By most accounts, the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 lived up to the hype. The biggest disappointment, perhaps, was the reminder in the form of weak national television ratings that the hype remains necessary.
This is not the late 1970s, when the race seemed to sell itself. Then, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway attracted a month-long stream of fans, stopwatches in hand, hoping to see their favorite driver—or any driver—go 200 mph. That fascination resonated nationally. Forty years ago, Americans were captivated by speed—and the Speedway—on Memorial Day Weekend.
With an overnight television rating of 4.3, a dip from last year’s race—an event that wasn’t the subject of as much promotion—it’s clear Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, Hulman Motorsports Senior Vice President Allison Melangton and Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles still have much work to do to rebuild the Indy 500’s relevance outside its home base.
The good news is, they seem up to the task. If the job the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar teams did in staging the 100th race is any indication, there should be plenty of anticipation for the 101st.
Long before rookie Alexander Rossi took the checkered flag after another spellbinding race, it was evident that IMS officials, security personnel and local public safety agencies were well prepared for the largest crowd in recent years. Talk of an infield sellout and the largest crowd ever to attend the race were hard to believe for anyone who remembers an infield packed to the fences in days gone by, but a crowd exceeding 300,000 is big any way you slice it. And in most cases, fans were able to enter and exit the track with relative ease.
The Speedway’s recent emphasis on hospitality was evident. Speedway personnel thanked fans for coming and asked them to please return. As for the overall fan experience, IMS officials should consider that new isn’t always better. Large scoreboards at either end of the track that for years showed driver position and the lead lap on a constant basis were reprogrammed such that their main function seemed to be displaying sponsor advertising. The utility of those scoreboards was missed.
But that’s a quibble in the grand scheme of things. The Speedway itself never looked better. Project 100, a $92 million facility upgrade, put a shine on the Brickyard without violating its special feel. And the months-long buildup to the race was masterful, creating a level of excitement in Indianapolis not seen in May for years.
With close races, breathtaking speed, plenty of passing, telegenic drivers, and a facility and event dripping with tradition, selling the Indy 500 nationally shouldn’t be hard. But it is. It’s important to many inside and outside of racing, and to the Indianapolis economy, that the team in charge not let up in seeking the broad audience the Indianapolis 500 deserves.•
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