When you consider how his first race day in the IRL went – before the green flag had even flown – it’s a wonder Mark Faber ever came back to racing. But if Kenny Brack crashing out of the 1997 Indianapolis 500 during the parade laps was gutting to Faber in the early days of his seven-month stint with Galles Racing, watching AJ Foyt slap Arie Luyendyk in Victory Lane two weeks later at Texas Motor Speedway would be forever imprinted on his mind.
The Kansas City native and stick-and-ball sports aficionado might not have grown up around racing, but he quickly learned to appreciate its excitement and unpredictability. So when the executive vice president and general manager position opened at TMS last summer – just 12 months after Rob Ramage had replaced longtime track promoter Eddie Gossage – Faber’s interest was piqued. Nearly 30 years after he cut his teeth with the Dallas Cowboys, rising to a marketing and sales VP role in six years while the team was winning three Super Bowls in four years, Faber and his family were looking for a way back closer to family in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“When the call came asking, ‘Do you want to be the general manager of an iconic sports and entertainment facility?' the decision-making process wasn’t too long,” Faber told IndyStar in an exclusive interview this week in the lead-up to the track’s first major event of the racing season. “I was here for the track’s opening weekend (in ’97). I was here for the Rolling Stones. It’s a really cool place, and I bring a unique skillset and lens that I view this place through. I’m very blessed to be here.”
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Faber comes at a crucial time in IndyCar’s 26-year history with the track – the only venue, outside of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that America’s premier open-wheel racing series has visited every year since it opened. A year ago, a scant couple thousand fans filled the grandstands that in its early days held more than 150,000. There were excuses aplenty – holding a race before noon in the Bible Belt, conflicts with the first weekend of March Madness, an F1 race on TV, a gorgeous first day of spring – but many locals boiled it down to the simple fact that there was little promotion for a race that was running in its third different weekend in as many years.
Sunday’s will be the fourth – once each in the months of March, April, May and June – but Faber says efforts have been raised by TMS, Speedway Motorsports (its parent company, SMI) and Penske Entertainment Corp. to make the first year of a multi-year contract a success by comparison. For one, there’s been more collaboration between the sides, leading to a recent event that saw series stars Pato O’Ward and Will Power dueling on TMS’ go-kart track in front of fans before a Q&A, chance to grab autographs and snap a selfie with the perennial title contenders.
Additionally, O’Ward took it upon himself this offseason to setup a special ticket package for his fans. The 2021 Texas race-winner reserved suite space for nearly 200 fans, with most now sold out – enough to draw some of his most fierce fans to fly in from Mexico for a $399 deal that includes a hat, jersey, garage access and a spot in a catered suite for the weekend. He also struck a deal that allowed fans that bought any item from his fan store to receive one grandstand ticket, whether it was a sticker or a mini helmet. Hundreds have taken advantage.
Though he wouldn’t dive into specifics, Faber said his team was “making progress” in terms of ticket sales, with the track “trending positively on ticket distribution, certainly ahead of where we were last year.”
“We think things are really looking up for IndyCar," he continued, "and we’re going to continue to work hard, grow and give fans an excuse to come out here.”
Different approach than Iowa Speedway
At the same time, Faber said he's not getting into a spending competition with Hy-Vee, the promoter for IndyCar’s Iowa Speedway doubleheader, to attract hordes of fans to the track. Yes, TMS hosted a pre-race Blake Shelton concert for NASCAR Cup’s All-Star race a year ago, but don’t plan on acts like Iowa’s lineup of Zac Brown Band, Ed Sheeran and company to be warming up for the PPG 375 any time soon. Whereas the folks running the show at Iowa have clearly gone the route of making the weekend an entertainment spectacle – at the cost of doubling most ticket prices and ditching the perk of free admission for children – Faber says his nearly four decades in the business suggest that a more conventional, family-friendly, almost "fair-like" approach is more prudent, at least as far as TMS is concerned.
“The Iowa situation is really unique," Faber said. "I saw their lineup, and they’ve got a good partner and are making a statement with significant talent. We want to be going out and doing our smoke and sizzle, but we also want to be fiscally responsible and prudent with what that entertainment looks like – especially coming out of a global pandemic.”
It makes some sense, when you consider the widespread financial losses SMI no doubt weathered in 2020 while hosting races largely without fans, and even in 2021 with attendance not back at full-strength. Whereas Hy-Vee and IndyCar are renting Iowa Speedway from NASCAR and given a full runway with which to take risks, it wouldn’t be surprising for TMS to be hesitant with a race weekend that garners a fraction of the interest it once did.
Faber says he wants IndyCar fans to think of TMS as a reasonably-priced, family-friendly, upscale oval-racing experience.
This weekend, he said, the track will host Lightning McQueen and company from the Disney movie "Cars" as part of an extensive activation space that will include stilt walkers, wrestling, magicians and face painting, for starters. Whereas fans had to press to be allowed to bring a sealed bottle of water into Iowa during a scorching July weekend a year ago, Texas fans will be permitted coolers. Leg room has been expanded in most grandstand seats, outfitted with food and drink rails, and they’ve partnered with local convenience store brand Allsup’s to form a grab-and-go concession area to prevent long lines and missed laps.
If drinking is your thing, Faber said TMS now has what he called “the world’s longest belly-up bar” the length of 10 football fields where one can sip on a beer and watch the on-track action without leaving the grandstands.
Parking is free, and kids 12-and-under are free on Saturday, with just a $10 charge for IndyCar race day Sunday.
“We’re pretty excited about some of the things we’ve done, thanks to the Smith family and their commitment,” Faber said, referring to SMI CEO Marcus Smith and his late father Bruton. “What we want to do is try to get folks to realize that we’ve got great pricing that’s affordable for families, and we’ll look into what that entertainment portfolio might look like with big names and things we might not have been able to do in the past that fans might think are pretty cool. Our modeling in the past is that an entertainer doesn’t necessarily drive huge ticket sales here. We think it’s a combination of things rather than one performer doing a concert before or after a race.”
Faber was clear to recognize the very real presence of a frustrated paddock and somewhat indifferent local fan base he’s now charged with altering if TMS’s long-term relationship with IndyCar were to continue beyond this latest contract. He likened it to his early days with the Cowboys, hired just after current owner Jerry Jones purchased the team in early 1989. On Jones’ first day of ownership, he fired the only coach Dallas football fans had ever known – Tom Landry – and hired his college football teammate Jimmy Johnson.
An already controversial move within the reeling team was made worse with the pair’s initial 1-15 season. Faber, just a sales rep for the Cowboys’ TV productions team at the time, could even feel the unease in his low-level role. That head-down, grassroots growth approach he learned there served him well, he said, when he later helped build from the ground-up arenas in Kansas City and Las Vegas that would go on to host a new NHL team, regular UFC cards, boxing matches, men’s college basketball tournaments and the Grammys.
Time will tell if it can translate to a track where a slap from Foyt once took the racing world by storm.
“There was a lot of hatred and ill will to the Jones family, coach Johnson, the whole organization at that point, and we had to face that and go out and change the perception by our actions, and our results,” Faber said. “We leaned into the wind, faced adversity with people laughing at us and angry with us, and we went and won world championships.”
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IndyCar: Texas Speedway president hopes atmosphere delivers a boost