PRUETT: IndyCar’s price hike in Iowa is a huge gamble

One die-hard IndyCar fan wanted to share his love of the series with his girlfriend, so they made it a point to attend the inaugural Hy-Vee IndyCar weekend at Iowa Speedway last summer. It would be their first IndyCar event, and besides the cost of admission, the cost of travel would not be negligible since they live 1000 miles from Newton, Iowa.

But with three days of action on the track and four huge bands on the map at the event, co-hosted by Penske Entertainment and Iowa grocery chain Hy-Vee, they felt it was worth the investment of time and money would. Excited about IndyCar’s return to Iowa, the two bought good seats for Saturday and Sunday, which totaled just over $250 for the four tickets. I got to meet them at the event and both were happy and grateful to be there.

They then received their renewal offer for next year’s Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend, scheduled for July 21-23 and featuring another NTT IndyCar Series doublehead and four other major music acts. Here ends a happy story.

What would it cost to keep their seats on July 22nd and 23rd? Not $250. How does a few dollars less than $800 sound? If you want exact numbers, the annual increase is 211 percent — more than triple the price — to sit in the same department, same row, and same chairs. A round-trip trip to Iowa, you might not be surprised, has been scratched from her calendar.

Instead of burning their annual event budget on a single event, they will split the money and compete in a few other IndyCar races in 2023. Paying the Iowa Speedway an additional $550 for the exact same thing would make them feel dirty, they said.

Your Iowa ticket renewal story was one of many I have received since the process began. Aside from the incredible price increase for good seats, the other category of messages I received came from dads and moms who brought their kids to the first Hy-Vee IndyCar weekend. Many of them were priced out of the return.

For the inaugural event, Iowa offered highly affordable $50 “flex” tickets and there was no child fee. This was the cheapest ticket available. One fan I know drove about 500 miles to get to the Saturday-Sunday portion of the event with his young son, and combined ticket spend was a very friendly $100 for the event. Factor in the cost of a hotel room, high gas prices with 1000 miles round trip, and food, and while it wasn’t cheap, the expense was something a middle-class family man could afford.

The same flex tickets — once again the cheapest form of entry on offer — have doubled to $100 a day in 2023. While the 100 percent increase is hard to ignore, it’s not an outrageous sum if you go alone. But children are no longer free. Charging full price for child tickets has infuriated people I’ve heard from. For the fan in question, this means an annual price increase of 300 percent. He would have to pay $400 to return with his son. And they won’t.

The hard part to digest is how the promotions team came to believe that hitting IndyCar fans with 50%, 100%, 200%, or 300% ticket price increases — while most people are involved in far more important areas of their day Inflation to do life – would be tolerable.

Praise Penske Entertainment and Hy-Vee for aiming higher with bigger music performances. I’ve been told that Carrie Underwood and Ed Sheeran in particular are giants who should draw a crowd of their fans. But have the fees charged by these acts, plus Kenny Chesney and the Zac Brown Band, pushed ticket prices to levels unattainable for the average IndyCar fan? Based on the most common comments I’ve received, the answer is yes.

If the higher ticket prices lead to more fans who are primarily interested in the music, is there a risk of IndyCar becoming a sideshow for its own event? Image by Karl Zemlin/Penske Entertainment

I reached out to Penske Corporation President Bud Denker, who is central to creating the Iowa event, for insight into how the skyrocketing prices came about, and here’s what he sent me:

“Thanks to Hy-Vee’s support, the 2023 Hy-Vee IndyCar Race Weekend will feature a world-class concert program that will offer more star power and entertainment value than most of today’s leading music festivals. The unique blend of four of the biggest acts in music today, combined with three exciting races – including the only doubleheader on the IndyCar schedule – will create a once-in-a-lifetime festival of entertainment for fans. With 60-minute pre-race concerts featuring Carrie Underwood on Saturday and the Zac Brown Band on Sunday, and 90-minute post-race performances including Kenny Chesney on Saturday and Ed Sheeran on Sunday, the musical cast alone makes this event very special make .

“The adjusted ticket prices for the Hy-Vee IndyCar Race Weekend compare very favorably to the average ticket cost for one of these incredible bands – let alone all four over the course of two days. Add in the exciting races we’ve seen in the intimate setting of the Iowa Speedway from both the NTT IndyCar Series and Indy NXT by Firestone, this event will offer tremendous value for our fans. Hy-Vee has always said it wants to create a festival-like atmosphere to attract both racing fans and new viewers to help grow our sport, especially in the Midwest. We’ve seen a good response to ticket renewals and look forward to sold-out crowds and another fantastic event in Iowa next summer.”

Value is an interesting concept. In theory, a brand new Lamborghini Huracan for $250,000 is a bargain given all the speed and power and prestige that comes with it, but how many people can actually afford to pay that value? They could also sign Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and have the ghost of Michael Jackson perform in Iowa next year, but none of that matters when the valuable ticket price takes the standard IndyCar fan out of the equation.

On the surface, I don’t dispute anything Denker said. Take the cheapest $100 ticket, split it three ways and that’s an amazing bargain to see a car race and two Monster musical performances a day. But there are only so many $100 tickets available. Aside from the 100 percent price increase for the cheapest ticket, it’s the non-flex tickets where inflation has messed up year-on-year.

And I’m not saying that IndyCar fans are poor or unwilling to spend money on the sport they love, but I do wonder if we’ve reached a tipping point where IndyCar fans can come to the Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend to become a minority.

Last July, at previous ticket prices and with four big acts on the show, we saw grandstands that were by no means full at the races. Will the increase in bands, coupled with a doubling or tripling of prices, somehow fill the booths with people wanting to see IndyCars in action? I hope so, but I’m afraid we have a situation where an IndyCar event with great bands evolves into a music festival where the doubleheader is the side show.

The return to Iowa was welcomed by all, but that seems one hell of a time at a time when IndyCar can’t afford to see its live audience shrink or risk losing one of the few ovals remaining on the calendar dare to be.

If you’re a lover of great country and pop bands and can afford it, Iowa will be amazing. And if you’re a big IndyCar, country and pop lover and you can afford it, Iowa is unforgettable. But from what I’m hearing from too many IndyCar fans, they’ll give Iowa a pass