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.

X44 Racing win 2022 Extreme E championship as Abt Cupra score first race victory

2022 Extreme E Uruguay
Extreme E
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Abt Cupra Racing’s Nasser Al-Attiyah and Klara Andersson scored their first win in the Extreme E Energy X Prix in the 2022 finale in Uruguay as Lewis Hamilton’s X44 Vida Carbon Racing drivers Sebastien Loeb and Cristina Gutierrez survived a chaotic finale to edge the 2021 champion Rosberg X Prix team of Johan Kristoffersson and Mikhaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky, by two points.

“There are so many emotions,” Andersson said in Extreme E’s coverage. “I’ve been waiting for this for so long. In my second race, first full weekend to be at the top of the podium: it’s big.”

Andersson was behind the wheel at the finish.

Rosberg Racing entered the event with a 17-point advantage over X44, but the standings were close enough that four teams remained in contention in Round 5.

“It’s a crucial weekend for us,” Loeb said in Extreme E’s coverage prior to the race. “We are not in the best position to win the championship, but the only thing we can do is try to win the race and score as many points as possible.”

The top two title contenders each crashed in qualification and were relegated to the Crazy Race, Extreme E’s version of the Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ). For the moment, they had the steepest hill to climb, but then the other two championship contending teams, Chip Ganassi Racing and Acciona Sainz Racing failed to advance from their heats.

Only one team advances from the Crazy Race, so the X44 drivers were in a must-win situation to simply keep hope alive.

More: Extreme E 2023 schedule

Ahlin-Kottulinsky and Gutierrez ran wheel to wheel into the first turn at the start of the LCQ.

The Rosberg racer experienced crash damage in that turn that damaged her front steering, but managed to limp back to the pits at the end of her two-lap stint. The team attempted to fix the steering, but incurred a penalty for having too many mechanics in the pit area.

Meanwhile, Gutierrez took the early lead, but knew she would need to sit through a five-second penalty for an incident earlier in the weekend. The female half of the gender equal pair erased the penalty by entering the Switch Zone with a five-second lead before turning the car over to Loeb.

That was all the nine-time World Rally Championship titlist needed to give him the advantage needed to win the Crazy Race.

But the championship was not over yet. X44 Racing needed to finish third or better in the five-car finale to earn enough points for the title and after advancing from the LCQ, they were forced to take the worst grid position.

A chaotic start to the Finale saw Loeb run as high the lead and low as fourth after getting pushed off course during his first lap. And that is how he entered to Switch Zone.

On her first lap, Gutierrez slammed into Molly Taylor. With one lap remaining, X44 and Gutierrez were still in fourth and the title hope was quickly evaporating, but it was announced halfway through the lap that the third-running Andretti United team would suffer a penalty for a Switch Zone infraction. The seven-second deduction for Timmy Hansen braking too late in the zone made the difference in the title.

Coming off a disappointing Copper X Prix when Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour crossed under the checkers first, but were relegated to fifth by penalty, the McLaren pair scored their first podium of the season in second.