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.

Indy Lights: Chad Boat to make Indy Lights debut with Belardi

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Belardi Auto Racing, which currently fields entries for Aaron Telitz, Santi Urrutia, and Shelby Blackstock in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, announced on Tuesday that USAC standout Chad Boat, son of former Verizon IndyCar Series race winner Billy Boat, will make his Indy Lights debut with the Brian Belardi led-outfit. Boat will contest the July 9 race at Iowa Speedway, a track he has previously raced on in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and will return for the August 26 event at Gateway Motorsports Park.

“We’re extremely pleased to announce the addition of Chad Boat to our stable of drivers for the Iowa and Gateway Indy Lights oval races this summer,” team owner Brian Belardi detailed. “It’s exciting to have a second-generation driver running with us, and we’re certainly looking forward to getting Chad on track in Iowa.”

The younger Boat has become a star in his own right in USAC, winning Rookie of the Year honors in both the USAC National Midget and Sprint car divisions. The 25-year-old will pilot the No. 84 entry, with sponsorship from Pristine Auction.

“I grew up watching my dad race Indy cars, so having the opportunity to run Indy Lights this year is absolutely surreal,” said Boat. “I have to thank Belardi Auto Racing for giving me a shot behind the wheel of the No. 84 Dallara, as well as Pristine Auction for their continued support in my racing career. I can’t wait to get to Iowa Speedway.”

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Mercedes, Ferrari go conservative on Austrian GP tire picks

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Pirelli has confirmed all 20 Formula 1 drivers’ tire picks for next weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, with most opting to stack up on ultra-softs.

As it does for every grand prix, Pirelli will bring three compounds to Austria next week, electing for the softest possible combination of ultra-soft, super-soft and soft tires.

In the regular pre-race release of each driver’s tire picks, Pirelli revealed that Force India, McLaren and Red Bull have gone down the most aggressive routes, stacking up on the ultra-soft tire.

Title contenders Mercedes and Ferrari have gone down a more conservative route, favoring additional sets of the super-soft compound.

Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen will take seven sets of ultra-softs to Spielberg, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will have eight sets at their disposal through the weekend.

Graham Rahal survives Road America to finish eighth

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Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing faced a roller coaster of a race during the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on Sunday.

He was a rocket off the initial start, jumping from sixth on the grid up to fourth exiting turn 1, but was almost immediately ordered to surrender a position for blocking. He quickly slipped back to sixth, and then began plummeting down the order as he battled an oversteer condition that saw his car chew through its rear tires more quickly than others.

Forced to abandon the planned three-stop strategy, he and the No. 15 Gehl Honda team switched to a four-stop plan that saw him drop well outside the top ten at times.

However, they kept plugging away and rebounded nicely in the second half of the race to eventually finish in eighth. While he would have liked to finish higher up the order, Rahal knows that he and the team got everything they could out of it.

“The car was a handful today. I knew about five laps in that I didn’t have the pace for a three-stop strategy,” Rahal revealed post-race. “We tried as best we could to work with what we had during the race and overcome it. I would have obviously liked to have finished better, but eighth is about as good as we could do today. We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem. We worked awfully hard but just missed it this weekend.”

The eighth-place finish keeps Rahal in the championship hunt. Rahal now sits seventh in the standings, 11 points behind fifth-place Josef Newgarden and 72 behind championship leader Scott Dixon.

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Ed Jones continues steady run with seventh at Road America

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Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones has made waves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a string of solid performances that belie his rookie status.

And Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America was no different.

The 22-year-old battled an oversteering car most of the weekend at Road America, and had to navigate a little carnage late in the race as Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay both fell through the field with front wing problems.

However, Jones weathered all storms to finish an impressive seventh, his fifth finish inside the top 10 this year, and his best finish since his third place at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade MotorOil.

“It was a really tough race,” Jones said of the effort. “We had a loose car yesterday. It was loose, but fast, for qualifying, and today again the car was really loose. I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops and we were able to move up.

“Obviously, the strategy was pretty similar to everyone else. Everyone was aggressive out there. It was hard racing but we came out with a seventh place and we moved up a little bit in the points.”

The seventh-place run sees Jones maintain his position in the top ten in the championship. He currently sits tenth in the standings, three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

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