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  They have held on to their beliefs, no matter how outdated, through the long winter of IndyCar’s discontent.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

Are IMS and IndyCar living in the past?

When Mark Miles accepted the job as the new visionary-in-residence at Hulman & Co., he was quick to say that he would evaluate and act in regards to IMS and IndyCar, two of the properties owned by the mothership from Terre Haute.  After a review of the series by an outside consulting firm, Miles will pull the trigger on a new CEO for the IndyCar Series.  At least that’s what he said when interviewed by the IBJ in a December 12 article called “Miles eyes lights for Speedway, postseason for IndyCar.”   If you have not done so already, it is a very revealing portrait of how a big-timer thinks.  And how he thinks is going to determine the course for IndyCar for the next few years.

It is pretty clear that Miles is not really into the whole sacred cow thing.  He is quoted in the article as saying, “The trick is to have a fresh set of eyes come to this and not let the past—in fact, not [being] interested in continually digging up the past—but looking forward and yet doing that in a way that appreciates the culture.”  Now I’m not quite sure what all that actually means, but I think he is not too worried about whose ox  is going to be gored.  If changes need to be made to improve the series or the Speedway, then changes will be made, even if it causes apoplexy among the loyal old fans who have been following the 500 and the series for years.  And let’s face it, as much as some people want Hulman & Co., IMS, and the series to divorce, it is not going to happen.  Just like in some real marriages, IMS and the IndyCar Series will stay together for the kids, particularly those kids that can claim a lineage to Tony Hulman.  And as the kids reach into the fourth and fifth generation, that’s a whole lot of sinecures to be provided.  Miles also notes the family issues in the interview when he says, “In the end, if a venerable firm is going to succeed over time from generation to generation, it has to be a meritocracy.”  In other words, if the relatives needing a job cannot actually, you know, do the job, then you have to find someone who can.  That scenario may have been played out in the third generation of the Hulman family.  It will be fun to watch how this incipient power struggle will play out.  Just think of Jabot Cosmetics and Newman Enterprises from the soap opera The Young and the Restless.  Characters come and go, but the power always comes back to the family.  The power play that will surely happen in the halls of IMS and IndyCar will be revealed to us in bits and pieces as the actors in the drama tell their side of the story to their favorite media members.

A more immediate cause for teeth-gnashing and knee-jerking is the quote about not being interested in digging up the past.  That’s the past that long time fans such as myself revere so much, the past that fans see and feel when they drive along 16th and Georgetown, the past that makes the Indy 500 so iconic.  The truth of the matter is that IMS may be able to sell its past to fans, but the IndyCar Series cannot.  The Speedway actually has a history to sell; the IndyCar Series is just another name for the races that come before and after the 500.  And that’s the problem that must be solved, and I’m pretty sure Mark Miles know that.  The question is how do you build the fan base for the series?  So far, the people in charge have been “all hat, no cattle.”  And that is not a knock on Randy Bernard, even if it sounds like it.  He was trying to move the series in a new direction.  Too many important toes got in his way.

To build the series, Miles, along with his new as-yet-to-be-named IndyCar CEO, has to build a new fan base.  Capturing the old base back is an exercise in futility.  Those old fans have one big problem: they are old.  Unless your business is AARP, you can’t make a new fortune on old fans.  The fan base is shrinking because new open-wheel fans are not being minted.  The love of IndyCar racing is still passed down from parent to child, but that does not create enough new fans.  New fans need to be created outside of the old circle of friends and family.  IndyCar has to attract a next generation of fans who watch movies like Turbo and play video games like Mario KartThe future of the IndyCar Series depends on attracting young fans, not in keeping the old fans happy.  That’s a cold, hard truth.  If the series does not build its fan base, then it will continue to be a niche sport, struggling to remain relevant in a world that will only acknowledge its existence on Memorial Day weekend.  The old-timers have to accept this new reality.  They have no choice.

For many years, Indianapolis was called Naptown, a sobriquet that referenced the languid lifestyle of a town that did not have much going for it except the Indianapolis 500.  Native son Kurt Vonnegut once said of his hometown, “It was the 500-mile Speedway Race, and then 364 days of miniature golf, and then the 500-mile Speedway Race again.”  IndyCar fans should take note of this.  If Mark Miles cannot revive the IndyCar Series and build a new and loyal fan base focusing on a younger demographic, then the series’ remaining fans should start practicing using a putter to roll a small, colored ball into a clown’s mouth.  They won’t have much else to do between Indy 500’s.

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