FOR NEARLY 20 YEARS, beginning as a student then as an employee, Michael Kaltenmark felt at home at Butler University. Working for his alma mater, Kaltenmark held numerous titles, including director of giving, director of external relations, and owner of Butler Blue, the school’s beloved English bulldog. By parading the pooch around to community and athletic events — most notably during Butler’s consecutive Final Four appearances — Kaltenmark enhanced the university’s brand and cultivated an enthusiastic following for his four-legged ambassador through savvy use of social media. Prior to tenure at Butler, Kaltenmark’s professional pursuits included another field of passion: motorsports. As public relations coordinator for Vision Racing, a racing team owned by former IMS chairman Tony George, Kaltenmark worked closely with fellow Butler grad and current IndyCar driver Ed Carpenter.
With a forte for promoting brands on big stages, Michael Kaltenmark now finds himself right at home by marketing the city’s premier sporting event, the Indianapolis 500. Before welcoming what is expected to be one of the Speedway’s largest crowds, Kaltenmark sat down with us to discuss this year’s race.
Describe your roles and responsibilities as senior director of marketing for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
I am responsible for a team that develops and executes all marketing efforts. That includes developing a brand fit for the Racing Capital of the World — not just the Indy 500, Indy GP, or Brickyard weekends, but for any event we host. We are responsible for building world-class events, and once we have people pass through the ticket gates, we are also responsible for making sure they have really great experiences.
Let’s discuss those great experiences. Year after year, there are upward of 400,000 people that descend on this place, all united by a shared love for the event, the track, the sport. How do you tap into that shared love to create a positive experience?
The Indianapolis 500 is called “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for a reason. That doesn’t just include the cars on the track, it’s everything else that’s palpable on race day. My challenge is to capture the essence of that, to foster the spirit of all of the epic experiences our audiences hold for this place by allowing them to continue their ownership of the spectacle. The amount of brand equity we have would make very strong brands blush. I feel like we are up with the likes of Mickey Mouse.
The other challenge is that the race is a global event. It’s not just filled with people who come from our backyard. For many, the Indianapolis 500 is a rite of passage or a bucket-list destination. Those are the type of folks who may not attend year after year, but have an interest in returning, so we must appeal to that as well. It is paramount that we maintain ways to make the fan experience unlike any other sporting event on the planet.
To your point about global attendees, it feels like there has been an increase in people of color attending the race. Is there an intentional outreach initiative in place to attract diverse audiences?
Right outside the gates to the track are Haughville, Speedway, and the west side of Indianapolis, incredibly diverse communities, but the likes of which you don’t see inside the gates. That’s a problem. When you get to the root of the issue, it’s because folks in those communities never felt like they were welcome here. We have a 100-year history of attracting a certain audience, we have a diverse makeup of drivers and teams from around the world, but we don’t see that diversity reflected in the stands.
Before I arrived, track leadership recognized the disparity and knew changes needed to be made. What do those DEI efforts look like? We launched the Race for Diversity initiative, which invests in education, stewards inclusive outreach, and attracts diverse talent, whether that’s on our staff, or drivers in cars, or engineers in the garages. We bring in diverse groups from around the community, like Indy Pride who is sponsoring one of the cars, or showcasing the track to 5,000 school children from the immediate community to explain to them that these experiences are theirs, that they can have a future in racing.
This will be the first race since May 2019 with attendance at full capacity. What has the pandemic taught the staff at IMS?
More than anything, it gave people a bit of perspective about how precious this sport and this place are, that nothing is guaranteed. We’ve hosted this race 105 times, and for many, all we have ever known is that the last Sunday in May means the Indianapolis 500. Like many constants in life, the pandemic gave us pause and a healthy dose of reality for everybody.
But that pause also allowed us a much longer runway to get the improvements up to standards. In terms of our staff, the pandemic ignited a passion to welcome everyone back home, to make this the best Indy 500 anyone can remember being a part of. And much of that excitement is tied to Roger Penske, trying to show him exactly what it can be, given that the first race under his ownership was an empty facility.
You mentioned the phrase, but the Back Home Again campaign seems like an obvious story for people who are longing for connection and tradition. How did that campaign come about?
It’s the perfect campaign at the perfect time. We all know the song and its special relationship with this place, but it has special significance this year. Our challenge was to determine how to lean into that sentiment in a way that resonates with people and stirs up emotions, without it being too corny.
When creating the video, we pulled imagery out of our archives of people actually singing along to the song. We had video of people visiting the Speedway to receive their COVID vaccines. We stumbled upon one of the original recordings of “(Back Home Again In) Indiana” sung by James Melton at the 1947 race. That recording is old, it’s crackly, it has some patina to it, so it sounds magnificent, but the first few bars weren’t recorded. Our challenge was how to bring it all together. How to mix the history of the race with the current times. Having Helio’s buy-in and then David Letterman providing the voiceover was just a pinch-yourself moment.
What are some of the challenges that you face under Roger Penske’s leadership?
He’s invested in this place, put his name on it, so it needs to be the best of the best. He’s demanding, and he’s very invested in every facet of the sport he owns. He’s 85 years old, runs circles around all of us, and is in the weeds on everything. That’s not to say that he doesn’t trust those around him, not in the slightest, it’s just that he’s extremely detailed. For Roger, those details are the difference between winning and losing.
What’s motivating in those pursuits? Is it to be the premier motorsports event in North America or perhaps an effort to take on Formula One in global popularity?
No, I don’t think it’s to take on F1. Roger possesses an extreme reverence for this place. So for him, this is truly a passion project. It’s not uncommon to be in a boardroom while he’s reviewing every detail where he’ll stop to say, ‘Have I told you how much I enjoy being here? How much I love this job? ‘ Roger Penske doesn’t just casually throw words out like that, he means what he says. What he’s doing is not just making the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and everything we do a world-class destination, he’s leaving his legacy. Just like the Hulman George family stewarded 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’re bringing in 15,000 to 20,000 18- to-25-year-olds to attend an EDM concert during the Indianapolis 500. They may not even see a racecar turn a lap, but they can say they attended the race, which means something to them, and to us. Once they experience that rite of passage inside the party, and they begin to grow in age to where the Snake Pit no longer feels right to them, they start to look for other experiences at the same place. That’s where we see the makings of generational experiences being fostered. As that happens, I believe the Snake Pit has served its purpose. I have a reason to believe that every other race promoter in the country is jealous of that thing and would kill to have something like it.
Who’s easier to wrangle, Butler Blue or IMS President Doug Boles?
Without a doubt, it’s Blue. In a sense, Doug is the Speedway’s mascot. I hope that doesn’t offend him, but it’s an interesting juxtaposition given my career history. Doug is a dynamo. Scientists couldn’t custom make a better president for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was made for this job. We’ve known one another for a long time, since we’re both Butler grads and have run in the same circles having worked in racing for years. I don’t know if this is a good analogy or not, but I like it to when Santa Claus pops out in the mall and all of the little kids line up to talk with Santa. When Doug walks the grounds of IMS, all of the adults line up to talk to Doug. They want to share with him their family stories of attending this place. Thankfully, he’s a repository of history and can spar with the best of them when discussing specific races. To witness that, to see that, is amazing. Working with Doug has been an education in and of itself.
What’s your favorite Indy 500 moment?
It hasn’t happened, because my friend Ed Carpenter has yet to win. Every time he’s started on the pole has been great, but just like my time at Butler during the two National Championship losses, I have yet to taste the milk.