TOM HARTON Commentary: Infield hero crashes corporate suite

April 24, 2006

Gene Simmons, the blood-spitting "demon of Kiss," has been hired to make the Indy Racing League and the Indianapolis 500 a hot commodity again.

Sounds like a stoner's dream.

Black T-shirts with the iconic Kiss logo were everywhere in the beersoaked, weed-perfumed infield of the 1970s and early 1980s. Some of those shirts were on people walking upright. Others were very publicly removed and some covered the limp bodies of those who'd overindulged.

Mud, sweat, sun, booze, bongs and Coppertone. Throw in some fried chicken and sunburned flesh and set it all to music-maybe "Rock 'n' Roll All Nite" or another Kiss standard-and you're in the infield at Indy circa 1975.

The infield had its own culture, but it's a culture long gone-buried under the Speedway's Formula One track, its landscaped spectator mounds and its redesigned golf course.

It's ironic that Simmons, once a hero of the very crowd IMS chased off with those improvements a decade ago, is being counted on to recapture some of open-wheel racing's old buzz (pun intended).

Not that George and his crowd want to bring widespread substance abuse back to West 16th Street, but they would surely welcome the crowds that made the Indianapolis 500 and the month that led up to it a spectacle of humanity.

"The Indy 500-where the fastest action isn't on the track." So reads a promo line on the back cover of "Spectator Sport," a James Alexander Thom novel published in 1978 that was based on the postponed, rain-shortened 1973 race. "They come from everywhere-all kinds of people into all kinds of thrills," the cover continues.

The 1973 race, my first, was indeed a spectacle. There was no Kiss-the band was founded a few months earlier-but there was plenty in the infield to catch the eye of an 11-year-old. I spent soggy Day One of that race in the Turn Two infield and was between Turn Four and the pit entrance on the main straightaway the day the race finally went into the record books. The fiery crash that ultimately claimed Swede Savage's life happened right in front of me. The anticlimactic Gordon Johncock victory did, too.

That soggy, sad week might've soured me on the Brickyard, but it didn't. I was hooked on the Indy 500 before 1973-and not just because of the race itself or the speed, which climbed toward that magical 200 mph mark in the 1970s. It was the spectacle that sold the place. Indy in the '70s and '80s wasn't always pretty, and sometimes it smelled bad, but it was genuine.

A lot of that disappeared in the early '90s after Tony George cleaned up the place. When he swept away the infield crowd, thousands of paying customers and their family race traditions got kicked to the curb. A generation of kids for whom trips to the Speedway might have become a May ritual found other things to do.

It didn't help matters that the gutting of the infield roughly coincided with the split in open-wheel racing and the creation of the Indy Racing League.

A decade after the split, the racing's better than ever, but for a variety of reasons, the crowd hasn't returned at full strength. Making Indy a tough ticket again is now the job of Simmons, who reportedly told one of George's lieutenants last year that the IRL logo "sucked."

That full-throttle approach apparently resonated with Speedway management, which announced in January it had hired the Kiss star and his Beverly Hills-based firm, Simmons Abramson Marketing, to brand and market the IRL and its legendary race.

Can Simmons, 56, invent a new Indy culture to replace the one his music accompanied decades ago? Can Simmons' "I am Indy" anthem and myriad other promotions once again make 16th and Georgetown the place to be?

May is upon us, but it might take several Mays to get the answers to those questions. And when the answers come, you won't find them on the 2-1/2-mile oval. It'll be the action off the track that tells the tale.

Harton is editor of IBJ. His column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tharton@ibj.com.
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