Repost from Racer Magazine: Glory in the Hy-Vee heartland
Article reprinted from the Racer Magazine
By Marshall Pruett | July 27, 2022 3:43 PM ET
I couldn’t help but smile as I was driving out of Iowa Speedway around 8 p.m. on Friday night. The garages were closed, fans were long gone, and as one of the last to leave I expected to pull away, motor slowly through the exit tunnel beneath Turns 1 and 2 and depart in anonymity. But that wasn’t the case. I may as well have been departing Disneyland.
As the tunnel’s darkness began to turn to light, three figures came into view on the right. Full of energy at the end of a hot day, wearing red Hy-Vee shirts, the three stood proud, waving goodbye like I was a beloved family member embarking on a long journey.
I was taken aback by the gesture and thoughtfulness of the event promoters to ensure that even the stragglers leaving the Hy-Vee IndyCar event were greeted with Midwestern cheer. The weekend had a feel that was new for the series outside of the Long Beach Grand Prix and Indy 500 where major entertainment is part of the magic. But Iowa had something different.
The enthusiasm and charm being spread by the countless Hy-Vee employee-volunteers, the staff from Penske Entertainment, and the rest of the promotions team was unlike anything I’ve experienced at a motor racing circuit. It was like IndyCar decided it was going to give everything it had to the event and leave satisfied in the knowledge that no matter if the Hy-Vee Weekend was a success or failure, there would be no excuses or a lack of effort to offer. And the gamble paid off.
Thanks to the Midwestern grocery store and other key sponsors who invested heavily in the Iowa Speedway takeover, IndyCar has a new blueprint to work from at other venues where energy, excitement, and fans are missing. The resounding success in motion made me want to understand how the event came together and to learn about the special touches that were applied.
Penske Corporation president Bud Denker, who leads many things for Roger Penske, including the running of the Detroit Grand Prix, sat down with RACER for a long chat on Sunday prior to the 300-lap finale to the weekend and opened with a key introduction made by an IndyCar veteran.
“Well, we’ve always loved the race here,” Denker said. “We know that from a performance standpoint, it’s a good place to come to, and secondly, there’s really good fans here. We’ve seen that in the past. And there’s no professional sports in the state or surrounding states, for that matter, except for Kansas, all the way to Minneapolis, probably. The governor has told us she does not want to be a flyover state. She wants to be a fly-into state or drive-into state. And that’s evidenced by the fact that 60 percent of the people who bought tickets here are from out of the state of Iowa. So now they’re coming here. And we didn’t know that until we took over the event.
“We didn’t come here last race last year because we didn’t have the ability to have a partner. You got to have a partner with these things. So I went to [Iowa Speedway owner] NASCAR early on last summer, and said, ‘What’s the possibility of us coming back here again?’ And in looking at dates, the only date they have that conflicts is the ARCA race in June, they don’t have a Truck race, don’t have Xfinity race, and there was very little activity. So we decided that we’d do a rental of the facility, and then do it for multiple years, not just one year.
“And then it happened that through a casual conversation that Graham Rahal had with me in an IndyCar parking lot, he said, ‘I’ve got this amazing sponsor called Hy-Vee and they’d love to talk to you about something in Iowa.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s perfect timing. Because I’m just talking to NASCAR about getting the track. I love to talk to their CEO.’ And it was as simple as me getting a zoom call set up with their CEO, Randy Edeker. He had someone to talk to the governor and get her thoughts on it, because she wanted to have something here as well, too, because the small towns are hurting in this state as they are in most states. So we started a conversation and then I flew into here and met his team.”
The Iowa-based company was immediately receptive to Penske Entertainment’s pitch.
“Donna Tweeten, Randy’s chief administrative officer and head of all marketing, I met her for the first time at their office and met them for dinner that night,” Denker continued. “One thing led to another and we had an agreement that we would put a race on together. I had to get the NBC timing because they wanted the event to be on the network. Very important for them to have this race on network so they can show their state to the country. I got the windows from NBC and couldn’t get night windows, so I had to have day windows, which is what we have here now.
“Once I got the NBC deal done, I had the track deal to get done. That was to understand what our partnership with Hy-Vee would look like, which is a multi-year deal. Little did I know about any of this infrastructure they had to bring. This all came after [IndyCar VP of Promoter and Broadcast Partnerships] Michael Montri and Anne Fishgrund, who we named the general manager of the program here, all came together as they said, ‘OK, need to put our heads together with Randy’s team and make a major deal out of this.’ And they said, give us some names of who can build infrastructure. And they ended up with a company called In Production that does the Phoenix Open [PGA Golf event] and the big stands for the fans and hospitality suites, and that’s the same structure from Phoenix that we have here [in Turns 1 and 4].”
Hy-Vee’s entertainment division spearheaded the next major development in the Iowa IndyCar doubleheader.
“I tell everybody who’ll listen that you’ve got to have events, not races; they’re very different,” Denker said. “And they said to make this an event, we need to have huge entertainment and said they’d come back to me because they have their own companies they work with to do that. And they came back with these original names, and I’m like, ‘Really? These are real options?’ Florida Georgia Line, Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw, Gwen Stefani. This is going to be big, like a country all-star event because you’re getting a $55 ticket and you can sit in grandstand seat and watch a great race and then watch two concerts. I mean, you’ve got to be kidding me, right? You pay $200 to go see Blake Shelton live, so these things just kept going and piling on and piling on and piling on.
