Does May Need the Grand Prix Weekend?

Now that Roger Penske is the new owner of IMS and the NTT IndyCar Series, I wonder if it’s time to re-visit a question that some fans have had for the past five years or so. It’s also a question I’ve pondered to myself, without coming up with a good answer one way or the other.

The question? Is the IndyCar Grand Prix necessary for the Month of May?

It wasn’t that long ago (2009) that there were two qualifying weekends. In 2010, they scaled things back to only one weekend of qualifying. But they held Opening Day of practice on the Saturday before qualifying. That gave them three weekends of track activity and a full seven days of practice before Pole Day, the following Saturday. They operated under that format from 2010 through 2013.

In 2014, the Inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis took place on that weekend that had served as Opening Day of Practice for the previous four years. Although the race was run on Saturday, they followed the same three-day format as all other non-oval races – meaning they practiced on Thursday, qualified on Friday and raced on Saturday. Although the following day was Mother’s Day, they converted the track back to the oval overnight and had things ready for Opening Day of “500” practice the next day.

That was also the first year of the backwards qualifying format that saw Bump Day on Saturday and Pole Day on Sunday. Another break from tradition saw them hold a post-qualifying practice on Monday following qualifying.

The following year, they lopped off the Thursday practice and made the Grand Prix a two-day weekend. The track also took off that Sunday for Mother’s Day and began “500” practice on Monday. As someone driving in from out-of-town for the Grand Prix, I was not in favor of that. I felt like sticking around for Sunday’s Opening Day for the oval gave added incentive for fans to come on for the Grand Prix weekend. This was presented as a time to give the crews off for Mother’s Day. It’s ironic that for decades they never took off the Sunday after Pole Day for Mother’s Day, but now that was suddenly a big priority.

With Opening Day on Monday, it immediately became a non-event. Since it was such a non-event, they lopped it off and held Opening Day on Tuesday beginning in 2018 and continued that practice this past May. So in the span of a decade, The Month of May went from two qualifying weekends and an Opening Day of Practice on a Saturday that gave teams and drivers seven full days of practice before the first day of qualifying; to a race on the road course, with Opening Day on a Tuesday and only four days of practice before qualifying.

If I’m being perfectly honest; the only reason I go to the Grand Prix weekend each year, is because of where it’s held. It gives me a reason to spend another weekend at IMS in May. But with such a late start, by the time the race is done and I do a write-up on it – it’s too late to hop in the car to drive back to Nashville. So we spend the money for another hotel room just to wake up and go to Long’s Donuts and then to the gift shop at the track before heading home. That leisurely pace did allow us the time to stop off at the Edinburgh Diner and try one of their massive tenderloins this past May – but in all honesty, I wasn’t that impressed with it. But I digress…

Doug Boles has landed a corporate sponsor for next year’s Grand Prix – Global Medical Response (GMR), who is the parent company of American Medical Response (AMR), their ground ambulance company that now sponsors IndyCar’s AMR Safety Team. Next year’s road race at IMS will be known as the GMR Grand Prix.

Up until last year’s exciting race in the rain, the Grand Prix weekend has not provided many memorable moments. Last years race notwithstanding, it tends to be a parade and pretty boring.

Does it really provide an adequate lead-in to the Indianapolis 500?

I have been to every Grand Prix at IMS since the event kicked off in 2014. I hate to say it, but I have found most of them to be very underwhelming. It’s nice to have full run of the facility with no crowds there, but I’ve never been a huge fan of the event. From what I understand, even after six runnings most of the locals are still unaware that another race takes place at the historic track in May. It has nothing to do with the much bigger race run two weeks later and it seems rather unnecessary.

Not that I will be listened to, but I propose something different.

The Month of May is synonymous with the Indianapolis 500, an event that is certainly worthy and capable of standing on its own. I say bring back Opening Day to the Saturday before qualifying, giving teams a full week of practice to prepare for the Indianapolis 500. But instead of making it so anticlimactic as it is now – bring it back with enough hype and hoopla that people will want to come out to the track.

On Trackside the other night, Kevin Lee was saying much the same thing. He proposed instead of the usual has-been Carb Day bands from the seventies; get an A-list concert on the grounds featuring some of the biggest names in music. I’m too old to tell you who that might be, but someone on the level of a Taylor Swift comes to mind. She’s not exactly my cup of tea, but I know she’s a big name. Lady Gaga rode in the two-seater before the race a couple of years ago. Maybe get someone on her level.

