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SPORTS: The great race isn't as broken as some think

May 21, 2007

Recently, I served as a moderator for a panel that included Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian; Conseco Fieldhouse Executive Director and Indiana Pacers Vice President Rick Fuson; NCAA President Myles Brand; Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Joie Chitwood; and former Indiana Sports Corp. Chairman Jack Swarbrick.

Except for the moderator, it was an all-star lineup, convened to discuss the impact sports has had on Indianapolis. It was both informative and inspiring as it captured the essence of the sports initiative and all that it has done for Indianapolis over the last 25 years.

Oops. Did I say 25 years? Chitwood made the point that the sports initiative in Indianapolis might have begun 62 years ago, in 1945, when a gentleman from Terre Haute named Tony Hulman purchased the Speedway, resurrected it from World War II ruins and did, indeed, turn the Indianapolis 500 into the "greatest spectacle in racing."

Hulman's resources and vision played out over the next 50 years as the 500 took its place among the pantheon of sporting events. I believe it still has that stature. At the end of the day, remember, it remains

the largest single-day sporting event in the world.

Consider that for just a moment.

Certainly, you cannot diminish the longtime presence of the Pacers, and the professional sports toehold they gained and held for Indianapolis. The amateur sports movement has brought nearly 500 major events to the city and attracted the NCAA, the biggest amateur sports organization of them all. That partnership will pay dividends for years to come. And the Colts? What more needs to be said than Super Bowl champions, baby.

But the Speedway always has been the 800-pound gorilla in our room and it separates itself from the others on two distinct levels.

One, it is a privately held facility. And two, the cash it generates for central Indiana on an annual basis dwarfs the others combined.

Thus, at the risk of being labeled a Kool-Aid drinker-critics sometime refer to the Speedway as being at the corner of "16th and Jonestown"-I cannot place myself among those obsessed with reminding the world the month of May around here ain't what it used to be.

Even if it isn't.

The question is, then, should the Speedway in general-and IMS owner Tony George and Chitwood in particular-spend their time, money and creative energy trying to replicate the Indy of 20 or 30 years ago?

Or should they acknowledge the new paradigm of American motorsports-the one that includes the lowest common denominator's fixation on NASCAR-and instead focus on being the best they can be?

Obviously, they've chosen the latter.

Recently on WNDE's "The Drive," in one of the more entertaining sessions of sports talk radio I've heard in a long time, my friend and former Indianapolis Star colleague-and noted Tony George critic-Robin Miller again took the Speedway to task on a number of levels, including the new qualifying procedure, attendance and prize money for both the pole and the race. Robin was, as he often is, passionate in stating his positions.

Next up was WNDE's "Track Dude" (what can I say, it's radio) Michael Young, who was equally passionate in defense of the Speedway's present-day state of affairs.

Both made good points. I agree with Miller that the Speedway should-if it can afford to-significantly increase its prize money for both the pole and the race. In sports, as in most things, money talks and commands attention.

I disagree with my friend that the Speedway needs to lure certain NASCAR drivers to compete in the 500 by moving the race to Memorial Day instead of Sunday, when NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 also takes place. The Speedway already beckons to NASCAR ... in July.

Is attendance down from the heyday? Without question. In some ways, however, that's not all bad. Start with this: no snakepit and fewer drunks.

As I've written several times, two openwheel series are one too many. I wish the split had never happened.

But neither do I believe the sky is falling over 16th and Georgetown. The last two races have had fans out of their seats and cheering at the end. No, it's not what it used to be. That said, it remains the greatest spectacle in racing, and one of the greatest spectacles in all of sport.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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