INDIANAPOLIS – Jay Frye had stopped for dinner on the way home from Indianapolis Motor Speedway a year ago when his young waiter noticed the IndyCar logo on his polo shirt.
“Do you work at the track?” the man in his early 20s asked Frye.
“Yes,” replied the IndyCar president, who was expecting to hear another testimonial for the enormously popular Indianapolis 500 Snake Pit concert from a member of Indianapolis’ EDM-loving youth scene.
And it was … except with a major and pleasant twist.
“This kid said, ‘Oh man, I’ve been going to the Snake Pit, and it’s really cool, but I’m over the Snake Pit. I’m getting old for that,’ ” Frye recalled to NBCSports.com. “I love racing. I had no idea what was going on out there, but now I do and I’m going to the race next year.
“I’m looking at him and thinking, ‘We need to record you saying that.’ ”
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Once a haven of debauchery and behavior as bawdy as any racetrack in America, the Snake Pit has been recast as a potential incubator for grooming the Brickyard’s next generation of younger fans who might not necessarily be interested in driving cars but still can be persuaded to watch race cars.
Or at least indirectly be exposed to them while bouncing along to staccato lightning bursts of loudly pulsating beats per minute that still trails the roar of RPMs being churned on the adjacent asphalt.
For the third consecutive year, a crowd of 30,000 (all at least 18 years old but few above 30), or about a 10th of the fans expected at the speedway Sunday, will crowd into the Snake Pit and dance to DJs Skrillex, Alesso, Illenium and Chris Lake from 7 a.m. until midafternoon (shortly before the checkered flag in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing).
And for those who tire of the fun, or just grow too old for it, they always can move to the grandstands.
“That’s exactly why that’s out there,” Frye said. “The more things you do to enhance the overall experience for the younger generation … the intent or hope was they’ll come out to the big event, and at some point, their tastes will change.
“There’s lots of kids and younger adults coming to our races. That gives us reason to be very optimistic about the future.”
The dynamics of U.S. car culture perhaps are permanently changing as kids increasingly delay getting their driver’s licenses and seem more enamored with exploring the digital world than driving through the tangible one we inhabit. With America’s youth more inclined to take a Lyft or Uber than dream about the next muscle car, Sunday’s massive party in Turn 3 is an important front in auto racing’s battle to retain its relevance.
According to track demographic data, the Snake Pit crowd is in its mid-20s, which is “significantly younger than the general ticket holder at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, track president Doug Boles said. “The Snake Pit in a lot of ways is the best marketing tool that we have at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to attract a young adult under the age of 30. Many of those customers, that’s their first experience and maybe only experience with the Indianapolis 500.
“We’ve done it for several years now and are seeing some of those customers transitioning from Snake Pit customers to actual ticket holders, which is the idea behind it. That’s also the biggest challenge because you have to convince them that it’s sort of the same experience or it’s what they do on Memorial Day Sunday weekend, so we do see that slowly working in the way we want.”
The lineup of the 103rd Indianapolis 500 will feature plenty of Millennial and Gen Z appeal. Of the 33 starters, there is a prominent teenager (Colton Herta, who has a shot at becoming the race’s youngest winner at 19 after becoming the youngest IndyCar winner at Austin, Texas, two months ago), 14 drivers in their 20s and seven in their 30s who would be considered Millennials.
But the stars of the NTT IndyCar Series are aware that just having a younger look won’t necessarily attract younger fans.
“I don’t know that we’re doing anything yet,” 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, 27, told NBCSports.com when asked what the circuit is doing that has worked to draw younger fans. “It’s a very difficult situation to address, and I don’t know that any form of motorsports really has it figured out. I think the return of the Snake Pit was huge, and at least getting a younger generation in the door, and if they so happen to watch the race, be like “oh wow, this is actually cool as well.” That’s awesome and obviously the goal.
“But you’re 100% right, the car culture is changing. Kids aren’t as interested in getting their driver’s license and all this stuff, so I think motorsports in general is trying to figure out the solution to that. I don’t know that we have it or know what it is. I don’t know what it is, either. It’s an issue. It may just be the way that it is, and if you just have a good product, which I think IndyCar does have a much better product than F1 and NASCAR, that you’ll still attract people that love racing and cars and motorsports, and if you’re just better and more entertaining, than hopefully that’s enough.”
Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, 28, believes there actually might be some advantage to appealing to a younger audience that is less fascinated by the automobile and all of its inner workings
“I don’t know if this is an unpopular opinion, but we don’t have to be as relevant as people might think to road cars,” said Newgarden, the 2017 series champion. “I think we are in the business of racing and putting on a show. That’s not necessarily going to translate to on the road and on the road products.
“When we have a great event, people show up and want to see something maybe a little bit crazy that they don’t see normally in their lives. And race cars still provide that. They should provide a spectacle for people where they can be awestruck by a machine and man or woman piloting it. That’s what it’s all about. You want to see a human racing against other humans in awesome machinery. That’s why I grew up loving race cars. Those things are incredible. I don’t see those on the road. That whole spectacle of human competition and bad-ass machinery. That’s what racing is, and that’s what draws people in, so even if you don’t enjoy driving a road car or necessarily love cars yourself, I think we still find people enjoy the spectacle of racing.”
Scott Dixon, 38, is among the last members of Generation X, but the five-time series champion has two daughters under the age of 10 and thus a good window into how kids perceive racing.
“I think it’s a dilemma for not just motor racing, it’s a dilemma for every kind of sport, probably even outside sports,” Dixon said.
