IMS internship uncovers student’s love for planning, client services

Purdue student and Indianapolis Motor Speedway intern Erica Hedrick poses trackside.

As an intern at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Purdue student Erica Hedrick has discovered a love for behind-the-scenes planning at major events. (Purdue University photo/Greta Bell)

Behind-the-scenes experiences at the Indy 500 have inspired Erica Hedrick to consider a career in event management

Erica Hedrick signed up for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s event staff college program last summer hoping to land a fun seasonal job where she could work with her friends. What she didn’t expect was an experience that would cause her to rethink her future career.

Hedrick began her time last summer working on the event staff, where she checked tickets for the Pavilion and Chalets hospitality spaces. In this position, she also had an opportunity to work at the Pagoda Plaza Q&A station, where she interacted with colleagues like the famed “yellow shirt” safety patrol.

Those conversations helped her learn why they loved working at the track. Many of the yellow shirts she met brought energy and passion to their daily tasks, helping her recognize that they all shared the same goal of helping their guests have the best possible experience.

“Everything about the place really stood out to me last year, and I said, ‘I’d so come back and work there again if the opportunity was provided,’” says Hedrick, a senior from Martinsville, Indiana, majoring in selling and sales management in Purdue University’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

Sure enough, another opportunity arose at IMS, and Hedrick happily accepted the chance to learn more about the hospitality industry, a field in which she now hopes to work someday. Since January she has been a client services intern at the track. During her time, she assisted guests at April’s Total Solar Eclipse Event, presented in partnership with Purdue. She will continue to work at IMS throughout the summer — including at events like the iconic Indy 500 on May 26 and NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 in July.

“I get a little more behind the scenes of everything,” Hedrick says during a conversation in early April. “I work a lot with our premium guests. We just finished creating our boxes for guests who will be in our suites or hospitality rooms, and I’ve been putting together their tickets, parking passes and credentials. Since we’ve already handed out most of them for May, I’ve also been going into suite spaces and checking to make sure everything’s ready and clean and everything that needs to be there is there.

“Then, I’ll just be in suite spaces, talking to our guests, making sure that everything’s taken care of — drinks, food, credentials — that they have everything that they need and they’re all well taken care of.”

Hedrick actually got her first taste of event planning and logistical work at Purdue while assisting in event operations with the annual Purdue University Dance Marathon, the largest philanthropic student organization on campus. Assisting at the marathon helped her better understand how large events should be run, but nothing could fully prepare her for the massive scale of race day at IMS, when hundreds of thousands of spectators are at the track.

She describes the experience as somewhat “overwhelming,” but credits her bosses for having plans in place that helped workers tackle whatever issues arose as easily as possible.

“They gave us really good rules and layouts and the time frames of everything,” she says. “So it made it really easy to do the job, and I loved it. I think they did a great job of explaining everything and it was never super, super overwhelming. They gave us a lot of good resources if we ever did have problems.”

She still had a lot to learn, however — for instance, the identity of one of the most famous drivers in motor sports history.

Hedrick has interacted with a handful of current drivers at IMS events, as well as with the recently retired Tony Kanaan, winner of the 2013 Indy 500. But it wasn’t until moments after a conversation with an older gentleman outside the track’s “Legends Day” autograph tent that she learned who Mario Andretti is.

“He just stopped and started talking to me and my friend in casual conversation because we were working. So I was like, ‘Oh, he’s just a part of the team. He was just in there helping one of the legends to make sure they made it to their spot,’” Hedrick recalls with a laugh. “And then he starts walking to this golf cart and people are running up to him asking for his signature. They were saying, ‘Mario, Mario,’ and I was like, ‘Who is Mario?’ And then I went home and told my parents, and they were like, ‘He’s kind of a big deal.’”

Thankfully, knowledge of IndyCar history is not a prerequisite for a successful event services internship. Caring that guests have a pleasant experience is a much more important attribute, and Hedrick feels she has discovered a true calling in that area.

Everything about the place really stood out to me last year, and I said, ‘I’d so come back and work there again if the opportunity was provided.’

Erica Hedrick, senior in selling and sales management

She anticipates an extremely busy month of May while running errands and attending to suite guests’ needs in Gasoline Alley, Hulman Terrace Club and Tower Terrace Suites, but she can’t wait for that exhausting-yet-thrilling work to arrive.

“I’ve really loved getting to know how event operations works and the behind the scenes and planning of it,” Hedrick says. “It’s really valuable to be able to help with one of the largest sporting events in the world and understand the steps it takes to make sure that everyone has what they need to be prepared and know where they’re going on the day of the race.

“I think that’s what I’m taking from it and hope to apply in the future.”