MPI Blog

From the Editor

MPI Goes Behind The Scenes at the Indy 500 Event


Less than 100 seconds.

That’s all it took for one trip in a Chevrolet Impala going about 120 mph around the 2.5-mile oval track at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the Indianapolis 500.

Sure, many of us have pushed the gas pedal on the local freeway to 75 mph, even 80 mph if you’re breezing through West Texas or maybe on Texas Highway 130, where you can legally drive the fastest U.S. speed limit of 85 mph on one 40-mile stretch.

But 120 mph, well, that’s mighty impressive—until race day for the Indianapolis 500, that is. Takuma Sato of Japan not only won the 2017 Indianapolis 500, but also had the fastest lap around the track at 226.190 mph in his Honda-built racecar. Now that’s fast!

Still, for the 30 participants of MPI’s Experiential Event Series that was part of the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, the memory of that burst around the track will last far longer than the 100 seconds it took.

Participants went behind the scenes for three days of education focused on the track experiences and learning about how Visit Indy, the city’s CVB, utilizes the success and popularity of the race to bolster the meeting and event industry. The group also spent time with the planners, organizers and suppliers who work behind the scenes at the world’s largest single-day sporting event.

There was a front-row seat at the public drivers meeting followed by a sit-down with the team that maps out the Indy 500: Allison Melangton, senior vice president, events for Hulman Motorsports Corp.; Ellen Saul, senior director, premium services for IMS; Mike Bates, senior director of safety and security for Hulman Motorsports Properties; and Craig Cox, senior sales executive, premium services for IMS.

How do you feed 300,000 attendees? “We don’t,” said Melangton, explaining the track policy of allowing fans to bring in their own food. “There’s no way we could feed that many people.”

How do keep the peace, especially with alcohol on site for what is a long day? “We know people will get drunk and people will get stupid,” Bates said. “As long as they are not both drunk and stupid, we can manage through most situations.”

Drivers Ed Carpenter and Pippa Mann—the only woman who drove in this year’s race—spoke to the participants at two pre-race receptions, sharing insights on life behind the wheel, the thrill of racing at speeds exceeding 200 mph, the challenges of raising sponsorship dollars to keep the cars going, the importance of a strong pit crew and what to do if nature calls in the middle of a race. Participants also experienced the 500 Festival Snakepit Ball at the Indiana Roof Ballroom. Race Day Event

Race Day Event

Race day is a spectacle all to itself. The Indianapolis 500 attracts international media coverage, a packed grandstand and an even more packed infield that includes the Turn 3 Snake Pit, the music-, testosterone- and alcohol-infused area that features everything from concerts to pro wrestling matches. About 30,000 populated the Snake Pit on race day. According to the Speedway Police Department, there were only a handful of arrests that day.

The main stage, though, is the straightaway and the famed strip of bricks that mark the finish line. Racecars line the track before the race for fans lucky enough to secure a pit pass, where they can mingle with legendary races such as Mario Andretti and Ari Luyendyk.

The actual running of the race may be the easiest part of the meeting planners’ jobs. The pre-race logistics can be a nightmare. It’s one thing to manage celebrities such as actor Jake Gyllenhaal and Indiana native David Letterman, Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman or even pop singer Bebe Rexha, who sang the national anthem.

But how about the call notifying the planning team that former Indiana governor and current U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen want to attend. Sure, we can make that work. All it takes is six National Guard helicopters to fly Pence and his team in. They pile into the VP’s limousine and take a lap around the track. Pence has been to the Indy 500 about 30 times, and his wife has been to even more.

It really is the greatest spectacle in racing,” Mike Pence told ESPN. “We mention to people that we are from Indiana and we always hear about the Indianapolis 500. It is a global event; to be able to share this moment, to be back home in Indiana, is special.”

“It is such a family affair, a family event,” Karen Pence added. “It is so exciting when it starts; you can’t explain how exciting it is when it starts.”

There’s the traditional singing of “Back Home in Indiana.” Throw in a salute to the military—the race was the day before Memorial Day—and a moving rendition of Taps and we’re just about ready for the race to start.

There are few words that can describe the start of the Indianapolis 500. Watching the cars come into the straightaway with the green flag waving, the speed building, the high-pitched sound that comes from the engines—let’s just say you can’t help but be on your feet as you witness 33 cars embarking on a 500-mile journey, or 200 times around the track.

