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It was Opening Day for the Indianapolis 500 in May 2013 and Mark Miles arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for his first “Month of May” as the IndyCar and IMS CEO. The former head of the Association of Tour Professionals (ATP) – the governing body of professional tennis — had been named to his position in December 2012 by the Board of Directors of Hulman & Company, owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1945.
They needed a man who would return IndyCar to relevance and restore the prestige of the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.When Miles arrived at IMS for Opening Day, he couldn’t believe what he saw.
Make that, what he didn’t see.
“I grew up in Indianapolis and have always been a fan of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race and appreciated the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Miles told me in an exclusive interview. “I was on the Board of Directors for the company for a year and then I went to work there in 2013 so you can imagine the feeling of being a kid in a candy story, behind the desk in the CEO’s office for the first time when we opened the first weekend of three weekends of action to celebrate May.
“You have all these feelings of anticipation and excitement.
“I went outside and looked, and we had about 5,000 people there and a nice antique car show, and we had some practice.
“I felt a deep sense of disappointment.
“The next week, we had qualifying, and I don’t think we had any bumping that year and I wasn’t overly impressed by the crowd. Finally, we got to race weekend and it is always pretty sensational.”
The first weekend of practice was not on television, so Opening Day really didn’t create a buzz of excitement, even with race cars zooming around the famed 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.
Miles realized IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 had a content problem by not giving spectators a reason to come out to the Speedway until race weekend.
“What can we do to do to turn that around and to really claw back and regain three weekends in May?” Miles asked. “With the Indy 500 Mini-Marathon and the activities of the 500 Festival, we really have high-problem public activity for four weekends.”
Miles engaged his staff to come up with ideas of what can be done for the first weekend.
He was new to his position and realized there was a lot of pushback and opinions on what IMS could and could not do in the month of May.
When the idea of running an IndyCar race on the existing infield road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was suggested, there was tremendous pushback against that idea.
“There was a lot of universal sense that we can’t do that because May is only about the Indianapolis 500 and another race would dilute the 500,” Miles recalled. “I never felt that way.
“I believed as the 500 grows, is a better way of promoting IndyCar and as vice-versa.
“We pushed and came up with the idea of having a grand Prix on the opening weekend. Part of selling it was to have it on network television for all three weekends of action.”
At that time, the Indianapolis 500 contract was held by ABC. Beginning in 2019, it has been on NBC, its current broadcast partner.
But Miles needed some heavy artillery to help convince the IndyCar paddock and community that replacing Opening Day with an IndyCar Grand Prix on the road course was the right thing to do.
Miles approached Roger Penske, the winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history. This was in 2013, long seven years before Penske purchased the track from the Hulman George Family.
“I wanted to bring along the paddock and the drivers and the other team owners so it would be enthusiastically received, even if I knew at the outset that wasn’t the original inclination,” Miles recalled. “I made one phone call to Roger Penske, told him the idea and he said if it’s good for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, then he likes it.”
Penske came to Indianapolis and helped Miles announce it at a news conference. Because of Penske’s support, that quieted the traditionalists that were against the thought of having an IndyCar road course race during the same month as the Indianapolis 500.
There was already a road course at the Speedway that was built for Formula One. The United States Grand Prix was held on that course from 2000 to 2007. After that, however, the road course was dormant.
Miles and his staff modified that course and made it even better for IndyCar.
Miles was stunned to discover that a huge part of his Indianapolis 500 ticket base were not familiar that IndyCar competed in road and street course races. He saw this as an opportunity to cross-promote IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500.
Simon Pagenaud won the first IndyCar Grand Prix on the IMS road course on May 10, 2014. The race weekend was designed to be a “Central Indiana” event in contrast to the international audience approaching 300,000 spectators that fills the massive grandstands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway every year for the Indianapolis 500.
By contrast, the IndyCar Grand Prix weekend was designed to be a “local event” geared toward families and many fans who don’t attend the Indy 500 because of the commitment it takes for a day-long event.
“I didn’t want to promote it in Denver because I didn’t know if people would come back for two weekends for the 500,” Miles explained. “I bet we had 30,000 people for the weekend. That doesn’t fill the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but compared to 5,000, we really could not grow.
“It had to be an improvement over the 5,000 that we had for the opening weekend before.”
