Q&A: Doug Boles, IMS President

As the month of May rolls on, Boles breaks down the future of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—the Snake Pit, glamping, the Rolling Stones, and, of course, the 100th running of the Indy 500.

In the run-up to today’s Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indy, Doug Boles, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, sat down with IM to talk about the relationship between IMS and the Verizon IndyCar Series, the racetrack’s expanding presence as a concert venue, and ongoing preparations for next year’s momentous 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Prior to becoming president in 2013, Boles, a lifelong IndyCar fan, served as IMS head of communications and was a co-owner of now-defunct Panther Racing.

How is the strength of the speedway related to the strength of the IndyCar series?

Th Indianapolis 500 in particular is different than any other motorsports event in the world. It’s the single largest sporting event we’ve got; in my mind, it’s clearly the best motorsports event in the world. There’s a difference there: It’s the Super Bowl of the series.

The series, I think, has a lot of great momentum, and from the speedway’s standpoint, we’re trying to do everything we can to support the series outside of this market to continue to help it grow. If it grows outside of the market, I think ultimately that helps bring more people from outside of Indy to come for the ‘Super Bowl,’ or the Indianapolis 500.

The Rolling Stones concert: Is a precedent being set?

I think that’s one of the unique things we have: We’ve got a big venue. You can sit in the grandstands, configure a stage that way. You can do it in a festival style like the Rolling Stones event is going to be, or you can do it as a hybrid, because we’re so big. I think that’s one of our advantages.

The other thing that’s an advantage for us is just the infrastructure we have. The concession stands, the restrooms, the parking. Its 1,000 acres we have here; about 275 are in the venue. Everything is right there, with easy access to interstates, so there’s a lot of reasons why concerts work here.

And the concerts in May—are those about making the month profitable? Are we going to see even more diversification in the acts going forward?

I guess you go back several years ago, when our race weekend started on Thursday. Carb Day was Thursday, and then nothing happened Friday, nothing happened Saturday, and you had the race Sunday. We moved Carb Day to Friday to begin to compact that weekend.

There was music as a component of Carb Day, and then [Hulman & Co. CEO] Mark Miles, when he came here, said, “Well, let’s make Saturday more than just the garages being open,” and we added a concert last year. Mix those three days, connect better, more activity at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—that’s really the purpose. Trying to make it one big weekend, not just for the people that are here that drive in, but we’re trying to have it make more sense for people to fly in, spend time in hotels, and spend a whole weekend here instead of just coming on race day.

The other piece, the Snake Pit, is a component of our music that’s grown the last four or five years. That’s targeted at folks under 30 years old, and we’re getting 20- to 25,000 people who come for that event that really aren’t race fans, but they’re music fans and becoming venue fans. Now the challenge for us is how we get them to become race fans as well. But music is a really big component to making this feel like a big event. More than just on track, it makes it feel like the event that it is.

What’s the success rate so far, of having Snake Pit actually fans become race fans?

I think the success rate is, it’s 25,000 people that come into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Indy 500 day. The vast majority of that 25,000 probably wouldn’t come but for the music. We’ve gotten them to the venue; the challenge is, how do we get them to come to the venue for racing in the future? And that’s going to take some time.

The old Snake Pit, the original Snake Pit in the ’60s and ’70s, was just a party, just this organic party. People didn’t come for the race; they came for the party, and eventually they grew up, decided this is what they did on Memorial Day weekend, and made it their regular stop on Memorial Day weekend. Even without the music.

There are a lot of young drivers coming up through the series now, so if we can figure out how to connect those young drivers to the group that’s there in the Snake Pit, I think that will help accelerate that connection.

“What we’ve had to do is look through the lens of, is something really a tradition?” says Boles. “Is it really core, central to our DNA?”

Is glamping a fad, or is it something sustainable for racetracks?

A lot of racetracks have offered camping already. What made it unique for us is we didn’t allow camping. There’s no camping in the infield ever on race weekend. The only people that stayed overnight were the owners of teams and the drivers in the driver/owner lot. What made it really unique for us is this opportunity to offer something you can’t get otherwise, except through glamping. I think for us it’s probably here to stay, but it’s really limited—roughly 75 tents—so there’s not a lot of space there. It does keep it exclusive, and it’s not something we could grow. But it works well here, just because we’ve never had camping in the infield before.

Will the month of May be profitable going forward, with these two race weekends and a compacted schedule for the 500?

The month of May has always been profitable. It’s been profitable since Tony Hulman purchased the speedway. That’s not changed. What we’re trying to do—obviously it’s a business and we want it to be profitable—what we really want is to engage the people more. We want people to feel like we’re more accessible, there are more activities, and there are more reasons to come here.

Making sure that the company survives is part of it. More than that, it’s really just trying to connect to those fans emotionally and really owning the month of May. We want the month of May once again to be about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month long, not just on race weekend.

What is the timeline going to be to build momentum for the 100th Indianapolis 500?

The first thing that Mark Miles did was hire Allison Melangton,  who ran the Super Bowl committee here in 2012, and was with Indiana Sports Corp. for 20 years. A great community person. She’s a great organizer. She knows how to put on events on a large stage. Having Allison here to help organize and make the Indianapolis 500 100th running a big deal is the first statement made. You couldn’t get anybody any better to help us organize that.

We’ll have all kinds of special events. We’re going to have our ‘Project 100,’ so there’ll be new seats, a lot of new things here inside the venue as well that will debut for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. It will feel like a special event.

What will be the balance, in terms of pulling out all the stops versus preserving tradition?

The hardest part for us is to do that. The balance of the tradition, but at the same time position the facility and the race, the Indianapolis 500, to continue to grow and be here another 100 years from now.

So what we’ve had to do is look through the lens of, is something really a tradition? Is it really core, central to our DNA? Or is it something that has just happened over time, and if you changed it, it doesn’t really change the importance of the race? Traditions: a glass of milk, 500 miles, the yard of bricks, 33 cars. Those things are central to our DNA.

There are a lot of other things that have happened over time that aren’t necessarily traditions that we feel like need to change. One of them is the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. It used to be just about the oval in May. Now we’re making it about IndyCar racing for the month of May.