Put in those earplugs—a single car can produce up to 128 decibels and a full 33-car field generates 140 decibels, the equivalent of being about 50 feet behinda Bowing 737 at takeoff.

Several crashes, thankfully no one hurt, and more than three hours later, Sato made his move on the 196th lap and passed three-time winner Helio Castroneves to take the lead and eventual win. His prize, aside from $2.46 million, was a gulp of milk, a race tradition that started in the 1930s.

“When I got to Indy, I certainly wouldn’t have considered myself a race fan,” said Leonard Hoops, president and CEO of Visit Indy. “I still don’t follow auto sports as closely as I do other sports. But I am a huge fan of the Indy 500. It’s just so special. It’s been run 101 times, it has incredible traditions that you don’t see anywhere else, its competitors are fearless and exceptionally skilled and 300,000 people come out to watch it in person. There is nothing else like the sound of those 33 land rockets putting the pedal to the metal at the green flag, or the roar of a crowd larger than the population of Cincinnati when the winner takes the checkered flag.”

Hoops is acutely aware that what happens on the track does not stay on the track when it comes to marketing Indianapolis as a meeting and event venue.

First and foremost, the Indy 500 provides awareness of the destination, particularly with international audiences,” he said. “Many people outside the U.S. often don’t know anything about Indiana or Indianapolis other than the fact that we host a major auto race, arguably the most famous auto race, every year.”

The race experience manifests itself in other aspects of meetings and events, Hoops said.

It inspires event themes for customers. The majority of first-time conventions, meetings and conferences in the city incorporate something Indy 500-related, such as a checkered flag, racing terminology or something else along those lines, as part of their marketing message and onsite branding. “Some groups include an Indy car in their decor and personalize it with the event or organizational logos, which will often be the most shared image on social media for that event,” he said.

A third way the Indy 500 impacts meetings and events is when customers incorporate the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or the nearby Dallara factory, which makes the Indy car chassis, into the event programming.

“The track is open year-round for special events and a group can do everything from a board of directors dinner in the famous pagoda building to attendee ‘hot laps,’ taking people around the track at 120 miles per hour or so,” Hoops added.

“And, of course, the actual race day experience, not only for the Indy 500 but NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 as well, is a bucket list experience for many people,” he said. “We have a 90-person suite at the IMS and every year we have a waiting list of customers, and potential customers, who want to attend the 500. It can be difficult to convince a prospective customer to carve time out of their busy schedule to check out the city, but invite them to the 500 and their schedules open up.”

The race does define the city in many ways, but it compliments what has become a success story for Indianapolis, which will host MPI’s World Education Congress in 2018.

We absolutely use the 500 and our racing heritage as a differentiator for Indy,” Hoops said. “But we know that many people could care less about racing, just as some people might not like country music but they still understand how that might differentiate another city. So, the core marketing question we ask ourselves is how do we use the 500 to tell the restof the Indy story? To tell the story of being USA Today'sNo. 1 convention city, one of Travel + Leisure's best places to visit in 2017, one of Zagat’s hottest food cities of 2016.

“While you can very easily associate Indy with the Indianapolis 500, you can also associate Indy with an amazing canal walk and cultural trail, a 250-acre urban park with world-class museums, a top 10 zoo, the world’s largest children’s museum, the Travel Channel’s spiciest dish—which happens to be the St. Elmo shrimp cocktail—an acclaimed art museum with the original LOVE sculpture, farm-to-table dining, the top-rated convention city and airport in the country and so much more.”

All that doesn’t make his job any easier. Indianapolis is often seen as a hidden gem, but like the Indy 500, it’s a test of endurance.

“The real trick is to leverage the awareness and interest generated by the 500 to tell the rest of the Indy story,” Hoops said. “You certainly don’t want to pigeonhole yourself as only a racing destination. You want to convey you are a great destination that happens to be known for a great race.

“I often tell people that the winner of the Indy 500 has to make 800 left turns and cross the finish line before anyone else. But in Indy, the city, there's a surprise around every one of those turns, and it’s our job to tell that story.”

About the Author

Rich Luna

Rich Luna is director of publishing for MPI and editor in chief of The Meeting Professional.