IMS may host airplane race

A new kind of motorsport soon could be flying into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Speedway officials are in discussions with the Red Bull Air Race World Series, a 5-year-old airplane race circuit that combines the intrigue of a high-wire circus act, thrills of an alpine ski race, and cutting-edge technology of Formula One auto racing.

"Indianapolis is in our sights, to say the least," said series spokeswoman Maddy Stephens. "The city's deep motorsports roots and a historical backdrop like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway make it a fantastic location."

An air race could land at the Speedway as soon as 2009, Stephens added.

Several factors make the event intriguing to IMS and local tourism leaders, including that it would bring international crowds to the city and attract a worldwide TV audience.

"This is just catching on in the U.S., but it is hugely popular in Europe and other parts of the world," said Zak Brown, president of Indianapolis-based motorsports marketing firm Just Marketing, which has overseas offices and ties to sponsors worldwide.

The series currently has 10 races, two in the United States. Competing planes usually take off from a nearby airstrip, then fly low to the ground through an obstacle course of sorts. A Red Bull Air Race World Series event would be the first plane race staged at the Speedway.

IMS officials attended two of the circuit's races in 2007, and series honchos recently visited Indianapolis to tour the Speedway and surrounding cityscape, especially downtown and its hotels.

The Speedway will mark its 100th anniversary in 2009, and IMS Chief Operating Officer Joie Chitwood said some special events might be staged to highlight the milestone. The 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 is 2011, and IMS officials are planning a multiyear celebration.

"I don't know how many annual events we would host after" the Indianapolis 500, Brickyard 400, MotoGP motorcycle race and a corporate golf outing, Chitwood said at a motorsports conference in New York Nov. 28. "But with the centennial era approaching, I think it's about putting special events on the calendar. Air racing is very interesting to me."

The Speedway's annual calendar will become even more crowded if it succeeds in bringing back an F1 race, as Chitwood said he'd like to do.

Red Bull officials are hopeful that, if the air event proved successful, IMS leaders would consider hosting it annually.

Historical ties

Chitwood, who attended the series' San Diego race this year, told IBJ that discussions to host an Indianapolis air race are in the formative stages. But he said the event is attractive partly due to its relevance to Speedway history.

In 1910, the IMS hosted an air show where an entry from Orville and Wilbur Wright set an international altitude record. From 1927 to 1945, the Speedway was owned by World War I fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker.

Chitwood said he was "impressed" at the San Diego race.

"It's a very unique and interesting event," Chitwood said. "But there's a lot of work we have to do before we can say if this is viable."

Red Bull Air Race World Series events are held in a variety of locations worldwide–some over oceans and beaches, others over deserts and even downtowns.

Discussions to bring the air race to Indianapolis date back two years, said Bob Schultz, Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association spokesman.

"We've sat down with event organizers and Speedway officials to see if this is possible," Schultz said. "The discussions picked up after the MotoGP [motorcycle race] was announced [in July]."

Red Bull is the title sponsor of the air racing series and MotoGP.

The air racing series' penchant for highlighting local cultural, historical and other landmarks is one of the factors that makes hosting the event attractive for local leaders, Schultz said. Added Stephens: "We aim for a spectacular backdrop that we can show the rest of the world. It's a very unique and memorable way to highlight a city. In Budapest, we fly right in front of the Parliament building. It's very dramatic." Schultz said an air race over and into the grounds of the Speedway, with the city's downtown skyline in the background, would generate publicity that would be difficult to quantify.

"That's a scenario that makes this event very enticing," he said.

Huge crowds

The series founded and owned by Austria-based Red Bull is no fly-by-night operation, said Tim Frost, president of Frost Motorsports, a Chicago-based motorsports business consultancy.

"Red Bull has been a very successful marketer worldwide, and they've become especially adept at using unconventional marketing methods to raise brand awareness and drive sales," Frost said. "When Red Bull gets involved, it's usually first-class."

Even though the series is still in its infancy, the San Diego race this year drew 70,000, according to published reports.

The Sunday Times in Australia reported the race in Perth drew 350,000, the largest single sporting event on the continent. This year's race in Rio de Janeiro drew 1 million spectators, Brazil's largest-ever sporting event.

The series has been able to ink multiple television deals, and has gained a TV audience of 300 million in 130 countries, Red Bull officials said. In the United States, it airs on Fox Sports Network–usually during prime time on Sunday evenings.

'Incredibly agile'

Planes competing in the Red Bull Air Race World Series are about 21 feet long, with a 24.4-foot wingspan. They weigh about 1,160 pounds and reach maximum speeds of 265 miles an hour. The prop planes–which can roll 420 degrees in a second–are powered by a 310-horsepower engine.

Pilots have varied backgrounds, including military and commercial pilots, stunt fliers and aerobatic competitors.

It's not out of the question that the planes could take off and land within the confines of the Speedway, which encompasses about 1,025 acres.

"The planes only need 600 feet to take off," Stephens said. "They're incredibly agile."

Pilot and spectator safety is a primary concern, Speedway officials said.

Though planes routinely clip pylons while carving the shortest lines through the serpentine course, Stephens said the series' safety record is spotless.

"Danger is definitely a part of racing, but in five years, we've had no accidents and no fatalities," Stephens said.

The majority of the racing is done between 6 feet and 60 feet off the ground, and pilots are required to tilt their wings at certain angles as they zip through the pylons, which are made of lightweight sailcloth and kept upright by air pressure. Planes can blast through the pylons–which earns them a time penalty–with little damage to the plane. A new pylon can be raised in minutes.

Red Bull has a crew of more than 300 that travels with the series to handle the infrastructure buildout, including the air control tower, hangars and airstrip, if necessary.

The races are usually held over two or three days and include a qualification round, which pares the field to 12 racers. A drag-racing-style tournament format then culminates in a two-plane final.

The series is known for its accessibility to fans, including meet-and-greets with pilots and tours of hangars and other behind-the-scenes events.

"Creating a real positive connection with the fans is a very important aspect of these events," Stephens said.

Tickets for the San Diego race were $10 for qualifications and preliminaries and $25 for the finals. Two-day passes were available for $30. Events such as the public pit lane walk are offered free.

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