Paying Attention To Attendance

Bob Reif thinks the future of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series is bright now that the past has been laid to rest.

Last year about this time, the racing world was focused on a possible CART-IRNLS reunion. Talks took place, hopes were raised and rumors were flying. Then, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George announced that it was all a pipe dream.

"From a marketing standpoint, if you think about where open-wheel racing was one year ago at this time, people were standing on the sidelines. Sponsors were pulling out. They were all waiting to see what was going to happen, if there was going to be a merger," explained Reif, senior vice president of sales and marketing and chief marketing officer. "I think when we clearly said that we will not ever be part of a public company, that the Indianapolis 500 will remain as an independent, that Indy Racing will remain independent, when we said that, we let the world know that we are committed.

"That changes things. When you stand for something, you put your flag on the ground, you say what your plan is, and you share your plan with your stakeholders, it does change the momentum, because we’ve always had a great product. What I’ve said all along is that for five years Brian (Barnhart) and Tony and the Indy Racing League have focused on making the best on-track product it can possibly be. No one can argue that.

"But not too many people were seeing it, so now it’s our job to market it, and we think that people are starting to take notice that we do have a great product."

Barnhart took note of the increased interest in the IRNLS, as well.

"I think there was a lot of coming of age of our league this year, and acceptance of our competition and our product and the quality of the show that we do put on," Barnhart said.

Now, he’d like to build from that.

Next season, Reif and Barnhart, the IRNLS vice president of operations, have plans in place to expose the product to even more fans. Among them are educating fans and the media about the IRNLS, increasing the series’ marketing and attracting more sponsors.

If their plans work, the IRNLS anticipates selling out at least four races next season and increasing ticket sales by about 15 percent. With 13 races featuring first-time visits to six tracks, that is entirely possible.

And, the Midwest plays a key part in the officials’ expectations, as does the continued increase in quality in the on-track product.

"The key here is that we know that the open-wheel fan base is in the Midwest. Just like for years, the NASCAR fan base was in the Southeast," Reif said. "We need to go where our strength s and change that perception or just demonstrate that our fans are coming to races, versus going to a facility that seats 120,000 and having 60,000 people show up a race. It doesn’t look that good. We have 60,000 people show up to a facility that seats 60,000 that demonstrates that we’re selling out."

That’s almost exactly what happened August in the race at Kentucky, the IRNLS’s first race other than the Indianapolis 500 to be held in the Midwest. Kentucky Motor Speedway seats 65,989, and the Belterra Resort Indy 300 on Aug. 27 attracted 61,214 fans. Filling the grandstands was important, but what the fans told the IRNLS afterward may have been even more important.

"We did some research," Reif said. "We did some exit surveys and we found out that people will travel two or three hours from Indianapolis or the surrounding areas to attend our events."

As a result, Reif and Barnhart believe that the inaugural races at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., and at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., where 66,000 of 75,000 seats have already been sold, will sell out. The third Midwestern sellout could come at first-time races in St. Louis or Nashville. The Indianapolis 500 is already sold out.

It’s nice to claim sellouts are based on fan demand, but Reif says another factor, price, plays a big role in attracting fans.

"The Indy Racing League is not going to charge a $100 ticket," he said. "We know what our product is. We need people to sample our product. The only way they’re going to sample it is if there is a good price for people to come in.

"We believe so much in the product that once folks come in and see it, based on good vale and access, that we’re going to convert them, because we do have a good entertaining product, but people don’t know about it because they’re not coming. What we found is that by pricing right and by providing access to fans to our heroes and our stars, we believe that we can convert folks into being new fans."

Barnhart believes it’s the close level of competition in the IRNLS that will convince fans to come back to the IRNLS.

"The racing is so good; the drivers are good; the teams are good; the competition and the entertainment value for what fans are paying tickets to go see is a good value ticket; and it’s a good product," Barnhart said. "I think hand in hand the competition side and the marketing side have worked better to expose people to what we’re all about.

"I know I’m biased from the side I sit on, but I happen to think we have the most competitive racing series in the world. Our racing is phenomenal. The closeness of the competition and the level playing field that we have speak volumes about what our racing is all about."

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