On July 16, I followed a caravan of about 200 motorcyclists from downtown to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
As I climbed out of my car in the IMS parking lot, I heard AC-DC’s “Hell’s Bells” blasting through the loudspeakers.
Just another reminder it’s not your father’s Speedway anymore. More to the point, it’s not Tony George’s grandfather’s Speedway anymore.
Think about it. No sooner than George and his IMS team bid adieu to Formula One, they said hello to MotoGP, the international crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me of motorcycle racing.
So, to paraphrase Jackson Browne, let the roadies continue to take the premier stage in all of motorsport, only this time on two wheels rather than four.
Yes, George’s vision for open-wheel racing hasn’t panned out. Perhaps one of these days/months/years/decades, everyone will agree there needs to be just one series.
But you can’t argue with his vision for the Speedway. First NASCAR. Then F-1. Now motorcycles. And how nice to have the cycles in his other back pocket just as he was prying F-1 boss Bernie Ecclestone’s fingers off his wallet in the other pocket.
Of course, George made it clear one had nothing to do with the other and that the motorcycles shouldn’t be thought of as a replacement for F-1. Obviously, having both would have been his preference.
But it takes considerable sting away from the departure of F-1 knowing a third event is still on the Speedway’s calendar, one that will carry considerable local economic wallop, be far more favorable financially to the Speedway, and bring aboard a partner far more willing to be, well, a partner.
That said, I’m not among the narrowminded so happily willing to tell F-1and its arrogant Mr. Ecclestone to take a hike. That approach ignores the value of that event and the money it put into the pockets of hardworking Hoosiers.
Sure, the U.S. Grand Prix had a bumpy eight-year run, lowlighted by the contrived finish, the Michelin debacle and the date changes. But through it all, the cash registers still did an annual ka-ching.
And if every business deal was canceled because the guy on the other side of the negotiating table was a jerk, I’m not sure a lot would get done.
From a pure business standpoint, can Ecclestone be faulted for taking the money and running to other countries more than willing to meet whatever his price might be? The bottom line was the bottom line: George couldn’t pony up the money others could, at least not without a title sponsor and revenue from a television contract.
To his credit, George couldn’t have taken a higher road unless he was driving over Independence Pass. Through it all, he responded with grace and reason. I do not smell the smoke of a burned bridge. It’s my hope that F-1 returns some day. Not wishing him ill, mind you, but Ecclestone’s an old coot. He won’t live forever. Times and circumstances can change.
Not that F-1 was my cup of motor oil. I covered the first USGP for The Star, made sarcastic light of it, and haven’t been back since. I thought it was a yawn. Yet our international guests loved it. Of course, they also go bonkers over a nil-nil soccer game.
As for MotoGP, I’m fairly convinced the Speedway will have a major hit on its hands. There’s no questioning the growing popularity of motorcycle racing and the passion of its followers.
While the F-1 boys couldn’t care less about being in the United States, my sense is that MotoGP’s commercial rights holder, Dorna Sports, sees the all-American potential for both its sport and its manufacturers. And with all due respect to the other U.S. race in Laguna Seca, Calif., Indy is where it can make a dramatic national splash.
“If you like racin’,” said Kentuckian Nicky Hayden, the defending world champion, “then Indy’s the spot.”
MotoGP, unlike F-1, does have a considerable American presence, which should broaden its appeal here. If I have one concern, it’s that mid-September date, when we all become preoccupied with football.
As with F-1, George will again reach into his own pocket-though not nearly as deeply this time-to finance the necessary track modifications.
I’ve only watched MotoGP on television, but I’ve got to tell you, those guys are otherworldly brave. Or nuts. Or both.
I’m also thinking a seat in the E Penthouse, as those two-wheeled rockets go from 210 miles an hour into a sharp left Turn One, might be enough to bring you to your feet and exclaim, “Hell’s bells!”
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 [email protected] Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.