FINISH WHAT YOU STARTED: Josef Newgarden crosses the finish line to win the 107th Indianapolis 500 before 330,000 spectators, the event’s biggest crowd in seven years. (AP Photo)

Vendor supplants Levy at massive track

Aramark Sports and Entertainment has captured the checkered flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning the food service contract for one of the world’s biggest sports complexes, according to multiple sources.

Doug Boles, the speedway’s president, and Alison Birdwell, president and CEO of Aramark, did not return messages and emails for comment.

Aramark and Delaware North Sportservice were finalists for the account, along with Levy, Boles told SportsBusiness Journal in May.

The selection of Aramark, a publicly-traded company on the New York Stock Exchange, was made over the past few weeks, sources said.

The deal takes effect in 2024. In the coming weeks, the International Motor Sports Association (Sept. 15-17) and the United States Auto Club (Sept. 27-30)  have races scheduled at the speedway and Levy will service those events, sources said.

The multi-year agreement extends to Brickyard Crossing, an 18-hole golf course situated in the speedway infield.

Philadelphia-based Aramark unseats Levy, which ran the food at the track over the past 10 years, starting with the 2014 Indianapolis 500.

Before Levy came in as a third-party operator,  the speedway ran it in-house for decades as essentially a mom-and-pop operation under the Hulman family, the track’s owner for 74 years. Billionaire auto racing titan Roger Penske purchased the speedway in 2019.

Sources said 80% of IMS business is conducted during the iconic Indy 500, held at the sprawling property stretching nearly 1,000 acres. In addition, the track plays host to a NASCAR Cup race and the GMR Grand Prix race, a road course layout.

For Aramark, considering the challenges tied to feeding hundreds of thousands of fans historically attending the Indy 500, the key is hard work and to have a detailed strategic plan in place in advance of the event, said food consultant Chris Bigelow.

“Having the right people at the right place, because once (the race) starts, you can’t get behind,” Bigelow said.

Aramark will have to contend with the track’s longtime policy that allows attendees to bring their own alcoholic beverages and food to events, similar to many NASACAR facilities.

Auto racing is an outlier in that respect, which cuts into food and beverage sales and per caps.

During Levy’s tenure, the vendor did its best to make beer more accessible for race fans in the infield, installing a jumbo self-serve beer system for the 2015 Indy 500. The shipping container retrofit contained 80 refrigerated kegs and 28 beer taps, using RFID technology tied to stored-value cards to operate the system.

“The Indy 500 is in a league of its own,” said Mike Plutino, another food consultant. “Hands down, it is one of the most challenging events in the world due to the trifecta of attendance, number of staff needed and limited infrastructure. The key to success relies on a provider’s experience with large festival-style events, their ability to leverage a team 0f managers and supervisor support, and keeping offerings as limited as possible.”

Over the past decade, under the leadership of Penske and Boles, the speedway has gone through millions of dollars in upgrades to help make the food operation run more smoothly, considering the logistics.

Overall, renovations extend to installing 30 new videoboards, including the Pagoda Plaza Media Wall; renovating restrooms and concession stands; adding five miles of new fencing; giving the victory podium a facelift; implementing 5G internet service; and providing easier access to gate entries. Premium spaces have also been given a refresh. The speedway has about 120 suites.

Aramark’s win brings back memories of a time when the firm had a commanding presence in Indianapolis.

In the 1970s, Bigelow lived in Indianapolis and worked for Aramark, then known as ARA Services, at several venues across the city. The concessionaire ran the food at old Market Square Arena; Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse and Butler Bowl; old Bush Stadium, a minor league ballpark; and the Indiana Convention Center.

“At that time, Aramark controlled the whole town,” Bigelow said.

Now, they’re back, and in a big way, at the home of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Despite losing IMS, Chicago-based firm Levy retains a strong presence in racing. It runs the food at most Speedway Motorsports Inc. and International Speedway Corp. facilities, which make up the bulk of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

Still, Levy has taken a significant hit over the last few months, losing business to Sodexo Live! at Indian Wells Tennis Garden and to OVG Hospitality at Footprint Center, where it held the account for 27 years at the home of the NBA Phoenix Suns.

In July, Levy did replace Legends at Prudential Center, where the NHL New Jersey Devils play.