Guess it’s time to dance with the one that brung us.
Er, rather, it’s time to pay to dance with the one that brung us.
You know, the mothership. Or the mother lode. Or the mother of what would eventually become known as our sports initiative.
We’re talking about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in general and, specifically, the Indianapolis 500.
The Speedway and the race put us on the map before we even knew to ask for directions.
And they are the ones that, in a sense, we came to take for granted as we became more bedazzled by other shiny objects like Final Fours, Pan American Games, Super Bowls, Pacers, Colts and the like.
Now the Speedway and the Hulman & Co. folks—including their new CEO, Mark Miles—are asking for help to the tune of $70 million to $100 million that would come from assorted taxes the Speedway typically generates for state coffers.
Over the next 20 years, the Speedway wants to spend the money on upgrades to the facility. There’s no question it needs them. Not just the federally mandated improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the numerous grandstands that are showing their age; the many rest rooms that are, to put it politely, primitive; lights, paving the way for potential nighttime events; and the old-technology video boards. State-of-the-art versions of those are considered essential to the fan experience in virtually every major venue in the country.
For years, the mammoth facility at 16th and Georgetown has paid its own way while Indianapolis embraced—and devoted public subsidies to—new facilities that allowed the Pacers to remain, the Colts to arrive, and a plethora of major events to take place.
Even as Tony Hulman’s grandson, Tony George, devoted enormous sums first to make IMS acceptable for NASCAR, then did the massive remake for Formula One and the U.S. Grand Prix, there was never a notion—at least expressed publicly—of, “Hey, what about us?”
Indeed, as Jim Irsay and the Indianapolis Colts got their Lucas Oil Stadium digs (but which also enabled us to hang onto Men’s Final Fours and attract the Super Bowl and Big Ten football championship) and public money was used to defray Bankers Life Fieldhouse construction and more funds were diverted to Herb Simon and Pacers Sports & Entertainment for operating costs and improvements to the fieldhouse, critics would hold up the Speedway as a shining example of one of the few sports entities in the country not asking for public assistance.
Now that it has, how does the state say no?
The Speedway and its races generate enormous economic activity. Sure, dwindling attendance for the Brickyard 400 is a worthy concern, but it remains a huge event. And there is belief that the prospect of a night race—although you wonder about the impact on the surrounding neighborhoods—could stop the attendance erosion.
The motorcycles of Moto GP are a niche attraction, but still draw six-figure crowds for the weekend. I’m also told the golf course has its eye on luring back a Senior Tour event.
And, of course, the Indianapolis 500 and its iconic status needs to be preserved and protected.
What differentiates the IMS plea is the fact that it is a privately held entity whereas LOS, the fieldhouse and Victory Field are publicly owned (insert debate here concerning the leases for the Colts, Pacers and Indians, respectively).
In light of precedent, I don’t begrudge the Speedway asking for help which, judging by published comments from some in the General Assembly, it seems likely it will receive.
But will there be additional return on the investment? I can’t say that infrastructure improvements alone will make the Brickyard 400 the draw it was in the 1990s, or that it still won’t be a rather mediocre race on a track ill-suited for stock cars. Are there additional uses for the road course? By most appraisals, last year’s Grand Am/Rolex Series races were a waste of time and resources, and someone still needs to explain to me how the NASCAR Nationwide Series race wasn’t far better suited to the oval at nearby Lucas Oil Raceway.
Then again, it’s the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I know the anti-sports, anti-tax crowd absolutely loathes these kinds of subsidies, but IMS and the Indy 500 have been priming our pump for 100 years. So maybe it’s not so much a subsidy as it is a reimbursement.
Gentlemen, and ladies, start your howling.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at [email protected] He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.