Potential of MotoGP weekend waiting to be unlocked

When a facility like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a capacity of 300,000 plus, it’s easy to get fooled into thinking an event like the MotoGP motorcycle race that draws 50,000 to 75,000 is a failure.

It’s oh so easy to point to all those empty seats, and scream how the event pales in comparison to the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400; the hotels aren’t as full, the restaurants aren’t as busy and the beer doesn’t flow out of area bars quite as quickly as it does for those other events.

As a business reporter, I spend more time downtown and in commercial districts on event weekends than I do at the track. I talk to more hoteliers, restaurant and shop owners than I do gearheads. And the consensus is, no, it’s not the 500 or 400.

But as far as potential for growth goes, I think the MotoGP race has more potential than the other two events at the Speedway combined. And I think local merchants might be realizing the same thing.

If you spent much time at all in the city’s retail commerce centers this past weekend, you can see something is bubbling. And it’s up to city and local convention and tourism folks to take advantage of it. I talked to a group from Ontario that was all geeked up about the race. I talked to a group from Milwaukee (the home of Harley-Davidson), and they just came to mix with other bikers. Some of them weren’t even sure they would go to the race.

The economic impact of the MotoGP weekend is $10 million. That may be a little conservative given that ticket revenue for the event is in the $2 million to $3 million range. It’s easy to forget that the motorcycle race’s economic impact is almost 20 percent of an entire Indiana Pacers season and more than 10 percent of an entire Indianapolis Colts regular season. When you think about it, for a single event, that the city has put just about zero dollars into, that’s pretty impressive.

MotoGP organizers agreed to bring the race back to Indianapolis for at least one more year in 2011. The mayor and his staff should be doing everything they can to help Speedway officials extend the deal.

The MotoGP, with a little TLC, could be much more. Anyone in the event and tourism business knows, the key to maximizing economic impact is to find ways to separate visitors from their money. By making this weekend as much a celebration of motorcycles and the folks whose lifestyle centers around riding them, city officials could double the economic impact of this event.

There’s already a dozen impromptu gatherings of motorcyclists downtown from Friday through Sunday of the MotoGP weekend, most notably on Monument Circle. Several of my gearhead friends come down to the circle with their kids just to check out the bikes. If city officials put some organization behind this, made the circle more of a mall area for the weekend, brought in vendors and more entertainment, the sky is the limit.

I, like just about everyone else in this city not living in a cave, am aware that 13-year-old Peter Lenz died Sunday warming up for a motorcycle race at the Speedway. And I don’t want to seem cold for suggesting a celebration of motorcycling in light of that. Of course, the death of any person, much less a child, is a terrible tragedy.

American MotoGP racer Ben Spies put it best about the death, when he told the Indianapolis Star Sunday, “There's nothing really that can be said right now that's positive.”

But when I was asked on the radio this morning about the death and the wiseness of letting kids so young race motorcycles—or any other vehicles, I harkened back to the early days of the Unser family. Many children in that family raced everything from go-karts to two-wheelers from a very young age. The Unser family is far from alone. Sam Hornish Jr. and Sarah Fisher were but teenagers when they first ran in the Indy Racing League.

It’s part of some people’s and family’s culture and heritage, and who am I—or really anyone—to say it’s wrong.

As an aging competitive cyclist (the non-motorized variety), I often repeat a refrain made famous by Bobby Unser; “I’ll go fast until the day I die.”

And I’ve come to comprehend first-hand the dangers of motorcycling, as my brother-in-law earlier this month hit a deer while traveling at 55-miles-an-hour on his Harley in Northern California. He escaped with a broken back, neck and three ribs, but no paralysis. We thought for a while, we might lose him.

People engage in risky activities when they think the risk is worth the reward. It shows a real dedication and fervency for what they’re doing.

I don’t think Bobby Unser’s words were a flip response, but a reflection of that fervency that may be difficult to understand unless you’ve felt it and decided to live it.

And it’s that exact fervency among motorcycle aficionados that fuels the potential of the MotoGP weekend for Indianapolis.

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