IndyCar using a major metro music strategy at Iowa Speedway, attracting fans with concerts

IndyCar Iowa concerts
Penske Entertainment

Nestled among the cornfields outside Newton (population 15,760), Iowa Speedway won’t be mistaken for an urban market, but IndyCar wants to imbue big-city vibes with an ambitious concerts strategy.

Announcing a lineup of Tim McGraw, Florida Georgia Line, Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton that will play before and after each race during the NTT IndyCar Series’ doubleheader weekend July 23-24 at Iowa Speedway, race and series officials are aiming to draw sellout crowds with a formula modeled on successful IndyCar races in major metropolitan markets.

Street races in St. Petersburg (which enjoyed record attendance last month), Long Beach and Nashville have drawn weekend crowds into the six figures by creating festival atmospheres that are predicated largely on nonstop cars and concerts to keep fans entertained.

“As we get to these markets like Iowa, you need to create that event,” Penske Corp. president Bud Denker said during a Zoom news conference Monday. “Without the attachment to an urban market, you have to have the event to draw you in. We want to take it and apply to other tracks we go to in the future.”

Denker said Iowa has about “12 to 15,000 tickets to sell each day.” The 0.875-mile track has 24,000 permanent seats (plus suites) but will add temporary grandstands in the turns. Denker said the goal is race-day crowds of 40,000.

“To think about these four acts, normally you’d fill up a stadium or arena with one of these acts for one evening,” he said. “We’re going to have four Class A entertainers prerace, postrace that entire weekend. It is going to be a massive weekend for us. I’m looking for huge ticket sales today as a result of this.

“We hope to sell it out very soon.”

According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa Speedway sold 56,087 tickets for its inaugural NASCAR Xfinity Series race in 2009 and 55,988 for its NASCAR race in 2010. Crowds declined after NASCAR added a second annual race in 2011, and the track (which was sold to NASCAR in 2013) has struggled to remain viable.

The IndyCar concerts were brokered by concert promoter Live Nation and race weekend title sponsor Hy-Vee.

The Des Moines-based supermarket chain, which also has become a full-time primary team sponsor this season of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s new third car for Jack Harvey, focused on assembling a country-infused lineup (while avoiding duplication with the Iowa State Fair a few weeks later).

McGraw (Saturday) and Stefani (Sunday) will play 50-minute prerace sets. FGL (Saturday) and Shelton (Sunday) will play 90-minute postrace shows.

“These were the four acts that we felt they’re the biggest names we could get,” Hy-Vee CEO and chairman Randy Edeker said. “Then the interest of having Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton sing the same day is exciting. That brings an extra added element to it. There really wasn’t a deep amount of science (to selecting the lineup). Give me the four biggest acts that you have that are going to help us fill the seats. We think that it is a way to introduce Indy racing to a whole new group of people that have never seen it. That’s what we’re about here.

“I had a distinct challenge from the governor of the state of Iowa to build back the track in Newton. We’ve honored that. We have invested in that. We believe that Newton is one of our towns that needs a shot in the arm. We feel this is a good way to do it. We’re not looking at it as the first year, we’re looking at the second year and the third year. We believe this is how you build an event. We can launch it. It can kick the door open. We’ll have a great event and come back next year and see how we build on that.”

A good barometer might be Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s music initiatives in recent years. “The Snake Pit,” an EDM festival that occurs before, during and after the Indy 500, will return from a two-year pandemic absence this year. It regularly has drawn a crowd of 30,000 while providing a good blueprint for how to throw a party at an oval race.

While street races have the advantage of being able to schedule more support series (there were five at St. Pete last month), ovals often are limited in curtailing the amount of inactivity during a weekend.

“If you look at the success of Nashville, the success of Long Beach, there’s so much going on,” driver Graham Rahal said. “If you look at places that we always put on great races that didn’t have success — and this certainly isn’t a shot at any of them because I love them — Kentucky, for instance. Great race all the time, but people want to see more than just a race. To keep kids occupied — and as a new dad I fully understand and appreciate this — and people entertained for a full day or a full weekend of oval racing. The race is the highlight, but there’s always a lot of dead time between practice and qualifying, particularly on a two-day show.

“I think (the Iowa concerts are) a slam-dunk. I also think it’s a formula for going forward.”

Iowa was left off the IndyCar schedule in 2021. For the series’ return, Denker said Indianapolis Motor Speedway would take over the track’s ticketing for the race weekend from NASCAR. In addition to restricting scalpers, IndyCar also will be able to track how many fans are attending one of its races at Iowa for the first time (as IMS is able to track with its races).

For its January debut of The Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum (which featured a midrace concert by Ice Cube), NASCAR compiled ticketing data indicating that 70 percent of the crowd were first-time buyers for a Cup race. IndyCar is hoping Iowa also will expose its racing to new audiences.

“Think about the number of fans we’re going to have at this event who have never been to a race before because they’re coming for a different reason, to see entertainment,” Denker said. “And by the way, there’s a world class event going on.”

Hy-Vee also will give away 1,000 tickets to Sunday’s race in a “Salute to Farmers” campaign that is backed by Google, which has become a presenting sponsor of the event with DoorDash.

Edeker said Hy-Vee also will become an event sponsor this season of the second annual Music City Grand Prix, which featured postrace concerts throughout last year’s debut weekend in Nashville.

“We feel like we’ve joined IndyCar at the right time,” Edeker said. “IndyCar has a long history. I feel like we’re on the cusp of something much bigger. I think the sport is going to take off. We’re investing in that possibility. We believe that we wanted to be a part of it. That’s why we made the investment.

“But Iowa is super important to us. We wanted to invest in the track. That’s why we went all in. We think we’re on the cusp of Indy really starting to grow with some of the strategies they have, and we wanted to invest in it now and be on the cutting edge of that moving forward.”

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”