Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, How the Mighty Have Fallen

For 80 years Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the pinnacle of motorsports venues. They ran one race every year and dominated the entire month of May with practice, qualifying and the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. The track broke from tradition in 1994 and added the Brickyard 400 to their menu, but still set themselves apart by having a huge purse for the unique event.

After five years of running the two events the first step away from the top of the heap was taken when the IROC series ran at the world famous speedway in 1999. That was followed by the addition of a road course for the Formula 1 series in 2000 and the facility simply became just another racetrack. Now, they have been reduced to not only just another racetrack but a facility that is scrambling, practically begging fans to come and attend activities at the track. Tony Hulman is certainly turning over in his grave.

The racing at IMS is not spectacular – it never has been. Sure there has been the occasional nail biter over the years but for the most part the 2.5-mile oval is not designed to promote side-by-side, fender-banging excitement or three wide to the checkered flag finishes. The track was originally designed as a test for machines to find out who could survive to the finish of the race. Just making a vehicle last 500 miles was a major accomplishment and passing other cars to try and get into the lead of the race was a secondary thought.

Over the years, after Hulman purchased the Speedway and built it into the largest single day sporting event in the world, the race became a destination, a bucket list item. The race was part of the spectacle but it wasn’t THE spectacle. Adding the Cup Series to the docket didn’t dilute the product because NASCAR, at the time, was the fastest growing sport in the country and the fanbase was completely different from the fanbase of Indy cars.

By offering a huge purse and playing on the history of the speedway the NASCAR race actually enhanced the aura of the facility and added it to the bucket list of a few million more people. Once the Speedway added another series to the mix the uniqueness and luster began to come off of the complex.

The split between the IRL and CART most certainly played a roll in the addition of the other series to the schedule as Tony George was using the profits from the track to support his fledgling racing series. With attendance at the 500 cut dramatically after the 1996 IRL/CART split George needed to come up with more revenue to ensure his series would survive and ultimately win out in the battle for open wheel fans.

Adding IROC and F1 brought additional income to the track, although the expenditures to make the facility acceptable to F1 were substantial and took some time to recoup. IROC ran at the track until 2003 when the series itself shut down and F1 ran there until 2008 when the sanctioning body decided not to return. The track brought in Moto GP to fill the void from the loss of F1 but certainly didn’t bring in the crowds that the most famous racing series in the world commanded.

The same year Moto GP arrived the track devoured the tires on NASCAR’s new car design for the Cup Series and resulted in one of the biggest racing debacles in the history of the sport. A caution filled, staged race left fans with a very bad taste in their mouth that has left the track with continually dwindling attendance and an image problem that is making it harder and harder for them to get fans to the track.

Add in the addition of racetracks in Chicago and Kentucky and the fans have options about when and where they’ll go attend a race. The greatest speedway on the planet is now scrambling to put fans in the seats and the result has become a grab at any cost to put on more events instead of following the old adage of offering just less than what is demanded.

The track has added a Grand Am race for the 2012 Brickyard weekend and has pilfered the Nationwide race from Lucas Oil Raceway in an attempt to convince fans that a racing weekend is more of a destination than a single race, even though many of those fans already attended the Nationwide race and are most likely not going to attend the race at the big track because the competition will not be nearly as good, not to mention the race at the local track on the west side of town had been held every year since the series, then known as the Busch Series, had been in existence.

See also
With Lucas Oil Raceway Gone in 2012, Replacing Montreal of Key Importance

And if that wasn’t pathetic enough, the Speedway is trying to make a grab for the fans who were treated to a less than enjoyable Kentucky Speedway experience last weekend. While it is admirable for the track to extend an offer to the fans who had a bad experience, the offer is half hearted. Last year’s Brickyard race had an estimated crowd of a little less than 140,000, although it was probably even less than that.

This year will probably be in the 80,000-range based on the continuous downward trend for the event. The Speedway could have offered the fans a free ticket to the Brickyard and probably only given away 40,000 tickets at the most.

But instead they’re offering a ticket to practice or a discount for qualifying for the race and free parking. Mind you that is a deal based on the prices of the tickets and parking, but the track is trying to reinvigorate excitement for the main event. Putting people in the stands for the big race will not only potentially bring them back next year but it will also result in concession sales and souvenir sales. Once again the track is proving that they don’t understand the basic premise of promoting, that a butt in a seat is worth more than an empty seat and they’re missing a great opportunity to increase interest in their struggling event.

Indianapolis was the pinnacle of motorsports for decades. Drivers from around the world would come to race at the track just to say they had competed there. Fans would make pilgrimages to the track, some even when no event was scheduled, just to say they’d been there. Then the almighty dollar took over and the uniqueness of the track was frittered away, ultimately lumping it in with every other track that hosts major racing events all year long.

The Indianapolis 500 still draws a big crowd but that is mostly because the race is blacked out in most of the state of Indiana so local fans have to either attend the race in person or watch it on tape delay. Whatever the case may be the feeble attempts to increase attendance at the Brickyard 400 weekend are going to backfire on the management of the track and hopefully they’ll understand that after the first year of the Nationwide event when there are only 10,000 fans in the 250,000 permanent seats.

Sometimes less is more and in the case of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, less racing would put more fans in the seats.

One final note, the rumor is that the Nationwide race never left Raceway Park while Tony George was in charge of the Speedway because he would not be a bad neighbor to a fellow racetrack in the area. If that is the case then kudos are offered to the former head of IMS. It is a shame that the people who booted you out don’t have the same class as you do.

About the author


What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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