway Center in Orlando, for examples, it’s incredible what’s going on.

The core fan; the diehard baseball or race fan will come for the game/race. A lot of others come because you’re competing with other entertainment challenges.

I know at times people tend to get down on racing, but I don’t view it as different than any other sort of professional sport. It’s entertainment, but it’s no different than baseball or basketball.

Even when you look at the Super Bowl, there are all the interactive elements to get everyone there. It’s tough to measure against the NFL. There’s so much activation around the Super Bowl and the NFL Experience, but it’s funny because the one game with the least amount of actual fans is probably the Super Bowl. I’ve always wanted to do a survey at the Super Bowl, and have them ask which teams are playing, can you named a player on each team and wonder how many get it right. I doubt more than about 60 percent would do so!

For my own experience, I grew up playing traditional sports and other things. I was aware of the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, and I knew who Mario Andretti and Richard Petty were. But I was not really a fan. I then got involved with Piedmont Airlines, working in North Carolina and reading the sports page, checking in on NCAA basketball and NASCAR. We’re spending money, so let’s see what it is.

When you leave the suite, walk down to the fence, and when cars fly by at high speed, it’s like, “Holy (expletive!)”, and you’re hooked. It’s not just the speed, but the sound, the feel… it’s what gets you. I often equate it to hockey. It’s hard to appreciate how fast it is.

From a promoter perspective, love the core fans, and I love chatting with them. But there’s something about that first experience. I love taking someone who’s never been there, then bring them to the fence or pits, and watch their face as it hits them.

It’s important for all of us to remember. We take it for granted. Racing creates this opportunity to get close… being on the NFL sidelines is near impossible. Baseball keeps a big distance. You can get pretty integrated at a race track.

MST: Can you speak to the corporate partners and suite setup at Milwaukee IndyFest?

KH: The VIP section is the Marcus Club, as it was last year. Marcus Hotels & Resorts is really important local champion of the community. They were first to sign on; they’re a huge organization, and been great to work with.

We do have some trackside/pit lane suites. There’s only one permanent suite; Direct Supply has that suite. Bob Hillis, their CEO, I call him “The godfather of IndyFest.” He has been a big help. He’s so enthusiastic.

The key now is that our partners and their people appreciate the event. The race was poorly done for a number of years, and it probably wasn’t appreciated the degree of what’s been done since.

You have to change perceptions of what it was. It’s nothing like it was six years ago. If that’s your view, you have to adjust and see what we’re doing. There’s a big economic impact for Wisconsin. It’s gotten stronger both years. We’ll bring in even more support.

MST: What’s your read on the new date and ticket sales thus far?

KH: The good news/bad news for us is that we’re building new date equity (this is the first of a two-year deal in August –Ed.). It was tough on Father’s Day weekend, on Saturday. I think we’re better positioned in mid-summer. It still is one of those situations where most tickets get sold in that last week, and are very strongly dependent on good weather (link to buy here).

The first year back (in 2012) we broke a drought … and we were like, “Really?” It hadn’t rained here for over 100 days or something! Where that hits you is the Chicago/Northern Illinois area, and further out parts of Wisconsin and you say, “It’s too iffy.” The local crowd was slow coming out, but once it was clear it won’t rain, people really showed.

Some prep work is done in advance of that – with trackside signage. Outside we can’t. The big advantage is we’ve done it before, we know what needs to get done.

MST: How would you rate the promotional events thus far (bowling, track walk, table tennis, food truck appearance)?

KH: It gets good coverage locally. I though the track walk was really cool. For a Tuesday afternoon, that had a phenomenal turnout. That turned out better than even we expected. It was a really cool fan experience.

I thought Hinch and Ed did a great job. I’m glad it was the week before Indy! It was a kick in the gut for them when they were out.

Red Bull secures engine deal for 2016 F1 season

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Members of the Infiniti Red Bull Racing team take part in a pit stop practice session during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Red Bull Racing’s engine saga appears to have finally come to an end after team principal Christian Horner confirmed that an agreement had been struck with a supplier for the 2016 Formula 1 season.

Red Bull’s participation in next year’s championship had been uncertain after the team expressed a desire to cut ties with existing supplier Renault over frustrations with the performance of its power unit.

However, the team failed to strike a deal with Mercedes and turned down Ferrari’s offer of a 2015-spec power unit for the new season. Talks were also held with Honda, but this deal was vetoed by McLaren CEO Ron Dennis, forcing Horner to rekindle negotiations with Renault.

A deal appears to have finally been struck that ensures Red Bull will still be racing in 2016, with an announcement due in the near future.

“We have an agreement with an engine for next year which hopefully will be confirmed in the coming days,” Horner is quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Red Bull is thought to have agreed an amendment to its deal with Renault that will allow the team to race with unbadged or rebranded engines in 2016 while the French manufacturer focuses on the impending takeover of Lotus and the revival of its works team.

B-team Toro Rosso is poised to take on 2015-spec Ferrari engines for the new season, ending its relationship with Renault after just two seasons.

Hamilton quickest in opening Abu Dhabi practice

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP returns to the garage during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton kicked off the final race weekend of the 2015 season in impressive fashion by setting the pace first practice in Abu Dhabi on Friday.

With the weekend’s key sessions taking place far later in the day and therefore in different conditions, first practice offered the drivers little in the way of meaningful running ahead of the race.