Miles designed a family-friendly atmosphere where many of the fans watch the road course action from the many viewing mounds in the infield. There are fans in various grandstands that are able to see much of the race course, but it’s a much different experience than the high-speed, thrill-show that makes the Indianapolis 500 a spectacle.
This past Saturday, Colton Herta won the ninth GMR Grand Prix in a wild, rain-soaked road course contest at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He defeated Pagenaud., who started 20th and made it all the way up to second at the checkered flag. Pagenaud drives for Meyer-Shank Racing along with teammate Helio Castroneves, who last year became the fourth, four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.
Team Penske’s Will Power was third. Power and Pagenaud have each won the GMR Grand Prix three times in their career. Power has won two more IndyCar races held on the IMS road course over his career to give him five victories.
Impressive crowds for the road course race attended Friday’s practices and qualifications and a very nice crowd came to the Speedway on Saturday to bask in the sunshine before the weather took a dramatic, and potentially severe turn.
Soaking rain and at times, high winds, battered both the cars and the spectators, but IndyCar fans in Indianapolis are a hearty breed that brought their own weather protection, from clothing to plastic sheets to guard off the elements.
Since that inauspicious first road course contest during the month of May in 2014, the annual road course race that kicks off the Indianapolis 500 schedule has become a popular and anticipated event from many of the spectators that treat the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the “World Capital of Auto Racing.”
According to Miles, there is very significant overlap in suite customers that attend both the Grand Prix and the Indy 500 with a sizeable group that attend both. Of the spectators that come to one or the other, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has the database to try to sell them on other races at the facility.
“We know who they are and can then try to sell them to come out for the Indy 500 or have Indy 500 fans come to the Grand Prix,” Miles said. “But we were thoughtful in establishing different protocols and traditions that keep the two events special and unique.”
From a business standpoint, holding two marque events in a three-week period of time is much cheaper than holding two stand-alone events at different times of the year. Much of the seasonal staff and security are already in place for the Indianapolis 500. Also, most the teams are based in Indianapolis, and it provides an extra “home game” for those operations without having additional travel costs.
“We bring in new fans in addition to established Indy 500 fans,” Miles said. “We have a title sponsor for the race and for qualifying weekend and Carb Day and for the Indianapolis. They are fully subscribed from the sponsor point of view.
“It matters to suite customers who want to bring the people they are entertaining out for three weekends. There is another logo and marque, so it creates another opportunity and value for lower costs to help the bottom line.
“Plus, it brings out just enough out of town visitors that anything we can do to add heads in beds is good for our community.”
In many ways, Miles could be called the “Father of the GMR IndyCar Grand Prix.” He was able to introduce an entirely different race into the Indianapolis 500 month of May schedule without taking away any of the history or the prestige of the Indy 500. It also showcases the skill and the diversity that makes the NTT IndyCar Series drivers and teams perhaps the best racing on the planet.
Ironically, one of the men that Miles was able to win over on the concept of the road course race held in May was Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles. Back in 2014, that was his first year as IMS President.
“Originally, when we first started talking about it, I wasn’t,” Boles told me in an exclusive interview. “We had two options. One was to kick off the month of May on the road course and the other was to end the season, crown the champion, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“The more we got into it with Mark Miles to find the best place for us to have a road race, and you can’t make a great argument for both, we felt like having the road race kick off the month of May so the first weekend we were on track was a points paying race weekend.
“I honestly think it’s a great way to kick off the month of May.
“It gives fans a reason to come out and celebrate something that matters. It’s points paying and drivers are going for it. For us, it’s an opportunity for the Indianapolis market that doesn’t watch IndyCar on TV but come to the 500, you have never seen Indy cars do what they do in other markets and introduce our fans to that. Honestly, I think the race track races well. The drivers seem to enjoy it. It’s got some great passing zones, some high-speed points. The racing is good, and the race track is challenging for the fans and the drivers.
“The biggest thing it means something is because it’s at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
IndyCar and its drivers showcased their road racing skills over the weekend with Herta celebrating on the top step of the podium, Beginning Tuesday, however, practice begins for the 106th Indianapolis 500. Qualification weekend is Saturday May 21 and Sunday May 22.
Carb Day, the final practice before the Indy 500, is May 27.
The 106th Indianapolis 500 is Sunday, May 29.