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 They have held on to their beliefs, no matter how outdated, through the long winter of IndyCar’s discontent.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.