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.

NHRA: Top 10 storylines of the 2019 season

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The 2019 NHRA season wound up being one where there was almost as much news and highlights made off the drag strip as on it.

That was the case in two of the top four storylines for the recently completed season, with the top story occurring even before the first pass down a drag strip in competition took place.

We’ve also included a poll for you to vote and see if you agree with our picks or not.

Here’s how our top 10 looks:

1. A Force-ful departure: Just two weeks before the 2019 season was due to open, Funny Car driver Courtney Force, daughter of 16-time champion John Force, stunned the drag racing world by announcing she was taking a hiatus from the sport – although she insisted she was not retiring. The wife of IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, Force turned over her high dollar Advance Auto Parts sponsorship to sister and Top Fuel driver Brittany Force, who had previously been sponsored by Monster Energy. Courtney Force became the second high-profile female drag racer to step away from the sport in just over a year, joining fellow Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria, who went on hiatus after the 2017 season. This past October, DeJoria announced she would return to full-time NHRA competition in 2020. But as for Courtney, she remains on hiatus for at least the time being.

2. Torrence’s Texas two-step: Proud Texas native Steve Torrence won his second consecutive Top Fuel championship in 2019, winning nine races (including eight in a nine-race stretch). While Torrence enjoyed an outstanding season in 2018, winning 11 races and becoming the first driver in NHRA history to win all six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, he won just one playoff race in 2019. But he still managed to earn just enough points to hold off his closest rival, Doug Kalitta, by a mere three points for the second championship. Also of note: Steve’s father Billy finished a career-best fifth in the final standings, even though he competed in just 16 of the season’s 24 national events.

3. What happened to ‘The Sarge’? Tony Schumacher is the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, with eight championships and 84 national event wins. But he was essentially AWOL in 2019, failing to compete in even one race. The reason: sponsorship. Or more precisely, lack thereof. The U.S. Army, which had sponsored Schumacher for nearly 20 years – which prompted him to adopt the colorful nickname of “The Sarge” pulled its funding after the 2018 season, leaving Schumacher without a fully-funded ride for 2019. Rather than try to race piecemeal from race to race with limited sponsorship, the son of team owner Don Schumacher decided to watch the season from the sidelines. How Schumacher could not attract a new big dollar sponsor, given his domination and success in the Top Fuel class, is almost unfathomable. Unfortunately, it’s looking like Schumacher – who turns 50 on Christmas Day – may remain sidelined in 2020.

John Force

4. A Force to be reckoned with once again: Even though he fell short of adding to his record 16 NHRA Funny Car championships, the 2019 season was definitely one of resurgence for John Force, the sport’s winningest and most popular driver ever. Force, who turned 70 years old in May, isn’t letting age slow him down, earning two wins during the season – including a milestone 150th Funny Car victory of his career – and finished fourth in the standings (up from ninth in 2018, seventh in 2017, and his best finish since he ended up fourth in 2016).

Robert Hight

5. At the Hight of his success: Robert Hight isn’t flashy or verbose as his boss, John Force. But when he’s not working as president of John Force Racing, the soft-spoken Hight has become one of the premier drivers in Funny Car history. In 2019, he earned his third Funny Car championship – his second in the last three seasons and third since 2009. Along the way, he captured six wins, was runner-up three other times, reached the semifinals five times and led all drivers as the No. 1 qualifier for eight races (a full one-third of the season). This was perhaps the most dominant championship of all for Hight, including leading the Funny Car standings for 23 of the 24-race season.

Erica Enders

6. Erica’s baaaaccckkkk: Erica Enders is back on top of her game, and on top of the Pro Stock category, earning her third championship in the last six seasons (and first since 2015). Admittedly, her championship came in the first year of a shortened Pro Stock schedule, having been cut from a full 24 races to just 18. Still, the Texas native won two races, finished runner-up three other times and reached the semifinals four other times. Also of note, Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, five-time Pro Stoc champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., came oh, so close to winning his sixth title, finishing just 21 points behind Enders in the final standings.

Doug Kalitta

7. What does he have to do to win first championship? Doug Kalitta came the closest he ever has to earning the first Top Fuel championship of his 20-year drag racing career, finishing just three points behind Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel rankings. It was almost heartbreaking as Kalitta seemingly did everything he needed to do to win the championship, including winning the season-ending race in Pomona, California, one of three wins he earned (as well as two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings). Kalitta began the season with a win at Pomona, as well. But Torrence came into the season-ending event at Pomona with just enough of a lead (and reached the semifinals) to hold off Kalitta’s challenge. How close was Kalitta from winning the championship? If he had advanced one more round in any of the six playoff races, he would have bested Torrence. Unfortunately, in a sense, Kalitta – nephew of legendary NHRA team owner and racer Connie Kalitta – has become the Mark Martin of NHRA Top Fuel: always a bridesmaid but never a bride when it comes to winning a championship. But there’s still hope, Kalitta fans: he’s going to give it another try in 2020. Maybe that will be his year – finally.

Andrew Hines

8. He’s one heck of an easy rider: Andrew Hines made it look easy in 2019 – although it was far from it – when he earned his sixth career NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship (and first since 2015). Son of past PSM champion Byron Hines, Andrew Hines enjoyed one of the most dominating seasons ever of his career — not to mention one of the most dominating seasons in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category — winning eight of the 16 PSM events contested, along with earning two runner-up and three semifinal finishes. Hines held off 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie by 26 points and 2018 champ Matt Smith by 46 points.

JR Todd

9. What a difference a year makes: JR Todd had an exceptional season in 2018, with six wins, two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings. Not surprisingly, the Indiana native went on to win the Funny Car championship that season for Kalitta Motorsports. But one year later, Todd was seemingly an afterthought when it came to challenging for the Funny Car crown once again. For as good as he was in 2018, Todd struggled through much of the 2019 season with just one win, three runner-up and two other semifinal finishes, ultimately finishing seventh in the standings, a distant 246 points behind series champ Robert Hight, who was second to Todd in 2018.

Austin Prock

10. Strong start for sport’s top rookie: When your father is renowned crew chief Jimmy Prock, it’s clear that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Such is the case of Austin Prock, who finished his first season in Top Fuel by earning NHRA’s rookie of the year honors. The younger Prock finished eighth in the Top Fuel season standings, including one win and five semifinal finishes driving for John Force Racing. Ironically, he finished one spot higher than three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who had a rough season, finishing ninth in the standings, with no wins, two runner-up showings and reached the semifinals just five times.

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