I’ll never go to a concert when race cars are on the track, but if that’s what it takes to get bodies inside the track for Opening Day – do it. Do something to give Opening Day a big-time feel like it used to have when the track opened on a weekend.

In 1994, Saturday’s Opening Day was rained out, but I took my then-five year-old son to Opening Day on Sunday. The infield was a quagmire, but it was packed with fans coming to see cars take to the track for the first time. The whole day had an air of excitement about it, even though it was just to see cars practice for several hours with no other attractions on the grounds.

I realize another generation has come and gone since then, but have tastes changed that much? If there is a ton of different things to do, IMS might become the thing place to be all through the month and not just on Memorial Day weekend.

But what about the Grand Prix, you might ask? I say to not do away with it, but move it. Move it to the final race of the season and have your championship decided there. I would prefer to end the season on an oval, but until more ovals express a desire – I think crowning the champion at IMS makes a lot of sense. Sure, continue the west coast September swing. Go to Portland over Labor Day and whichever Bay Area track suits the series best. New management at Laguna Seca may become problematic for IndyCar in the future, but that’s another topic for another day. But after the two late season races on the west coast – take one weekend off and come back to IMS to decide the championship.

The vast majority of IndyCar fans are in the Midwest. That would make it easier for them to travel to the season-finale. I don’t like the season-finale starting so late in the day on Sunday afternoon, which is necessary with it being run in the Pacific time zone. That could also make it easier for NBC to run it without bleeding into Football Night in America. Yes, you are going up against the Colts locally – but you are doing that anyway in September.

Splitting these two races at IMS would allow each of them to get the full attention they deserve. It would still preserve three full weekends at IMS and would have track activity on both days of Opening Weekend, albeit at the expense of those celebrating Mother’s Day. I would like your thoughts. What say you? Am I off the reservation, or am I on to something?

George Phillips

11 Responses to “Does May Need the Grand Prix Weekend?”

  1. I like the GP weekend after not liking it at first. I do hate that we can’t get a practice in the next day though, build on the momentum! I know they need time to turn the track around and make it ready for the oval but I wish they could do that overnight and be ready for a Sunday opening practice session.

    I also like that the GP seems to bring in at least a few additional entries or drivers running the 500 do a 1 off parts check for Indy in the GP. Mostly the extra Andretti car or Helio. (I don’t even know that this is true but it feels like it is the 1 GP race that we get extra cars at, because the teams are already on the property at that point).

  2. Very good out of the box thinking. It also spreads out the costs of attending all three week ends for spectators . The weather should not a factor as its on a road course. It can not be anymore of a loser than the NASCAR race. The “month of May” magic is long dead. The star of the month is the 500 , The GP is a warm up act that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Run the GP in the fall with IMSA for a great weekend.

  3. I attended a live interview of Doug Boles in Speedway as part of Don Kay’s Autosport Radio Show recently (available on YouTube) where he explained just how much a current band costs just for their fee, and he used Guns and Roses as his example. The IMS tried very hard to get them (Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin are from Lafayette, IN) and it was going to cost $4.5 MILLION DOLLARS for their fee. That’s what they get per show! And they aren’t even on the “current” level George is proposing, plus that fee is before they pay anyone else to staff the mammoth facility. Robin Miller points out every chance he gets that the IMS didn’t have 5,000 paying customers for “Opening Day” for years and that the GP brings just a few more paying customers than that, which makes for a better opening weekend. I’m personally not happy they lopped off the Monday following because it’s another day they’ve cut from my Bronze Badge purchase, the other being the original opening day on the Thursday before the GP. And I like the idea of moving the GP to the Fall, but I really don’t see it happening. So good ideas, George, but they aren’t as easy to pull off as they sound.

    Phil Kaiser
    Thru Kaiser’s Visor

  4. Came back here to add something, I like the Indy season final race idea, but it would be hard to work around the Colts schedule. What would have been better is if the Brickyard 400 was still in September, or maybe another option would be to make this the NASCAR doubleheader. Run Cup and Indycar (Xfinity too) in a big weekend on the road course sometime in late August?!?

