Milwaukee’s date in flux as Andretti Sports Marketing looks to continue growth plan

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As it stands this Tuesday, October 14, the Verizon IndyCar Series 2015 date at the Milwaukee Mile has not been set.

The series will return, but it’s just a question of when. After being on Father’s Day weekend in 2012 and 2013, the race shifted to August this past year, post the Wisconsin State Fair.

However, the anticipated massive bump in attendance didn’t come, despite a high level of promotion in the market and additional foot traffic that saw the ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest Presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers advertised at State Fair.

An August return is possible; the Labor Day weekend has also been mooted and it’s even been suggested the race could run in July. Race general manager Kevin Healy of Andretti Sports Marketing joked, “I can tell you it will be between March and September.”

As Milwaukee seeks to find its home on the calendar, Andretti Sports Marketing president John Lopes said the mantra of date equity isn’t as important as some would make it seem.

“I don’t know if it matters so much anymore,” Lopes told MotorSportsTalk in an interview at Andretti Sports Marketing’s offices in Indianapolis.

“Date equity is a mantra for every promoter, but I don’t think date equity is an issue for Milwaukee yet because we haven’t found the right date yet. This is one market where it walks and talks and acts differently than others.”

How so, you ask? Adverse circumstances affected the two June years, and while Lopes was happy with the promotion, he was surprised by the August date not producing the desired number of sold tickets.

“Every time we think we’re smart on a date, we learn that maybe we’re not as smart as we thought we were,” he explained. “We really thought Father’s Day would work, so we went with this whole Father’s Day promotion, and ‘generations.’ What we learned is we were hurt by a couple things: we were hurt by June Sprints, the fact it was Father’s Day, and by rain, and that happened two years in a row.

“So we moved off of that, and thought, ‘OK, let’s see how we do without those three things going against us.’ It didn’t change the needle. So that was a head scratcher for us.

“Now we don’t have so much of a choice. Our date, which will come pretty quickly from IndyCar, will be where can they fit us. So maybe, funny enough, we might not get a date we want, and watch, we’ll have more than with our other dates.”

Lopes explained the three-year growth model for IndyCar at IndyFest, and how Andretti Sports Marketing has helped to save the event from going away.

“We took Milwaukee initially as a one year at a time type thing,” he said. “The first year, we came in to help IndyCar do it. For those of us who are close to the sport, it’s one of those things we didn’t want to see fail. It’s our version of Wrigley Field.

“A lot of promoters had had issues over the years. I honestly don’t know what the common thread was. We felt we could come in, and so long as we contained costs, we could slowly build it up over three years. It’s occurred that way. We’ve built it up from a sponsorship standpoint.”

The additions of ABC Supply Co. as a title sponsor and Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers as a presenting sponsor, Lopes said, really boosted the event. The company’s national sponsors – DHL, Dr Pepper Snapple and on down the line – also helped grow and support the race. Where the company needs to increase is by growing the base of Milwaukee sponsors.

“In terms of expectations, that’s been good. In terms of a point of pride for the company, that’s been good. But, we need to put more butts in seats. That’s the singular issue,” Lopes admitted. “It’s a bit of a head scratcher, and we don’t yet know the answer.”

Lopes said the event has grown from less than 10,000 fans in 2011 to north of 25,000 over three years. While an optimistic goal, Lopes said if they could attract 45,000 fans, it would be huge for the race.

Some have attested the attendance issue is an “oval problem,” where it appears IndyCar draws lower on ovals than on road and street courses, that’s a bit of a misnomer. Most oval grandstands IndyCar races on were built during a period of grandstand expansion, and that perception has hurt ovals.

“This isn’t unique to Milwaukee, or unique to racing,” Lopes explained. “Somebody showed all the empty seats at the 49ers game last week. It’s symptomatic of events in general; it’s harder to sell tickets to events now than ever.

“It’s attributable to a changing culture in entertainment, because 20-30 years ago it was the only thing. Now you have so many different options of entertainment, sports, festivals.

“It looks to me like they overbuilt. Because of that, we’re wrestling with a perception of it’s not a big event. But there’s several thousand in the infield alone, and ten of thousands in grandstands.

“It might be hard to compare us to the L.A. market, but I can tell you there were less there than Milwaukee. I think we do a good job in the market, and we are trying to bring in more.”

Lopes said the zip code analysis revealed a wide number of potential attendees from Northern Illinois, but because of the challenge and cost of media buys in that market, they haven’t been able to attract the number of fans from that area.

Overall though, Lopes said the event’s future is secure, and the goal now is to grow the event rather than simply save it.

“We’re refining it. We’re not saving the world or the event. The event is saved. Now it’s how do we put more butts in seats.”

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500