The Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s past is not its future
I doubt if Tony Hulman ever envisioned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway being what it is today: a multi-race, multi-series venue poised to add lights and reap a favorable interest free loan from the state of Indiana derived from its own taxes. The fact is, he never had to see this future. Under Hulman’s watch, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened its doors to the public on May 1st each year and closed them after the facility was cleaned in early June. As long as one race a year made a profit and allowed some improvement to the facility, everything was copacetic.
But a funny thing happened to IMS on its long march to immortality – the American sports’ fan changed. While still loving iconic facilities like IMS, Churchill Downs, and Augusta National, fans want more than an event; they want an experience that transcends the event itself.
Before a knee jerks in response, I will add that a die-hard race fan does not need more than the Indianapolis 500 offers. The slow, daily rise in speed at practice, the expectant pause as fans wait for each lap time during Pole Day, the shattering disappointment or the sudden euphoria of Bump Day are moments of history repeated every year. On race day, the march of bands, “Back Home Again,” the invocation, and “Gentlemen, start your engines” prove to us that we share something with history. These links to Indy’s past are powerful reminders that we are not alone as we ride the wave of history into our individual futures. The power behind that wave is our shared human experiences. For race fans, that shared experience is the 96 other Indianapolis 500’s that have come before now. The problem is that not everyone cares about the history. Many just care about right now.
Tony George, Tony Hulman’s grandson, changed the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Under his watch, the original Snake Pit in the first turn was sanitized. His vision was a venue that was clean and safe for its patrons. Do I miss the original Snake Pit? I don’t miss it as place to watch the race, but I miss it as a touchstone of the past. IMS has hijacked and monetized it by adding modern music and amenities that attract modern fans. Face it, the original Snake Pit was a place to party and watch one lap of the race. The new version is a corporate attempt to lure a specific demographic of twenty-somethings into the track to have an experience that will bring them back again. It helps create a history for them that does not include listening to Donald Davidson amaze with his arcane knowledge of races, cars, and drivers. IMS and IndyCar need the fans in the new Snake Pit to come back in the future just as much as they need the die-hards to continue their love affair with history.
George also added a road course, a new Pagoda, modern garages, and, most galling to purists, additional races with F1, NASCAR, and MotoGP. While not to the liking of many purists who want to see IMS remain host to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing only, the track and its owners have a vision for the future that includes racing at night and most likely another IndyCar race on the road course. While reviled by many, these are simply economic decisions to improve the bottom line.
If adding lights increases the attendance at the Brickyard 400, then add lights. If adding an IndyCar race to the road course is profitable, then add it. Will it diminish the historical relevancy of the 500? Maybe, but I doubt it could be diminished much more than it is now to the vast majority of people who just do not care. For the continued success of the Speedway, more money needs to be made and more fans need to be found. The die to maximize profits was cast when all the major infrastructure upgrades that were needed were made. These upgrades to seating, technology, and the fan experience need to be made every year. Money is needed to support these upgrades, and fans are needed to supply the money. Fans want video boards and dependable cell service. Maybe we are spoiled, but these are the expectations. Attendance, sponsors, and TV ratings are the coin of the realm when it comes to profits. Businesses that survive use sound business practices. IMS is no longer a hobby for a philanthropic family; it is the source of income.
The cost of keeping a historic venue like IMS up and running is enormous. While I certainly like touring historically significant houses, I would not enjoy the daily and expensive upkeep that such a house requires. Plus, I like the modern conveniences that I have come to expect in life. The cost of maintaining the facility at 16th and Georgetown will never decrease. The business masters at IMS will spend money only if they can make more money. If not, you can expect cracks in the foundation and dandelions in the grass, just like at home. You can only slap paint on the old gal for so long. Sooner or later, you have to feed the bulldog.
So bring on the tin-tops, the motorcycles, the sports cars, and a second IndyCar race if it makes more money and allows the Greatest Spectacle in Racing to still be exactly that and not just some faded piece of history. Winston Churchill said it best: “If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.” It is time for fans of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 to accept that the future is now.