Vendors at Indianapolis Motor Speedway are banking on a big weekend to restore some of the luster they say has been missing
from the historic 500-mile race the past several years.
Crowds were thin on Thursday to watch practice and qualifications for Friday’s Firestone Freedom 100 race. But Friday, known as Carb Day, typically attracts the most spectators leading up to the main event on Sunday.
Business reps both inside and outside the brickyard are cautiously optimistic that changes under way to make the Indianapolis 500 more exciting will translate into more traffic off the track.
Rick Johnson of New Jersey has been traveling to the city the past 24 years to sell motorsports paintings for his business partner, Maryland artist Randy Owens. Formula One commissioned Owens to design its official posters each of the eight years (2000-2007) the series ran at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Randy Bernard’s our great white hope,” Johnson said. “In my opinion, Tony George [messed] up the whole thing; 1995 was the peak, and it’s been a damaged market ever since.”
Indianapolis Racing League hired Bernard to replace George as CEO after directors dismissed him from the IMS last summer and he declined an offer to keep leading the league.
Bernard, the former head of the Professional Bull Riders circuit, took the helm of the racing series March 1. He already has compressed the traditional month-long Indianapolis 500 schedule into two weeks, shortening qualifications to a single weekend, and instituted a made-for-television, nine-car shootout for the coveted pole position. He also supports the notion of allowing a wide array of engine and chassis formulas at the race.
Whether his changes and ideas are enough to draw more race fans to the corners of 16th Street and Georgetown Road remains to be seen.
Johnson is not the only vendor who still harbors ill feelings toward George, who instigated an open-wheel split by breaking away from Champ Car and forming the IRL in 1996.
Business has not recovered since, said a ticket broker working a booth on Crawfordsville Road about a mile from the track.
“With the changes this year, we don’t have a clue [about ticket demand],” said the merchant, who refused to provide his name because he said
another reporter “twisted” a quote from him after the contentious open-wheel split.
But several vendors attribute recent declines in race attendance to a slumbering economy as well.
Steve Cermak, an independent contractor from Bloomington, Minn., who is working the Danica Patrick merchandising trailer outside the track, said the Indianapolis 500 is not the only racing event that has hit a rough patch.
Cermak typically sells merchandise for National Hot Rod Association driver John Force. But with that racing series off this weekend, he was brought in by Indianapolis-based Maingate Inc., which produces merchandise for both Force and Patrick.
“Times are tough right now,” Cermak said. “Everyone is having to work hard to get the fan.”
The three women at the nearby Diggin’ It Doughnuts stand have no history at the race to make comparisons. This is the first year they’ve operated their stand, which they plan to take to several summer festivals.
Business so far has been slow, said Tiffany West of Noblesville, but they’re anticipating a busy weekend.
“We’re hoping to be slammed Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” she said.
Inside the track, corporate participation seemingly is on the rise, at least from the perspective of Brett Cocherell, special events manager for hat retailer Lids, owned by Indianapolis-based Hat World Inc.
“This is as crowded, from a vendor standpoint, as the lot’s been in a number of years,” he said.