Benner/Sports and Indianapolis 500 and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Sports Business

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is still our 800-pound gorilla

May 11, 2009
Will Higgins, an excellent wordsmith for The Indianapolis Star, was kind enough to include me in interviews he did in preparation for a story about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Centennial and the track's enormous impact on Indianapolis.

He included a couple of my quotes in his story. It was another one of those "you-know-you're-getting-old-when" moments ... as in, you know you're getting old when you're asked to provide historical perspective on a place that's been around for 100 years.

Donald Davidson I'm not, so I can't provide that kind of history, but in the big picture of Indianapolis, we should never forget that the Speedway and its events—the Indy 500 in particular—remain the 800-pound gorilla in our little corner of the world.

Yes, as I told Higgins, we did yearn to become something greater than a one-event town and we used sports, other sports, to broaden our image. Now, Final Fours and, three years hence, a Super Bowl, dot our landscape. The Indianapolis Colts and Indiana Pacers command attention and resources.

But as much as they are our professional teams, and as much as we hang our hats on amateur sports and hosting big events, the Indianapolis 500 remains our signature event and May our signature time.

Sure, the world has evolved, as it tends to do. The schedule wisely has been truncated to fit new demands. Bulletin: The old days of 70, 80 or 90 entries are history. So is the captivating escalation of speed that made Tom Carnegie's "it's a new track record" part of our yearly lexicon. Some traditionalists bemoan the new qualifying procedure that allows multiple runs at the pole. I'm OK with it. The lack of driver-car depth has taken some of the drama from bump day. So be it.

Because at the end of the day, it is still about the race itself and there remains no greater prize in the world of motorsports than the Indianapolis 500 and that, in my humble opinion, includes NASCAR's Daytona 500, even as it bills itself "the great American race."

The Centennial Celebration during the next three years will provide multiple opportunities for reflection and memories. As a youngster, my first recollection of Indy was the distinctive voice of Sid Collins coming through on the transistor radio, reminding us we were listening to The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

My first venture inside the Speedway was for Pole Day in 1960. We parked beneath the giant trees inside the short chute between Turns 1 and 2. I was simply in awe of how huge the place was. Still am.

My first race was in 1963. I was there with a church youth group, selling programs. When we exhausted our inventory, we found some space at the back of one of the grandstands where we watched Parnelli Jones drive to victory. He remains my favorite all-time Indy driver.

The next year, 1964, our family was in Miami on vacation, but the race was broadcast via closed-circuit television at a local theater. We paid our way in only to watch as a horrific, fiery, multicar crash claimed the lives of drivers Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald.

Jim Murray, the fabled Los Angeles Times columnist, was moved to write two memorable lines: "Gentlemen, Start Your Coffins," and, "It's the first time I traveled 2,000 miles to cover a fire."

Thank goodness for the innovations in technology that have resulted in a truly remarkable safety record in recent years.

By 1968, I was working as a fledgling sports reporter for the Star, which allowed me to experience the Speedway and the 500 from the inside. As the years went on, I came to have a great appreciation for the drivers, their skill and their intellect.

Mario Andretti and Rick Mears in particular routinely provided interviews with articulate and insightful responses to a non-gearhead's questions. But I also learned how much just being among those 33 starters meant to racers who arrived each May with little more than their helmets and hope. The stories of those at the back of the pack always seemed as compelling as those who were sitting in the front.

The people are surpassed only by the place. From Carl Fisher to Eddie Rickenbacker to Tony Hulman to Tony George and the Hulman-George family, the Speedway has both endured and endeared.

Imagine Indianapolis if 16th Street and Georgetown Road were just an intersection. I can't. Here's to the next 100 years.

___

Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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