Q&A with IMS Marketing Guru Michael Kaltenmark – Indianapolis Monthly
FOR ALMOST 20 YEARS, first a student and then an employee, Michael Kaltenmark felt at home at Butler University. Working for his alma mater, Kaltenmark held many titles, including director of donations, director of external relations, and owner of Butler Blue, the school’s beloved English bulldog. By parading the pooch at community and sporting events, including Butler’s back-to-back Final Four appearances, Kaltenmark reinforced the university’s brand and cultivated an enthusiastic following for its four-legged ambassador through thoughtful use. social media. Prior to joining Butler, Kaltenmark’s professional activities included another area of passion: motorsport. As public relations coordinator for Vision Racing, a race team owned by former IMS president Tony George, Kaltenmark worked closely with fellow Butler graduate and current IndyCar driver Ed Carpenter.
With a forte for promoting brands on the big stages, Michael Kaltenmark now finds himself at home marketing the city’s premier sporting event, the Indianapolis 500. Before hosting what is expected to be one of the biggest crowds from the Speedway, Kaltenmark sat down with us to chat about this year’s race.
Describe your roles and responsibilities as Senior Director of Marketing for Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
I am responsible for a team that develops and executes all marketing efforts. This includes developing a brand suitable for the racing capital of the world, not just Indy 500, Indy GP or Brickyard weekends, but for any event we host. We’re responsible for creating world-class events, and once people walk through the ticket doors, we’re also responsible for making sure they have great experiences.
Let’s discuss these beautiful experiences. Year after year, more than 400,000 people descend on this place, all united by a shared love for the event, the track, the sport. How do you tap into this shared love to create a positive experience?
The Indianapolis 500 is called “Racing’s Greatest Spectacle” for a reason. This doesn’t just include the cars on the track, it’s all that is palpable on race day. My challenge is to capture the essence of that, to foster the spirit of all the epic experiences our viewers have for this place by allowing them to continue to make the show their own. The amount of brand equity we have would make very strong brands blush. I feel like we’re with people like Mickey Mouse.
The other challenge is that the race is a global event. It’s not just filled with people from our hometown. For many, the Indianapolis 500 is either a rite of passage or a must-see destination. These are the kind of people who may not attend year after year, but have an interest in coming back, so we have to appeal to that as well. It is paramount that we maintain ways to make the fan experience different from any other sporting event on the planet.
Regarding your point about global participants, it seems there has been an increase in the number of people of color participating in the race. Is there an intentional outreach initiative in place to appeal to diverse audiences?
Just outside the track gates are Haughville, Speedway, and the West Side of Indianapolis, incredibly diverse communities you don’t see inside the gates. It is a problem. When we get to the bottom of the problem, it’s because people from these communities have never felt welcome here. For 100 years we have attracted a certain audience, we have a diverse composition of drivers and teams from all over the world, but we do not see this diversity reflected in the stands.
Before I arrived, track management recognized the disparity and knew changes needed to be made. What do these DEI efforts look like? We launched the Race for Diversity initiative, which invests in education, manages inclusive outreach and attracts diverse talent, whether they are part of our staff, car drivers or engineers in garages. We bring in various groups from across the community, like Indy Pride sponsoring one of the cars, or showing the track to 5,000 school children in the immediate community to explain to them that these experiences are theirs, that they can have a future in races.
It will be the first race since May 2019 with full attendance. What has the pandemic taught IMS staff?
More than anything, it gave people some perspective on the value of this sport and this place, that nothing is guaranteed. We’ve held this race 105 times, and for many, all we’ve ever known is that the last Sunday in May means the Indianapolis 500. Like many constants in life, the pandemic has given us pause and a healthy dose of reality for everyone.
But this break also allowed us a much longer track to bring improvements up to standard. When it comes to our staff, the pandemic has sparked a passion to welcome everyone home, to make this the best Indy 500 we can remember being a part of. And a lot of that excitement has to do with Roger Penske trying to show him exactly what it can be, given that the first run under his ownership was an empty facility.
You mentioned the phrase, but the Back at home seems like an obvious story for people who yearn for connection and tradition. How was this campaign born?
It’s the perfect campaign at the perfect time. We all know the song and its special connection to this place, but it has a special meaning this year. Our challenge was to figure out how to build on that sentiment in a way that resonates with people and elicits emotions, without being too cheesy.
When creating the video, we pulled footage from our archive of people actually singing the song. We had a video of people visiting the Speedway to get their COVID shots. We came across one of the original recordings of “(Back Home Again In) Indiana” sung by James Melton during the 1947 race. This recording is old, it creaks, it has some patina, so it sounds beautifully, but the first bars were not recorded. Our challenge was how to bring it all together. How to mix racing history with current events. Having the Helio buy-in and then David Letterman for the voiceover was just a pinch moment.
What are some of the challenges you face under Roger Penske?
He invested in this place, put his name to it, so it has to be the best of the best. He is demanding and he is very invested in all facets of the sport he owns. He’s 85, runs around all of us, and is in the weeds on everything. That’s not to say he doesn’t trust those around him, not at all, it’s just that he’s extremely detailed. For Roger, these details make the difference between winning and losing.
What is motivating in these pursuits? Will this be the premier motorsport event in North America or perhaps an effort to take on Formula 1 in global popularity?
No, I don’t think it’s to face F1. Roger has an extreme reverence for this place. So for him, it’s really a passion project. It’s not uncommon to be in a meeting room as he goes over every detail where he’ll stop to say, “Did I tell you how much I love being here? How much do I love this job?’ Roger Penske doesn’t just throw words like that, he means what he says. What he does is not only make Indianapolis Motor Speedway and everything we do a world-class destination, he leaves his legacy. Just as the Hulman George family ran this place for 75 years, I believe he wants the Penske family to do the same.
the snake pit is a fun party for younger audiences, but does it convert fans?
It does. We bring 15,000-20,000 18-25 year olds to an EDM concert during the Indianapolis 500. They may not even see a race car turn a lap, but they can say they saw the race, which means something to them, and to us. Once they experience this rite of passage inside the party and begin to age until the Snake Pit no longer suits them, they start looking for other experiences in the same place. This is where we see the fabric of generational experiences developing. As it happens, I believe the Snake Pit has served its purpose. I have a reason to believe every other race promoter in the country is jealous of this thing and would kill to have something like this.
Who is easier to argue with, Butler Blue or IMS President Doug Boles?
Without a doubt, it’s Blue. In a way, Doug is the Speedway’s mascot. I hope that won’t offend him, but it’s an interesting juxtaposition given my professional background. Doug is a dynamo. Scientists couldn’t tailor-make a better chair for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was made for this job. We have known each other for a long time, as we both graduated from Butler and ran in the same circles after working in racing for years. I don’t know if that’s a good analogy or not, but I liken it to when Santa Claus appears in the mall and all the little kids line up to talk with Santa Claus. When Doug is walking around the IMS grounds, all the adults line up to talk to Doug. They want to share with him their family stories of frequenting this place. Luckily, he’s a keeper of history and can train with the best of them when discussing specific races. To witness this, to see this, is incredible. Working with Doug was an education in itself.
What’s your favorite Indy 500 moment?
It didn’t happen, because my friend Ed Carpenter hasn’t won yet. Every time he’s started on pole has been great, but just like my time at Butler in the two national championship losses, I haven’t tasted the milk yet.