The Indy 500 Isn’t The Indy 500 Anymore
By Evan Weiner
May 29, 2010
(New York, N. Y.) --- Once upon a time, the Indianapolis 500 was mentioned in the same breath as the World Series, the Boxing Heavyweight Champion and the Kentucky Derby as major, major events in America. The World Series is still a major event but has lost a lot of luster over the years. The Kentucky Derby is an event but thoroughbred horse racing has seen much better days. Boxing's heavyweight championship belt has been devalued over the decades.
The Indianapolis 500 was big and engrained in American popular culture. The Beach Boys song, Fun, Fun, Fun has a lyric about a girl and her love affair with her T-bird -- Well the girls can't stand her/Cause she walks, looks and drives like an ace now (You walk like an ace now, you walk like an ace)/She makes the Indy 500 look like a Roman chariot race now. The 1969 Paul Newman movie "Winning" is based loosely on the Indy 500. There were other TV shows, movies and songs that celebrated the Indy 500.
Today it can be argued that the Indy 500 is not even the most important race of the Memorial Day Weekend that a NASCAR event in Charlotte is more popular. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway can accommodate as many as 400,000 people for the event. The Indianapolis brickyard is as famous as the Ivy at Chicago's Wrigley Field or the Green Monster at Boston's Fenway Park yet the Indy 500 is now a ho hum event. How did that happen and can the Indy 500 capture the imagination again?
The Indy 500 is a huge deal in Japan, there will be two Japanese drivers in the field and the race will be televised on outdoor big screen TVs. It will be seen in South Africa and will be the prelude to the FIFA World Cup in that country as a premier sporting event.
The Indianapolis Speedway was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and was designated a National Historical Landmark in 1987. But trouble started in the 1970s with problems over prize money and regulations. In 1994, Speedway owner Tony George changed the paradigm by starting the Indy Racing League and changing the rules. The top 25 Indy Racing League drivers got 25 of the 33 spots in the 1995 race and that limited members of the Championship Auto Racing Team (CART) to just eight openings. CART eventually went bankrupt and now the Indy Racing League is trying to pick up the pieces and rebrand the Indy 500.
It will not be an easy task but one sponsor is making a push to put present day drivers into the limelight and it appears that they want present day drivers to appeal to those who are not into racing. The past stars, A. J. Foyt, Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti and others were portrayed as guys around the track and garage. The new effort is to make the drivers more appealing. Hélio Castroneves has won three Indy 500s since 2001 yet more people know him from the ABC television show, Dancing With the Stars. Danica Patrick has won races and has been a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and corporate spokesperson.
Still the Indy 500 has not reclaimed a top spot in American sporting events and that bothers Townsend Bell who will be behind the wheel in this year's event.
"I have been around the sport for over 10 years now, I came from the Champ-Car, CART side and I feel like for the first time since I have been around that there is a sense of reality that is grounded. Everybody knows who we are and where we are and what the climb ahead looks like and it is going to be a climb and it is one step at a time. You got to reach rock bottom or as much as a point of realty where the management is very honest with themselves, team owners are honest with themselves where everything really truly is, that makes it a lot easier to grow," he said.
"If you are living in a fantasy world still and pretend and convince yourself that things aren't the way they really are which is an area that I think we have been in for many years, how do you actually deal with progress. I feel like for the first time, we have established our reality, which is not glamorous in terms of level and we are building now."
So just where is the Indianapolis 500 today?
"One of the things that has been lost is the mystique of Indianapolis," said Bell. "There are two reasons for that. One is, the Indy 500, I went when I was 11 (in 1986), that was the first race I ever went to. I didn't know much about the history of the Indy 500 other than I knew it was the biggest race in the world. But later in life I learned that the history of the Indianapolis 500 was great for two reasons.
"Man and machine.
"And we all think we are all great racing drivers, the best out there but we are driving machines that are the same damn thing we have been driving for eight years? So where is the sex appeal or the mystique or the innovation on the machine side? That is one thing and the second thing that disappeared is that we are driving the same speeds we have had for the last 10 years. It is the same car, the same tire, the same tire, we have been capped---limited in our ability to technically push the limit."
So the Indy 500 needs to be liberated. It needs speed. Speed sells and the Indy 500 isn't pushing the envelope for various reasons.
"We have to make sure we that we push the limits on the number (miles per hour)," Bell said. "We need to be going faster every year. The Speedway has mentioned liability issues but that is such a generic blanket term that in our society we have become used to excusing things like--liability issue--well this is auto racing and pushing the limits and so if we want this sport to grown, we need to haul ass and increase the limits."
The Indy 500 has some good markets globally. Japan is a racing hotbed, Brazil likes the sport and so does England. But Don Wheldon thinks getting interested in Indy racing globally is good but Indianapolis 500 is as American as apple pie. Wheldon is from England as is his wife but his children were born in America and he wants to see the Indy 500 revert to iconic status of the 1950 and 1960s.
"You got to remember, what makes this series is that it is American-based," said Wheldon. "I do think there is not the necessity to go to countries outside the US. I think it is important to do a race or two in Japan. But I think we have to really building this market. This is a very important market worldwide. Businesses want to be involved in America and I think it is important to have the majority of the series here (America). Like I say, we have to keep doing what we are doing, be patient and continue to explore a lot of avenues that have not been not been explored before and exploit the ones we have explored and make them bigger and better.”
The Indy 500, the Kentucky Derby, motherhood and apple pie. That’s Americana or was Americana in 1950. The Indy 500 has fallen off the pedestal in that equation. It isn’t even the biggest race of the weekend anymore.
Evan Weiner is an author, radio-TV commentator, and lecturer on the “Politics of Sports Business” and is available for speaking at firstname.lastname@example.org