Doug Boles: IMS President Living Out His and Every Race Fan’s Dream
May 2018 updated 3/10/21
Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // JJ Kaplan
The 102nd running of the greatest spectacle in racing, the Indianapolis 500, is just a couple of weeks away and the familiar rhythmic pulse of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) has brought life back into the majestic venue in anticipation of another spectacular Indy Car Race Day.
Behind the scenes, on center stage and everywhere in between, works the president of IMS and Zionsville resident, Doug Boles. Fervently leading the colossal team of individuals that are required to manage this extraordinary and historic venue, Boles must find a balance between his duty to the track as well as to his family. This feat Boles has been able to manage only with the support of his wife and their four sons.
Life, Work Balance
“Finding balance is the biggest challenge that I have,” Boles said. “I am fortunate that my house is full of people that are as passionate about this place [IMS] and this sport, as I am. It would be really hard if I went home to people that were like, ‘Oh, here he goes again’. The hardest part in balancing all this is when I get home because my family wants to talk about my day and sometimes, the last thing you want to do is talk about your day. I’m like, ‘I want to talk about your day’. For me, I’m so passionate about it too so I’m going to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week until they tell me to leave at some point in time. For over four years now, every Monday, the assistant pastor at College Park where we go to church is a really good friend of mine and we get together and pray for each other and make sure that we don’t get too wrapped up in it [our vocations] and forget our family, our faith and the things that are important.”
Boles acknowledged his wife, Beth, and her ability to keep Boles on task back at the home front.
“The great thing about my wife, Beth, if she sees me in a spot where I shouldn’t be or I’m forgetting something, or the kids need this or that- she’s right there telling me,” he said affectionately. I’m reminded that this is my job and the most important thing that I’m involved in, are the lives that are at home-my family.”
Boles carries that philosophy over to his work and his team. Leading by example, he tries to instill the importance of a healthy life, work balance.
“I tell my team that they have to balance it,” Boles said. “It’s one thing when we’re in the three weeks of May that are really intense but outside of that, I tell them that they need to go home and see their families-it [work] will be here tomorrow. The whole team is as passionate about the place and it’s easy to get caught up in the fact that the 102nd running of the Indy 500 is just days away and we’ve got to be ready.”
Panther Racing with Harbaugh
Prior to his career at IMS, Boles was a co-owner of Panther Racing along with former Colt’s quarterback, Jim Harbaugh.
“The one thing that the team thing did for me was give me a perspective from a team’s point of view,” Boles explained. “I view my main job as president of the speedway as sort of two-fold: to lead this team and to deliver a product for our customers. We don’t get to do this without customers. Who are the customers? The customers are the fans but they are also sponsors and partners that are here and they are also the teams that participate. What the ownership in Panther racing did for me was to give me the opportunity to really see what a team goes through and what their challenges are when they’re here.”
On working with Harbaugh, Boles shared, “One thing that I learned about Harbaugh, for as crazy and wacky as he is, that guy cares about his people and the neat thing that you see, even in his coaching-he’ll roll his sleeves up and go to battle with his people. There’s so much to be said about a leader who’s willing to get in the trenches and work. I wear a tie not because I’m the president; I wear a tie because I think the brand deserves it. If you look back at Carl Fisher, Tony Hulman, Eddie Rickenbacker, Wilbur Shaw, all those guys wore ties so for me, if I’m representing the brand, I’m wearing a tie but it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to help pick up trash or help dig a car out of the mud. That all comes from seeing Jim Harbaugh and others the way they lead.”
The Job and the Forefathers
Customer service is a priority for Boles and his dedication to making hundreds of thousands of customers happy is displayed in countless ways but one thing that Boles does that is unique for a person in his position is he makes ten calls to customers every night on his way home.