Poppy and Tilly Dixon attend an Indianapolis school that holds “Little 500 races” in which kids make cardboard cutouts of cars that they wrap around themselves for footraces. IndyCar drivers also have visit Indianapolis-area schoolkids as part of a community day during the week leading up to the Indy 500.
“The best stuff I’ve seen is at the schools,” Dixon said about attracting a younger audience. “It’s just trying to maybe have that culture a little more common outside Indiana. Just keep pushing like we are and keep trying to find what’s engaging.”
Ted Klaus, the president of Honda Performance Development who oversees the engine manufacturer’s IndyCar program, also sees education and STEM programs as a way to build the fan base.
“I’m excited about the youth movement,” Klaus said. “It’s about how the sport of motorsports fills up the soul and spirit of the young folks so they can form their own dream for themselves in the future.
“All these amazing sponsors on the cars, they have dreams about the future of North America, and I’m all, ‘Let’s get it on.’ Let’s set a challenge that motorsports will be so relevant, that we’ll have fun but also literally create technologies that matter in the future, both on the track and in the paddock.
“I think the sky’s the limit, but we’re going to have to reengage our brain and not limit ourselves by just focusing on the cars on the track.”
Colton Herta (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Perhaps the most youthful touchstone in this year’s race is Herta, who visibly embraces the zeitgeist of his generation.
During qualifying last weekend, the Harding-Steinbrenner driver wore an oversized “Thanos infinity gauntlet” popularized by the recent Avengers movies (“I got it for my engineer’s kids because they’re in love with it, but we had to harness the powers for the car Friday and Saturday,” Herta says).
The son of IndyCar veteran Bryan Herta, who “plays video games as much as my girlfriend will let me,” was jamming on an Xbox in the team garage with his 22-year-old car owner, George Steinbrenner IV, during a rain delay at IMS. The game was NASCAR Heat, and Herta believes having a version exclusively devoted to IndyCar would help with youth.
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“There are a lot of things that could be a good idea to bring kids out to the race who maybe weren’t looking for a race, they were looking more for a party, and that can in turn maybe get them interested for the race in the future,” Herta told NBCSports.com. “And I know a lot of people don’t like the idea of throwing a party at a race. But people aren’t going to just all of a sudden start coming for a race just because they want to, they’re not going to all of a sudden be like, ‘Oh OK, now let’s go watch an IndyCar race.’
“They have to do something that interests them. I think having a video game that IndyCar is in would help, especially for quite a young demographic because it wouldn’t be a shooting game. Some kid under 8 years old, 9 years old, it might pique their interest, which would be good.”
But there’s no substance for actual attendance.
“Every sport, that’s the struggle is you want to feel like you’re actually there,” Herta said. “That’s the biggest thing if they can come out to a race, it can change their perspective.”
But even for fans watching 230 mph cars in person, there still can be challenges in appreciating the degree of difficulty.
“Here’s the problem that motorsports has is that some people don’t get it and how could they? When you watch the NBA playoffs, you can go pick up a basketball and understand how difficult it is to do what those guys are doing,” Rossi said. “There’s no relatability to driving the race car. People can get in their Honda Accord and drive it down the street and think, ‘Oh well, I can go fast, too.’ There’s no ability for them to understand what we’re actually going through and the talent that needs to exist to do that.
“If there was a way to relay that and how hard we were actually working in the car, because the camera, through no fault of its own, doesn’t do it justice.”
IndyCar runs a highly popular two-seater program that helps deliver that action, but there are natural limits of accessibility, money and time for how many can experience it.
“You talk to people that go to the track that have never been before, and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a lot different than I expected,’ ” Rossi said. “But then you talk to people in a two-seater ride, and that’s 50-60% of what we’re actually doing, and it’s, ‘Holy shit, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever experienced.’
“I don’t know how you do it! Well if we could introduce people to the sport that way all the time, not just VIPs and celebrities, I think that would go a really long way in terms of getting people and understanding. But unfortunately that’s not very cost effective.”
In the meantime, the best approach might be offering fast and free wifi (which is still woefully inadequate at too many big-league tracks) so tech-savvy fans can access social media – and hopefully have something to share from a compelling show.
“Putting on a great event, I still think that’s still really important, and I think IndyCar has done a great job of focusing on that,” Newgarden said. “We try to stay true to our roots of what racing is and making it about competition and making it about the human experience and who does the better job on the day for a particularly large event.
“And that’s what the Indy 500 provides, and people still love to see that. And then we sprinkle in a bit of fun like the EDM festival in the Snake Pit, and I think you have a good combination for success.”
Roger Penske, who is fielding cars in his 50th Indy 500 this year, pointed to the fact that some children still are racing go-karts before being able to drive and noted NASCAR’s push into eRacing this year.
“I think the good thing that’s happening in IndyCar, the races are shorter,” Penske said. “We’ve got diversity across the field. People are racing in different countries. And with the OEMs committed the way they are to support the sport, I think we’re on a good ride.
“I’m not concerned we’re going to lose racing. I’m not sure they’re running electric cars around here in the next 10 years, either. I think you want something with noise and where you can go 230 mph. It gets someone’s attention.”
Frye said IndyCar’s mantra of being “fast, unapologetic and authentic” also appeals to youth.
“They’re still all mesmerized by the cars, the sound, the speed, by the look of the cars,” Frye said. “I’ve seen different things that maybe Millennials don’t like cars, but the next generation does.
“I think we just keep doing what we’re doing. Fast, loud, unapologetic and authentic and make sure there are plenty of activities for everyone, and we’ll be good to go.”