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IMS: museum or racing facility?

As I was digging out of another Midwestern winter storm, I encountered the bane of the driveway: a solid layer of old ice that had adhered to the concrete with a tenacity that shovels, salt, and swearing could not surmount.  As I walked away, defeated, the ice became a symbol of the hard-core IndyCar fans that are still left.  They have held on to their beliefs, no matter how outdated, through the long winter of IndyCar’s discontent.  And just like a warming southern breeze will do to the ice what I could not, so to will a modern approach to the racing business of IndyCar and IMS melt away what is left of the hard-core fans’ deeply held belief that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway should be a shrine to a once-a-year event and then close down for the rest of the year.  They want a return to Kurt Vonnegut’s famous definition of Indianapolis: “…the 500-mile Speedway Race, and then 364 days of miniature golf, and then the 500-mile Speedway Race again.”

The days of opening once a year are gone.  IMS must be more than an edifice to the history of open-wheel racing.  Don’t get me wrong, if economics allowed IMS to only be open for the month of May, I would be ecstatic.  But the economic reality is that the Speedway and its grounds are the financial engine to the IndyCar Series.  As IMS goes, so goes the series.

The argument against IMS hosting a variety of events always comes down to the history of the Speedway.  It is a specious argument.  Carl Fisher, the founder of both the Speedway and the Indy 500, was more than willing to run multiple events.  He decided to run only the 500 for solely economic reasons.  One big race could make more money than many races, especially if the races all had the same cars and drivers.  That is an important distinction.  IMS is offering multiple series, cars, and drivers.

The question remains: Will opening IMS up to two IndyCar races, the IndyCar support series, sports cars, stock cars, motorcycles, vintage cars, stadium trucks, and concerts make less money for the owners?  Isn’t the answer self-evident?  The track, through tickets, suites, TV, concessions, and apparel makes a profit.  And it needs to do so.  Those profits, one way or another, support the series that WOULD NOT EXIST WITHOUT THEM. How tone-deaf do fans have to be to not realize this simple fact?

Can an iconic track with a famous race coexist with other events?  Look south.  Daytona International Speedway hosts the Daytona 500, The Great American Race, every February.  Does hosting the Rolex 24, ARCA, Whelen Modifieds, K & N Pro Series, Sprint Unlimited, Budweiser Duel, Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series, Daytona 200 AMA Pro Racing motorcycles, Daytona Supercross, and the Coke Zero 400 tarnish the luster of the ugliest trophy in motorsports?  Hardly.  And all of those are sponsored races, meaning more coins in the coffers.  The Daytona 500 is the race that put NASCAR on the map.  All the other races put money in its pocket.  NASCAR parlayed a facility and its history and status into the most popular racing series in North America.  Maybe there is a lesson to be learned.

I have often compared the IndyCar Series to a starving artist.  He wants to be true to his art, but he needs to eat, too.  At some point, an artist needs to sell his work to pay the bills.  And if that work finds its way into a famous museum, that can only expose the artist and his work to a wider audience where a deep-pocketed patron of the arts may be willing to support him.  The IndyCar Series has just the museum needed to do this at 16th and Georgetown in Indianapolis.  All forms of racing are art.  The next exhibition at IMS starts in May and runs all summer.  It’s either that or 364 days of miniature golf.

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4 thoughts on “IMS: museum or racing facility?

  1. I see your line of thinking here, and I think it’s important to mention one of the many reasons why IMS only wanted 1 big event in the first place. Around 1900, it was very difficult for people to get around, to spread news of something, especially when you compare it to today’s world.

    Having people come in from different countries and states for one huge event made it the spectacle that it has become. I think 4 events is the most you can have in one calendar year. Any more, and it would feel watered-down in a way. Even if the 2-wheelers don’t last much longer, 3 strong events (500, stock cars, vintage racing) may even be better. I’m really looking forward to the vintage stuff in June.

    Anyway, your point is well-taken, and though some traditionalists would prefer to just have one big event per year, it’s just not feasible with today’s society. Hopefully we don’t have to fight this ice & snow much longer. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Spring is coming.

  2. Even if it was possible to simply run one race at Indy I really think it’s good (for a ton of reasons) to have MotoGP/TUDOR/NASCAR/Historic races at the track. It brings in more fans and makes the facility matter to a lot more people and places. MotoGP is very cool and it’s a big deal to get bikes racing in the Midwest. I think the GP is likely to survive since Laguna Seca got cut.

    I do not like the Indycar road course race as much. In particular if that was the decided upon course I think it would have made more sense latter in the year (August/September) rather than before the 500. I just don’t see the point of racing the road course to kick of the Month of May.

  3. The original founders of IMS (Carl Fisher, James Allison, Frank Wheeler and Arthur Newby) were successful businessmen. They didn’t hesitate to try different things to bring crowds to the Speedway. When the Speedway opened, there were balloon races, motorcycle races and a myriad of auto races on racing weekends.

    When the owners saw a decline in attendance at multi-race weekends, they weren’t afraid to try something new….and the Indianapolis 500 was born.

    As participation by the auto manufacturers (such as Buick, Marmon and National) dwindled, they went overseas to bring additional competition to the Speedway. From 1913 through 1916, foreigners won the race.

    When they saw Europe’s entry into World War 1 would limit the number of drivers and cars coming from Europe, they experimented with a 300 mile race (1916) as well as a second weekend of racing (Harvest Auto Racing Classic).

    Fisher and Allison also purchased two Peugeots from Europe and supplemented it with three Premiers so there would be adequate cars running at the Speedway. This resulted in two teams—Speedway Team Company and the Prest-O-Lite Team (and that, of course, led to the founding of Allison Engineering which made the V-1710 aircraft engine which powered the Allied effort during World War II.)

    All of the owners of the Speedway have tried to find ways to make the Speedway more than a once a year event. Carl Fisher explored holding polo matches at the Speedway. Eddie Rickenbacker is responsible for adding the golf course. Traditionalist Tony Hulman even explored having the Indianapolis pro football team (long before the Colts) play their games at the Speedway.

    This is relevant to the discussion of whether IMS should hold just the Indianapolis 500 or multiple races. The reality is that multiple races are needed to maintain and improve the physical plant. The high cost of the superspeedways has led to all of them holding multiple races a year. Why should the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have only one race?

    I believe to do that would ultimately be the end of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500. The other races help to bear the expenses in maintaining the facility. Mark Miles has identified $120 million in needed improvements. The Daytona International Speedway is getting a $400 million makeover. Rather than dilute the brand, I believe it will help to keep Indianapolis in the forefront of peoples’ minds when they think of auto racing.

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