Leadership / 05.19.21
The Indy 500 Restarts Its Ticketing Engines
Image courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Last year, the Indianapolis 500 was held without a single fan in attendance for the first time in its history. This year, cheering men, women and children will definitely be fueling the various race car drivers’ dash to the checkered flag. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) plans to host up to 135,000 fans for the Indy 500 on May 30, or 40% of the track’s unofficial capacity. That number of fans, as well as the track’s health and safety plan, have been approved by the Marion County (Indiana) Public Health Department.
As a result, race day at IMS stands to rank as the highest-attended sporting event in the United States, and potentially the largest enclosed gathering of people, since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. No one is more excited than Allie McLaughlin, who manages the ticket operations at the Speedway.
“Our fans have missed this place,” she says. “And, admittedly, we have missed them! 2020 was really challenging for our team as we worked tirelessly toward reseating our guests with an [initial] 25% capacity cap to find out just a few weeks before the race that it would be ran without fans. Not having that high point in 2020 was certainly challenging, so I am most excited to feel that again.”
Kellie Leeman, Senior Director of Ticket Sales and Service at the IMS, shares McLaughlin’s enthusiasm. “The Indianapolis 500 fans are the greatest fans in the world,” she says. “We have all worked tirelessly to overcome the challenges presented by the pandemic and, most importantly, ensure the health and safety of everyone coming to IMS in May.”
And there have been — and continue to be — challenges. For Leeman, it’s been the long wait. For McLaughlin, it’s been the weeks and months of uncertainty and not knowing what is coming next. “We are planners,” she says. “We like planning for events, we like planning Plan Bs for events. Some of us — not me — even like planning Plan Cs. This pandemic ran us through Plan A to Plan Z forwards, backwards and upside down. It’s been hard to come to work each day knowing that the plan you put together yesterday, and the plan you put together today, probably will not work tomorrow.”
Of course, both ticketing professionals concurred that such circumstances taught them valuable lessons, namely that being flexible and adaptable is often more important than being prepared. It also taught them the importance of getting government involved to help smooth the process of reopening. The city and state have worked with IMS President Doug Boles and his executive leadership staff to identify the appropriate health and safety precautions to successfully host a limited but still quite large crowd.
“The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Penske Entertainment staff worked in collaboration with the health experts and city/state officials,” Leeman says. “All key measures IMS is taking at this year’s events to protect fans, participants, workforce and the broader community have been developed in consultation with health experts and city/state officials.”
For those who do attend the May 30 race, mask wearing will be required and enforced throughout the track unless attendees are eating or drinking. Social distancing guidelines will be instituted with fans spaced throughout the track’s grandstands and enforced elsewhere. Furthermore, the infield spectator viewing mounds will be closed, and no general admission tickets will be sold on race day.
With the Indy 500 being such a major event. McLaughlin and Leeman acknowledge that they and their colleagues can’t help but feel the pressure of “getting it right” so that other live events can follow. “Of course there is pressure to get it right,” McLaughlin says. “We are going to host the largest single-day sporting event since the pandemic began, and the outcome of our event could very well alter the live events that come after us. We have many staff members on boards and committees across the state to help share information and planning tools so that other venues know what we have done and can build off of it to continue to better the live event industry during this pandemic and going forward.”
McLaughlin, who started with IMS as an intern in 2016 and today manages a team of six full-time coordinators and 15 to 20 seasonal and event team members, continues, “If I am being honest, though, I feel more pressure to keep my city safe. Indianapolis is my home, and I feel obligated to help make this the safest possible event so that my city can survive this pandemic and flourish because of the business the Indianapolis 500 brings in. We are doing what we can to make sure that our event has a positive impact on both the live events industry and our city.”
Both McLaughlin and Leeman had words of wisdom for other INTIX members reading this who are in the early stages of their own reopening plan. “Be flexible,” McLaughlin says. “Your plan right now might not be your plan tomorrow — or in an hour. Be OK with that.”
Leeman, who spent 17 years at the NCAA working on numerous NCAA Championships before joining IMS in 2016, had advice that was more about personal care. “While everyone is working to reopen,” she says, “please remember to take care of your teammates and yourself.”
In the end, all of the hard work and pressures have been worth it. Leeman can’t wait for fans to see the various improvements that have been made at the venue during the pandemic. McLaughlin, meanwhile, just wants to see the throngs of cheering fans again.
“My favorite part of Indy 500 Race Day,” she says, “is sneaking out to the nearest grandstand about midway through the race — right before I book it home to beat the traffic — and seeing the grandstands full of people. Each cheering on a different car as they pass by, but all having the best time because of the hard work my team put in over the last 365 days. There is nothing better in the event industry than being able to see the fruits of your labor, in real time, as the stands, seats, rows, bleachers or whatever your venue calls them fill up.”
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Tags: Sports , Venues , Leadership , COVID-19 , Coronavirus