“So then we said OK, we need to have somebody on the ground who is based in Iowa. I need somebody go to the city council meetings. I need people go to the Future Farmers of America meetings here. So I hired a local person in Iowa named Kelly Brant, and she lives in Des Moines. So I have feet in the ground. And then Anne [Fishgrund] and her were the two-person show. Then we got the ticketing office at IMS involved and they will take on all the ticketing, as they have in Detroit. Our marketing teams and social media teams in Detroit and at IMS will take on the social media and marketing here. Merrill Cain and Rob Stone are here from our Detroit communications team to run that side.
“And then Courtney Gibbs and her entire sponsor activation team descended on Iowa the week after the Detroit Grand Prix was done, so they are the ones that with Michael Montri put this all together. When we announced ticket sales, we wanted to wait and wait and wait because we wanted these artists to be confirmed to make a big deal, and we did that. Tickets just blew off the stage the first time, and the support Hy-Vee have given us… I had honestly never seen before. What they’re doing here with the infrastructure and their investment is incredible.”
Ever the perfectionists, Denker and the Penske Entertainment team spent the weekend in constant motion on golf carts, surveying the property and finding improvements to make for IndyCar’s return. Provided the circuit owners agree, paving the gravel areas where the beer tents were located and paving the sections beneath the 9000-person Hy-Vee Phoenix Open temporary hospitality towers and paving the areas where RVs were parked are all on the to-do list.
If there was a disappointment during the weekend, it was the lack of packed grandstands for Saturday’s race. Sunday showed significant improvement in that regard, but empty seats weren’t hard to find. Denker had an interesting explanation as to why reports of heavy ticket sales weren’t matched by what was seen in the stands.
“So here’s a couple things with empty seats: all of them are sold out,” he said. “But the issue was that some people come for the concert, and they step out. They come for the race, and they step out. So it was never a case of everyone in the stands at one time. I told Randy to beware of this and not to be disappointed because we all wanted to see a full grandstand, but we’re probably not going to see a full grandstand because of how we built this event with these concerts.
“So we sold it out, but it never looks always packed because of this ebb and flow of the customer. Because remember, we think that over 50 percent of the people who came here have never seen a race before. And that’s exactly what we want: to make new fans of IndyCar racing.
“We’re also one of the only races in America that allows the fan to go back to their car. We stamped the people’s hands as they walk out. Most places don’t allow them to leave. This place has always been a crowd that ebbs and flows, which is why we have the only place that we stamp your hand you can come back in again. So this idea of a full grandstand… I’d love to see it. You’re not put off that people came here for racing or the concerts, and some came for both, but we hope to make the country music fans our own fans after they saw our racing, which I think is exciting.”
Iowa is rarely cold in late July, and with the forecast calling for soaring temperatures over the weekend, more than a few fans asked whether the doubleheader could return to its former slot at as a night race run in cooler conditions.
“Prime-time TV is really hard to get,” Denker said. “So we are where we are. Right now we’ll hopefully have a doubleheader again next year, same weekend as well. You can’t go much deeper into August because then you’re up against Iowa football, and that’s a big deal. I know that you can’t go much earlier just because of our schedule what we have in the month of June. So this is what we have and I hope that we will sell out again.
“The hook to get the new audience here was the entertainment. Now we’ve done that, I think; the sales next year will be easier because we’ve broken that ice for a lot of people. And I hope they tell their friends that you wouldn’t believe this experience that I went to; never been to a race before, hadn’t been a race fan. We heard a lot of that on our shuttles. And a lot of that in the campgrounds – I go in the campgrounds every night before I leave here and just talk to the fans and get their feedback. It’s been a powerful source of information.”
Denker points to the people who put on the event as the special ingredients in the Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend’s success.
“I flew in on Tuesday and Michael Montri was telling me there’s 100 Hy-Vee people that are just doing stuff at the track,” he said. “So I got here and I see all these red shirts in the concourse and I’m like, ‘Who are these people? What are they doing?’ And they had six power washers that they brought themselves and they power-washed every grandstand seat. We didn’t tell them to do that. And then I went up to the suites. And I said, ‘Who are these custodians up here cleaning?’ And they said, ‘Well, they’re all Hy-Vee people. They’re cleaning the windows in the suites, all of them, and they steam-cleaned all the carpets in every suite.’ And we didn’t even tell them to do it.
“I told Randy, ‘The most impressive thing I’ve seen, and I love your infrastructure, but it’s your people that are out here.’ And then Michael and I were putting up some picnic tables and we see this swarm of red shirts coming at us, and I asked them what they do at Hy-Vee and they said they we’re in the accounting department, the human resource department at corporate headquarters, and they loved this event, even though they’d never been out to a racetrack before. That was their culture of volunteerism being shown and I told them they were amazing. So I’ve been telling people if you see someone in a red shirt, thank them because they are raising the bar.”
Penske has indeed found a new approach to holding IndyCar events. Take some of its races where the series is paid an appearance fee – $1 million or more — but performs in front of comparatively small crowds. Would it be smarter for IndyCar, as it continues to try and recapture its former heights of popularity and widen its fan base, to prize the money it gets to appear in front of empty stands, or seek in-state corporate partners to do takeovers of Texas Motor Speedway, Portland, and Laguna Seca?
It’s something Denker and the rest of Penske’s leadership team need to ponder after seeing Iowa’s breakout performance on the calendar.
“I wish I had every promoter here this week, frankly, to see this,” Denker said. “The drivers love it. We love it. Hy-Vee is loves it, and I would say that if found a partner like Hy-Vee at four or five more of these races across the country, we’d be in incredible shape.”
Article reprinted from the Racer Magazine
By Marshall Pruett | July 27, 2022 3:43 PM ET