  5. billytheskink Says:

    I think the IndyGP exists as much as a television event as it does a live event. Since its inception, it has kicked off three consecutive weekends of network ABC/NBC broadcasts from the speedway… the first two of which serve, on some level, as advertising for the 500 broadcast.

    I don’t mind the idea of moving it and providing a more traditional month of May, though I expect the suits do not agree with me. If the season finale is worth some additional sanctioning fee money (Laguna Seca reportedly pays well) then the series probably shouldn’t bring that race to the Speedway.

    I like Andrew’s thought on it being the NASCAR double-header, especially since I think there may be the possibility of some driver cross-over if such an event took place on the IMS road course.

  6. Chris Lukens Says:

    I voted for “Other,” as in dump the Indy GP entirely.

  7. well, the Kentucky band “Knocked Loose” is hot right now,
    and costs $300,000 to hire, but it might not be the “target
    demographic” for the traditional Indy crowd.
    of course, the Super Bowl bands
    perform for Union Scale.

  8. Talón de Brea Says:

    The early May “Grand Prix” has seemed to be a reasonable schedule filler that requires the work — but not the extra travel — for the teams, who already have to be there, anyway.

    I think the race is basically OK when and where it is now, but I do think it would have a chance to help the series and its perception with the (meager) public following the series if it were made the season-ending race. Many want to see the season end on an oval, but if that can’t be arranged, make the GP the season ender.

    However — move the date of the GP only if it can assume the importance of being the last race of the season. Otherwise, there’s the risk that it will be an even more obscure event than it is now. If the series insists on double points for the final race and the season ends at Indy, at least the double points would be awarded at the Speedway, which might seem less arbitrary and be more justifiable than it would at a track a couple of time zones away.

  9. I think the question of when to have Opening Day essentially comes down to a mathematical equation: does the revenue generated by having the track open outweigh the costs incurred with having the track open? By this, I don’t just mean the costs that the track incurs, but also the teams. As far as the track goes, any day it is open for practice, you have to staff it: yellow shirts, concession stand workers, ticket takers, janitorial/sanitation, track officials (everybody in the pagoda and all of the guys/girls in the yellow firesuits in every pit box), safety crews, camera operators/TV hosts/production crew (even if not televised, every practice session is now streamed on IndyCar Gold, so they all have to be there), the costs to power all of the TV equipment and on and on. Let’s say that this conservatively costs IndyCar/NBC $200,000 per day (and I am sure the actual cost might be double that, because we’re talking about a LOT of people here, easily into the 4-digit range, and many of whom would make $200+/day). Then, additionally, let’s conservatively say that it costs the teams $10,000 per day to run a car around the oval (and again, prorated off of the idea that it’s supposedly between $500k and $1 million to run just the 500, it’s likely double or triple this cost). Multiply times 30 cars (roughly, because a few teams don’t run every day, especially the Indy-only teams), and you’re looking at another $300,000 in costs to the teams (this is money that they have to source from somewhere, essentially the sponsors). Just looking at it this way, a day of practice (any day, even that middle Wednesday or Thursday) costs $500,000 to put on. Ergo, adding back the practice days of Sunday and Monday after the GP racks up in excess of $1 million of costs that has to be footed by somebody (again, this is all conservative estimates, and leaves out many, many cost streams). How can the track/teams get that value back? Can IMS sell $1 million worth of tickets for the cars just going around for a couple days? If each fan that attends buys their ticket at $10, and then also a $10 tenderloin, a $5 track fries and $8 worth of their favorite beverage (if they’re buying these things at all and not just carrying them in) each of the two days, then you need 30,304 total fans (because 30,303 would leave you a few bucks short) to attend over the two days (and again, anybody carrying in their own food cuts into this per-fan revenue, and increases the number necessary to attend to break even). Can cars going around in a circle just practicing pull in 15,000 fans per day in 2020? Can you get even half of that on any Monday? And if you are going to spend 7-figures for a headlining band for Opening Day, can you justify it through the incremental ticket sales (coming two weeks before the 500, which is when most folks are going to concentrate on spending their annual IMS-centric budget)?

    If the numbers work out, great. IMS should do it. But if they don’t balance out, then just remember that somebody has to foot the bill. Which is going to either be IMS or us (and if it’s IMS, it essentially winds up being us, anyway).

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