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Top 10 ways to improve the national image of the Indianapolis 500

All those people having a great time - why is the Indy 500 edging toward national irrelevance, and how can it be fixed?

All those people having a great time and still the Indy 500 edges toward national irrelevance.  How can it be improved?

TV ratings don’t lie.  Despite the extensive media coverage for the historic 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, ratings were down nationally from a 4.3 share in 2015 to a 4.1 for the 2016 race.

That was despite a 33.6 local rating.  If not for the massive number in Indy, the rating for the race would have been in the threes.

There are plenty of success stories that fans can choose to tell about this historic event, but we can’t ignore the national malaise for what was once a Memorial Day tradition that made stars of A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, the Unsers, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, and others whose brightness continues to eclipse the current stable of IndyCar competitors.

I love the Indianapolis 500 as an event and a race.  I watched it live from the inside of turn three and watched replays of the race twice on TV.

As a spectator at the event, I can’t imagine having more fun than I did Sunday.  A lot was done right for the 375,000 people who made the Indy 500 that largest single day sporting event in history.

It’s truly the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but the event and television presentation needs an infusion of excitement, logic, and humility.

Written with love and admiration, here are 10 ways to help the Indy 500 turn the corner toward increased national relevance:

10 – Invite actual celebrities, or no celebrities.  The party the night before the race is a parade of men and women who are vaguely familiar in that, “Oh, is he/she still alive?” way.  Nothing against Chris Pine, but the majority of the people in the Media Center had to look him up on Wikipedia to figure out who the hell was going to wave the green flag to signal the start of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.  No celebrities is better than faded celebrities.

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9 – Run more ovals.  The road races are fun, but they look nothing like the Indianapolis 500.  People who tuned to the 500 two days ago might want to take a look at the race in Detroit this weekend.  They will see something much different as the same cars run a much different course.

8 – All collar events need to be produced as TV shows, not events shown on TV.  The three-hour Indy 500 Gala the night after the race is unwatchable.  We have all spent a few evenings at awards banquets that last way too long, but few groups have the temerity to broadcast theirs.  The gala, along with the parade, and red carpet events where the TV hosts require index cards to recall the identities of the celebrities they interview need an immediate makeover.  I am very thankful to the Hulman-George Family for being such gracious caretakers of the race and property at 16th and Georgetown, but being forced to listen to 47 extended thank yous during last night’s banquet was bad TV.  One sincere and genuine thanks would suffice.

7 – Encourage disagreements, or at least don’t fine drivers for engaging in them.  Watching nice guys and ladies drive fast in circles without context is dull.  Knowing that Helio Castroneves is very unhappy with J.R. Hildebrand makes racing more fun.  When did NASCAR start to emerge as a major league in racing?  It was after the fistfight between Cale Yarbrough and Bobby Allison.  No one should promote fighting as a marketing technique, but fining drivers for speaking their minds is beyond counterintuitive.  Drama requires conflict.  Allow drivers to make fans aware of conflict.

6 – Increase the number of races.  At Daytona, starting positions for all but the first two spots are determined via shorter races earlier in the week.  IndyCars are comparatively fragile, and running more races would seem a silly risk of cash for owners, except that the last two practices – on Monday and Carb Day – saw 33 cars aggressively circle the track more than 4,000 times.  That’s roughly 300 miles per car.  Why not run two additional races during the month at 150 miles each to serve as qualifications?  Would you rather watch cars circle the track in isolation four times – or race one another?

5 – If celebrities are a part of the marketing for the Indy 500, make them real celebrities.  Look, I love Florence Henderson as much as anyone who watched “The Brady Bunch” before it was cancelled more than 42 years ago.  If the Hulman-George Family wants to continue to invite Flo back to their suite every year, that’s great.  Putting her front and center as a grand marshall is an act of lunacy.  There is nothing that could possibly scream, “We are silly non-adapters!” more clearly than Flo as a major participant in this race.  More Lady Gaga please!

4 – Start the race later – maybe as late as night.  The Indy 500 starts at 12p ET, and while that suits me just fine, it asks people on the west coast to drag their asses out of bed at 9a to watch the race.  That’s not a very accommodating overture for a significant chunk of audience.  Lighting the track and parking areas would be expensive, but success sometimes requires investment.

3 – More speed.  New track records are cool.  Doing cool stuff engages fans.  There must be a way to safely operate these cars at 240+ miles an hour.  If the configuration of the track needs to be changed, do it.  The nine degrees, 12 minutes banking from 1909 is a cool feature, but restricting speed because Carl Fisher made that call 107 years ago seems ridiculous.

2 – Open up the engineering.  The economics required to field an IndyCar requires a technical platform among two manufacturers forced toward equanimity, but what would happen if the Indianapolis Motor Speedway encouraged innovation – a 2017 extension of Parnell Jones Turbine?  Madness, fun, and increased interest.

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1 – Continue showing the race live in Indianapolis.  This race does not exist for the majority of kids in Indy because it hasn’t been shown live on TV.  Finally, this year the sellout allowed the bigwigs at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the necessary leverage to remove this shortsighted and silly impediment between young potential fans and a very exciting event they will enjoy if only they are allowed to discover it on live TV.

[This is an edit of a post that erroneously stated the 33.6 local TV listenership number was share, not rating. I regret the error.]

Kent Sterling hosts the fastest growing sportstalk show in Indianapolis on CBS Sports 1430 every weekday from 3p-6p, and writes about Indiana sports at kentsterling.com.

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