BENNER: Speedway's centennial becomes a crossroads

May 15, 2010

It was just two years ago this week that I remember gathering in the late afternoon at the Allison Mansion on the campus of Marian College (now Marian University).

Outside was a tethered hot air balloon. Vintage automobiles were on display. And there was a replica of the famous outline of the oval track conceived by businessmen James Allison, Arthur Newby, Frank Wheeler and Carl Fisher, who had come together to build an automobile testing ground that would become the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Inside, IMS CEO Tony George and IMS President and Chief Operating Officer Joie Chitwood unveiled plans for the Speedway’s Centennial Era Celebration, marking the years 1909 (the Speedway’s opening) through 1911, when the first Indianapolis 500-mile race occurred.

Overriding the ceremony was the recent demise of rival Champ Car, signaling an end to the damaging open-wheel racing split. At last, there was unification under one banner, the Indy Racing League.

The future seemed as bright as that day’s spring sun. That was then. This is now.

George has been exiled and Chitwood bailed for another job, both the result of fallout from a bitter Hulman-George family feud.

Once the family/company accountant, Jeff Belskus is now running the Speedway. A marketing whiz from bull riding, Randy Bernard, is in charge of the league. Crowds are abundant (Brazil, Long Beach) at some venues, sparse (Kansas City) at others. Television ratings are dismal, especially for races consigned to the cable network Versus. The vision of an oval-dominated series led by American stars is long gone.

Oh, and our once Merry Month of May has been reduced to a Festive Fortnight, a concession to the times and economics. And please understand, I concur with the consolidated schedule. Less can be more. I also applaud the new Pole Day shoot-out format. Why not try something new?

Nonetheless, the celebration of the past has been enveloped with concerns about the future. It’s hard to fete the last 100 years when you worry if there will be a next one.

OK, that may be a bit melodramatic. Right now there’s no reason to believe open-wheel will go away or devolve into a series with minimal races and teams.

Plus, there are encouraging signs. Apparel giant Izod has made a huge financial and promotional commitment to the series. I also find it encouraging that women can find a place in open wheel.

And while my contact with Bernard hasn’t been much, those whose opinions I trust and who know him well believe his outsider’s perspective and marketing prowess can lead the series toward prosperity.

Down the road, new chassis and engines will become part of the equation. I long for the disparity and innovation of the old days when cars differed in ways other than the paint schemes. As hideous as I think the proposed “delta wing” looks, I’d love to see it out there mixing it up with the basic Dallara of today. After all, it’s not that much more radical than the turbine-powered, wedge-shaped Lotus was three decades ago.

Most of all, I want the series to gain stature in support of the Indy 500, not the other way around. I will contend to my grave that the “great American race” is not the Daytona 500 but Indy, which has real traditions and trappings and none of that manufactured phoniness that’s so much a part of NASCAR.

The Hulman-George family has been good to this city and this state. From Tony Hulman’s post-World War II resurrection of the Speedway to the investments Tony George made over the last two decades to make it the finest racing facility in the world, it is our most priceless Indiana heirloom.

My fervent hope, then, is that the family and its new era of leaders have a plan and a vision and that the legacy of the grandfather, the grandson and, yes—James Allison, Arthur Newby, Frank Wheeler and Carl Fisher—will be preserved.

I go back to that day two years ago, and recall the remarks of the Hulman family matriarch, Mari Hulman George.

“No other motorsports facility in the world has the rich history and tradition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” she said then. “The Centennial Era celebration will pay homage to the heroes and events of our storied past while anticipating an even more glorious future.”

Again, let’s hope.•


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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