“I thank them for their passion and for making the Indy 500 a part of their Memorial Day tradition,” he said. “The longer that people have been around, the more they want talk and some of the older folks will ask why we do this ‘Snake Pit’ thing-it’s not really the ‘Snake Pit’. I get into this conversation with them and ask if they ever went to the original ‘Snake Pit’ and they tell me that’s where they went their first time at the track and then they tell me the stories about what they saw. Then they tell me that they bought tickets to the actual race and that it became a tradition. So, I tell them that it’s the same theory and we’re trying to attract event fans to get people to come to the speedway. Hopefully, a percentage of those people will transition over to a grandstand and become a ‘race’ fan.”
When asked what iconic IMS legends Tony Hulman and Carl Fisher would think of the evolution of the track, Boles contemplated, “I think Carl Fisher would say, ‘absolutely the right direction to go’. Fisher started as a crazy promoter who wanted to promote the city of Indianapolis and put the city on the map for something big like an international motorsport event. He would throw bicycles off of the top of buildings to get attention and was just a pure promoter so I think he would say ‘Promote. Promote. Promote.”
Thinking for a moment on what Tony Hulman would think about IMS in present-day, Boles said thoughtfully, “A lot of traditions here are rooted in Tony Hulman. The things that we hold so dear like the 30-minutes of pre-race; those are the best 30-minutes of the year and the 90-seconds of ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ are the best 90-seconds of the year and that is all Tony. I don’t think that he’d disagree with the direction but I don’t know that he’d be as immediate to say ‘yes’ the way I think Carl would. I do think that Tony would find it cool that his bloodline, his great-grandchildren have re-invented the ‘Snake Pit’ and created a music event that targets younger folks. They are carrying on the outreach of the business.”
The end of an era
After 54 years of being televised by the national broadcast television network, ABC, the announcement was recently made that the NBC network would be broadcasting the Indy 500 beginning in 2019.
“I’ll be 51 years old and it’s hard to believe that in my lifetime there’s never been an Indy 500 televised on anything but ABC,” Boles said. “They have 54 years of partnership with the Indy 500 and I don’t know that for the rest of my life I’ll be able to fully disconnect ABC with the broadcast of the Indy 500. I think what NBC will bring is a refreshed look at the race. They want to connect us to more promotion of the race throughout the year so there will be this Indy 500 dialogue throughout the year. They currently do the bulk of the Indy Car series through NBC Sports so they’re very familiar with our brand. I think NBC is going to come in and do a tremendous job but it was a hard decision to make.”
The Legacy of IMS
“I love the history and the traditions of the speedway,” Boles said. “It’s hard to walk around the facility by yourself and not get caught up in all the different things that have happened over its history. Immediately you think of the on-track stuff and all of the personalities but then I allow myself to think back to 1977 when I’m finally 10-years old and I finally get to come to the Indy 500 to the race for the first time, walking in with my dad’s arm around my shoulder and the excitement of just walking into the track. I relive that every day and think what a cool gift my dad gave me. We still talk every day about what’s going on in racing. It’s been a common theme throughout our lives.”
As a boy, Boles would go off to camp and his dad would send him clippings of all the different Indy Car happenings as a testament to their special bond that was built around the IMS.
“Many of my thoughts go back to the history and the people that have been here [IMS] but there’s a real personal connection with my dad. What my grandpa passed to my dad and my dad passed to me, I hope to pass to our youngest son, Carter. My favorite place on earth is the roof of the IMS Pagoda. When I first started working here, Carter and I would go sit on the roof at the end of a day and just chat about our days. With the speedway in the foreground and the flatness of Indiana beyond-it’s just magical. We don’t have mountains or oceans but we have the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
Once a year, Boles and a friend of his from college will get together and reflect over the years and how it came to be that Boles became president of one of the world’s most famous and spectacular racing venues.
“We’ll grab a six-pack and go sit out on the yard of bricks in the dark,” Boles said. “We talk about racing and how magical this place is and how did this happen for me? It’s an amazing place and it’s not because it’s this brand new shiny venue-it’s a 109-year old venue. What makes it amazing is the history of what’s happened on this track and all of the cool deep family connections to families here. It really is a powerful event.”