Fans with benefits: How IndyCar drivers are taking promotion in-house

An interesting new area of growth has been found within the NTT IndyCar Series among drivers who are creating experiential events for their fans. Veterans and newcomers alike are branching out into the creation of track days, wine tours, golf outings, and packages where fans are hosted at races by some of their favorite drivers in the series.

Among today’s IndyCar aces, Graham Rahal rates as one of the earliest adopters of the concept and recalls his first venture in bringing fans closer to the sport during the formative stages of his career.

“I don’t know how much money is in it for guys, but for me, it was never about the money; it was about trying to help the sport,” Rahal tells RACER. “Even if I look back to the original event that was like this when I set up the bus trips to Milwaukee in 2011, it was some crazy idea I spit out on Twitter, which is not uncommon for me, and it was just trying to get fans to the race.


“It was a deal where we rented buses in Indianapolis, we sold a day-trip ticket package, people come up from Indy to Milwaukee early in the morning, they had drinks on the bus on so forth, got to the track, tickets were included for them to attend, we pulled right in, unloaded, they got to watch the race, and went home. While I spearheaded the thing, it was more about growing the sport than a personal thing, and people seemed to like it.”

Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward has taken the concept to a blend of similar and new places. Despite his youth, the enterprising 24-year-old was quick to create event-specific experiential packages for his growing fan base by renting hospitality suites and providing catered race viewing opportunities.

In fact, in 2019 at the age of 19, O’Ward held his first fan event package at the Grand Prix of  Long Beach in only his fourth IndyCar race, and the practice has continued at other stops on the calendar, including his adopted home state at the former IndyCar stop at Texas Motor Speedway, and the ongoing package for May’s Indianapolis 500.

O’Ward’s experience with creating VIP tours was the foundation for a new event he created late last year at Circuit of The Americas, where he rented the track and hosted his first track day event during which ticket buyers got to lap the road course in supercars and interact with the IndyCar star (main image). It’s here where driver-only events, far from the busy nature of a motor race, present endless opportunities.

Rahal has been one of the most proactive drivers on the IndyCar grid in finding ways to interact with fans, sponsors and charity partners away from the track. Motorsport Images

And while it might not register as a big profit generator for high-profile drivers who earn millions of dollars per year from their teams, there are other benefits to consider.

“The reason for the track event was, first of all, I love cars, and I love driving on track and it doesn’t matter if it’s a race car or not,” O’Ward says. “And another one is that it’s a good networking tool. It’s a cool ambience to enjoy time on track with car lovers and just spend time with people without having the pressures of a race weekend.

“That’s really what brought it to life in my mind. I had a lot of interest, and a lot of people came out. It was laid back. It was limited on the amount of entries, but it was basically, ‘bring your supercar and come and have fun with Pato’ kind of thing. We wanted everybody to leave that day and be like, ‘Oh my god, I had so much fun and I can’t wait for the next one.’”

The latest to step into this space is Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, who has an Indy 500 package assembled by a group of event professionals that also includes golfing, the Kiwi’s favorite off-track hobby.

“I’ve always been interested in doing it,” he said. “The SCH Group is a group in New Zealand does a lot of tours with the All Blacks rugby team over there, and they do a big group for America’s Cup, and I’ve always been keen on doing something like a tour for a lot of fans back home that want to come and see me race in America. Trying to do it and have that cool experience is tough, and you spend a lot of money trying to come here and if you don’t quite get the right experience, it’s not the best thing.

“This is a seven-day package. You get to play golf with me, have some cocktails or some dinners with me. And then obviously being in the grandstand and the biggest race of the year, and I guess you could say being in the inner sanctum with me, because I’m going to do my best to give my time to these people and give my time to making this tour worthwhile.”

Rahal, also an avid golfer, is pleased to see his on-track rival join the party.

McLaughlin is launching his own race tour packages to allow fans the chance to get up close and personal. Motorsport Images

“You don’t normally get the opportunity to go play golf with Scotty McLaughlin, the second-best golfer in IndyCar racing behind myself,” he says with a laugh. “But that’s a fun experience, particularly with Scott. He’s a great dude. He’s funny. He’s entertaining. He’s engaging. He’s obviously damn good in an IndyCar, and so he’s a good guy to have an experience with like that.

“He obviously has a big following, and it’s seemingly increasing not only from those in Australia and New Zealand, but here as well, so I think it’s great. What Pato’s been doing is also really important, because if you think about the about of fans he connects with, and all of the Mexican fans who follow our sport because of Pato, it’s a big deal. A really big deal.”

Rahal’s Milwaukee Bus Tour program from back in the day evolved into a different approach where holding multiple fan-themed charity events per year has become the norm. Hosting fundraisers that benefit wounded military veterans and cancer research are core element of his benevolent efforts along with his wife, former NHRA drag racing phenom Courtney Force, which have raised millions of dollars for their chosen causes.

“We do the two main events,” he says. “The golf tournament in May, which is the one that one raises the most money year in year out. And then we do Vino for Vets, which is the most fun because it’s the most blurry. But it’s a small group of 25 couples, very one on one, Courtney and myself and my dad’s been there.

“We always have a veteran of honor; this year was a major Seal Team Six member; he was the team leader of Seal Team Six for 15 years, the Seal among Seals. And so you got to connect with him, hear his stories, learn about what their challenges were, the mental side when these guys get out, and hearing those things has a direct effect on each person that’s there. It energizes us as a group to come together and raise more money. So we’ve been we’ve been fortunate to have really good success with Vino for Vets, and we’ll do that again in October.”

The foray at COTA was enough of a success for O’Ward to work on developing another next track day event, which could become an annual tradition.

“I’d like to do one every year,” he says. “We’re starting to plan the next one. The problem is it’s really hard, with all the fun stuff that I usually have to do after the season, so I’m trying to fit it in, maybe, in early August. Looks like that might be the best place to do it. But it’s cool. We had all ages with us, and that is something I think is important.”

Although fans from Australia and New Zealand will likely take most of the slots on McLaughlin’s Indy 500 event tour, he hopes to welcome some North American fans into the mix and use his first experiential package as a springboard to do more in the future.

“The hardest thing is, you’ve got to get people to our races because the minute someone new comes to our races and they see an IndyCar for the first time, they’re like, ‘Wow, that was amazing. I can’t wait to come back here every year,’” he says.

“And I guarantee you that the minute they come to the Indy 500 and see this, they’ll make it a ritual. That’s ultimately what we want. We want this to get bigger and bigger and bigger. Because it’s not just the Indy 500 we want to do; down the track, if this goes well, we want to do other events on the calendar and it’s not exclusive to just the people Down Under. People from here can be a part of this group as well.”

With Rahal and O’Ward fully established in this arena and McLaughlin taking his first steps in May, it would be natural for more of IndyCar’s favorite drivers to branch out into offering tailored tour packages for domestic and international fans. Some drivers are more popular than others, so that could limit the range of experiential events, but if the effort results in strengthening bonds with existing fans and creating new fans through the process, it will be a worthwhile endeavor.

“To put my name on something like this, I’m really proud of it,” McLaughlin says. “I’m excited to see a heap of people there. I think we’ve sold a lot of people a lot of tickets already, which is unreal. So it’s going to be a pretty packed house. Hopefully it’s good for everyone, and there’s more people coming to the Indy 500, which is awesome.”

Story originally appeared on Racer