However, what it did provide was a chance to evaluate some early updates ahead of the 2016 season, acting as a glorified test session that allowed the drivers to head out and get in some laps before turning their focus to race setup in FP2 later today.

Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg led the way once again, with the Briton coming out on top thanks to a lap of 1:43.754 to give him P1 by just over one-tenth of a second.

Hamilton’s session was not without its issues as he narrowly avoided spinning twice before telling the team “my car doesn’t feel good” with a few minutes remaining.

Nevertheless, it was still a strong start from Hamilton as he looks to end Rosberg’s recent resurgence and pick up a first victory since the United States Grand Prix last month.

Ferrari posed the most stringent challenge to the Mercedes drivers once again as Kimi Raikkonen finished six-tenths of a second back in P3. Teammate Sebastian Vettel finished fifth as Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat split the Ferrari drivers.

Daniel Ricciardo underpinned Kvyat’s pace in the sister Red Bull by ending FP1 in seventh place, slotting in between Force India teammates Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez. Pastor Maldonado and Felipe Massa rounded out the top ten in P9 and P10 respectively.

FP2 will offer the drivers more representative conditions, given that it will start at dusk just as qualifying and the race will, meaning that we are likely to be offered more of an indication of the pecking order.

You can watch second practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 8am ET on Friday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (VIDEO)

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP speaks at a press conference next to Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari, Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda, Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus, Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Infiniti Red Bull Racing and Roberto Merhi of Spain and Manor Marussia during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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The 2015 Formula 1 season may not have been one for the ages, but it has certainly offered some fascinating and entertaining storylines that will continue to have repercussions as we head into the new year.

Lewis Hamilton may have a third world title under his belt, but the recent good form of Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg suggests that he may face a more stringent challenge to make it a set of four in 2016.

Before we can even begin to think about next year’s championship race though, there are a number of loose ends to be tied up in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

A number of teams’ futures are still up in the air, and while the grid is largely there, questions about the futures of most racing in F1 still linger.

For the final time in 2015, NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton brings you all of the latest news, interviews and insight in the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

In part one, we catch up with three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton as he bids to stop Rosberg’s recent resurgence, while Romain Grosjean talks about his impending adventure with Haas F1 Team in 2016 ahead of his last race for Lotus.

We also talk to F1’s unofficial rookie of the year Max Verstappen ahead of his first race under the lights in Abu Dhabi.

Part two features a trio of drivers who haven’t had a year quite as impressive as those in part one. Fernando Alonso and Daniil Kvyat have both been left frustrated by engine woes, while Kimi Raikkonen’s failure to match teammate Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari has raised more than a few question marks. We hear from all three ahead of what is surely a much-welcomed last race of the year.

MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: Abu Dhabi GP

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP speaks with Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda next to Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari at a press confernce during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton may have clinched his third Formula 1 world championship over a month ago now, but there is still plenty to play for as the paddock arrives in Abu Dhabi for the final race of the year.

Nico Rosberg’s resurgence may have been too little, too late for this year’s title fight, but the German driver is currently on a run of form that will undoubtedly make him a contender once again for the 2016 crown.

Abu Dhabi has a knack for the spectacular, running as the only twilight race on the F1 calendar and boasting the Yas Viceroy hotel as its impressive centrepiece – under the lights, the stars come out.

For the final time in 2015, here are the MST team’s picks for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Be sure to let us know in the comments section your thoughts and make your own picks.

For full TV and streaming details ahead of the Abu Dhabi GP weekend, click here.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race WinnerNico Rosberg. Two on the bounce and having finally banished the demons of 2014, I’m tipping Nico to edge Lewis again in Abu Dhabi. It’ll set things up beautifully for 2016.

Surprising FinishMax Verstappen. Abu Dhabi has a habit of producing unpredictable races, so I’m tipping F1’s unofficial rookie of the year to come through strongly once again.

Most to ProveLewis Hamilton. It may be a little harsh to say that the world champion has to prove himself at the last race of the year, but he can’t afford to lose any more ground to Rosberg heading into the winter.

Additional Storyline to Watch: Bon voyage, Romain. After ten years of association with the Enstone operation, Romain Grosjean will bid farewell to Lotus this weekend ahead of his move to Haas in 2016. Grosjean has been the on-track heartbeat of the team through some tough times, so will hopefully get the send-off he deserves.

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Nico Rosberg. The talking point from a Mercedes standpoint going into the weekend is one of a psychological match-up. Rosberg’s lost the 2015 season long war, of course, but has firmly gained the upper edge in battle the last two races. For offseason momentum, if there is such a thing, Rosberg stands to gain the most with a third straight win, and even though this is a track Hamilton has dominated at in the past, Rosberg’s riding the hot hand of form right now.

Surprising Finish: Kimi Raikkonen. He’d never say it publicly, but Raikkonen should desperately want to finish ahead of his countryman and recent rival Bottas in the “best of the rest” category behind the top three. Third and fourth is about where the drivers should finish in the standings, given the Ferrari’s pace.

Most to Prove: McLaren Honda. At the track where the engine made its debut last year in the post-race test, I’m praying there’s a trouble free weekend for them. That’s all I ask.

Additional Storyline to Watch: The ends of eras, and the loose ends to tie up. Several eras come to an end this weekend, and there’s several items to get tied up this weekend (Red Bull engines, and more). The paddock drama may trump on the on-track drama this weekend.

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari