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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.

Alonso: McLaren moving in the right direction with P5 in Monaco

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during final practice ahead of the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 28, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso felt pleased to finish Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix in fifth place, believing it to act as proof that McLaren is moving in the right direction.

Alonso scored his first points of the season in Russia at the beginning of the month, and arrived in Monaco hopeful of adding to his haul at a track where the deficiencies of McLaren’s Honda engine would not be so punishing.

Starting ninth, Alonso made a good start before making up more ground in the pit stops to run fifth after all of the drivers had switched from wet to dry tires.

Alonso was then able to hold back Nico Rosberg for the remainder of the race to secure P5 and 10 points for McLaren.

“In terms of driving and concentration, today’s was an extremely tough race,” Alonso said.

“We started behind the safety car – with almost zero visibility – then switched to inters; but nobody had done any laps on those tyres before the race, so it was unknown territory for everyone.

“Once we’d switched to dry-weather tires, there was still only a very narrow dry line on the track, so if you went just half a centimetre off that line, you’d crash. There was just no room for mistakes today.

“Nonetheless, we got a good result – both cars in the points ought to make us reasonably happy. I think we’re progressing well: the results make it quite obvious what we’re achieving, so we’re heading in the right direction.

“We’re still not where we want to be – right at the front, fighting for wins and podiums – but I’m happy about how things are going.”

Teammate Jenson Button finished the race ninth to secure McLaren a double points haul in Monaco.

“My car felt almost undriveable during the wet opening laps – we were struggling to get heat into the rear tires, and were locking the rear wheels whenever we hit the brakes, which was a bit scary,” Button said.

“I boxed for inters at probably the right time – that first-call was the trickier one. I feel I’m pretty good at making those tire calls, but, on such a short lap, and when everybody else follows suit, it didn’t make too much difference. Then I got stuck behind Pascal’s [Wehrlein] Manor, which I couldn’t overtake.

“I think we made the right calls in terms of strategy, but lost out a little with the attendant traffic – which I couldn’t help – but the team made some good calls nonetheless.

“We wouldn’t have scored this many points if it’d been dry, so it’s good to get a decent haul today.”

Rosberg struggles to P7 in Monaco: ‘I had no confidence out there’

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 29: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track  during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 29, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg claims to have lacked confidence with his car in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix after finishing in a lowly seventh for Mercedes.

Rosberg started the race from second place on the grid, but was forced to give his position up to teammate Lewis Hamilton after pole-man Daniel Ricciardo opened up a big lead early on.

Hamilton ultimately went on to win the race, while Rosberg continued to struggle for pace in the wet conditions before the track dried out, dropping behind Sergio Perez and Sebastian Vettel.

Rosberg lost another place in the pits to Fernando Alonso after making the switch to slick tires, and spent the remainder of the race languishing behind the McLaren driver.

On the final lap, Rosberg lost P6 to Nico Hulkenberg on the run to the checkered flag, giving Hamilton a 19-point swing in the championship.

Despite still leading the drivers’ standings by 24 points, Rosberg admitted he was unsure why he was so slow in Monaco.

“I don’t know what the reason was. It was just very difficult out there on the intermediates,” Rosberg told NBCSN after the race.

“I just had no confidence out there, so I had to stay quite far away from the limit.

“Then after that, I had to let Lewis past to give him the chance to win, because with my pace I wouldn’t have had the possibility.

“So gave that a go, and then of course he did win, so good for the team.

“For me, I lost out a lot in the pit stops and everything, so that was disappointing.”

The result ends Rosberg’s record of having won every race he has finished in 2016.

Perez elated by Monaco podium, hails Force India tire calls

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 29: Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India celebrates on the podium during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 29, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Sergio Perez produced one of the stand-out performances of Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix to score his third podium finish for the team and the fourth in its history.

Perez started seventh in Monaco, but rose to third once all of the drivers had made the switch to slick tires after jumping Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg in the pit stops.

The Mexican managed his tires well in the second half of the race and even looked capable of claiming a shock victory at one point.

Ultimately, he had to settle for third behind Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo, but was delighted with the result.

“I’m extremely happy because my team has done a tremendous job with the strategy, with the calls, with the pit stops,” Perez said.

“It’s been an amazing day for us, my their podium with the team, a special one to have in Monaco, especially in these race conditions.

“I want to dedicate this podium to our boss, Vijay Mallya. He has been very supportive during these times, and I really want to dedicate this one to him.”

Perez praised the strategy calls made by the Force India pit wall that gave him the chance to keep the faster Ferrari back.

“I think we did the right calls, I think the best tire for us was the softs at the end,” Perez said.

“I was controlling the pace in the beginning. Seb had a lot of pace, he was a lot faster than us.

“I think I was saving my tires. When I needed to push I had the tire left.

“It was an amazing race with all the calls and everything. I’m extremely happy.”

Ricciardo feels “screwed” after Red Bull pit error costs him Monaco win

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Daniel Ricciardo felt “screwed” after a pit stop error from his Red Bull team cost him a likely victory in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix.

Ricciardo led the field away from pole position after the start behind the safety car, building a 13 second buffer to Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in the early stages.

Hamilton took the lead thanks to a long first stint, but was due to run behind Ricciardo once all of the drivers had made the switch to slick tires just before half-distance.

However, Ricciardo was left stranded in his pit box for a number of seconds after a communication error by Red Bull meant his slick tires were not ready in time.

Ricciardo spent most of the remaining laps less than a second behind Hamilton, trying time and time again to pass before eventually dropping back in the final laps.

After a strategy error cost him victory in Spain two weeks ago, the usually-amiable Ricciardo was full of frustration on the podium after the race.

“I don’t even want to comment on the race to be honest,” Ricciardo said.

“Thanks to the fans, thanks for sticking out in this weather. From the outside we put on a show. Shouldn’t have been as exciting as it was to be honest.

“Two weeks in a row now I’ve been screwed, so it sucks. It hurts.”

Ricciardo revealed that it was Red Bull’s call for him to pit at the end of lap 32 and make the switch to super-soft tires

“I was called in the box, I didn’t make the call. I was called,” Ricciardo said.

“They should have been ready. It hurts, it hurts. I don’t have anything else to say to be honest.

“We had the speed in the wet on the start. We pulled away, pitted for inters, and we put ourself in a race with Lewis that we didn’t need to be in.

“Then the pit stop was the pit stop. I felt I was the quickest in all conditions. Second place doesn’t show much for it.”