Indianapolis 500 – Five ways to save the Greatest Spectacle in Racing

by Kent Sterling

Keep the milk as a tradition, but let's embrace some serious change at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including the end of the arcane local live TV blackout.

Keep the milk as a tradition, but let’s embrace some serious change at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including the end of the arcane local live TV blackout.

A stunningly good race, beautiful weather, and the closest thing to filled grandstands in years make a discussion about saving the Indianapolis 500 a wasteful exercise – or so the staff at 16th and Georgetown might think.

Not me, not after spending a couple of previous Memorial Day weekends 230 miles away from Indianapolis in St. Louis, where I couldn’t find a single person who gave a damn about the race, any of the collar events, or a single person under the age of 30 who knew it existed.

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Not after looking at the grandstand during qualifications or practice this May to see dozens of people who sat in virtual isolation watching the mostly mundane “action.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Indianapolis 500 – the history and tradition, magnificent facility, dedication to honoring those who paid the ultimate price during battle all give me chills every year, and even Donald Davidson’s ruminations on all 500s past.  The first lap is the most thrilling 45 seconds in the history of sports.

The racers of the past who risked everything to wrench an extra mile an hour out of a car far less safe than the rig Ryan Hunter-Reay won in yesterday make the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hallowed ground.

I want the Indianapolis 500 to not only survive but thrive.  I want the rest of the world to understand the race for what it has always been, rather than for what its image is today.

In that spirit, here are five quick and easy ways to make the Indianapolis 500 relevant to a greater swath of people – particularly a generation that has no recollection of the days of A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, the Unsers, Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock, or Mario Andretti.

End the local TV blackout – There are so many reasons to change this bizarre and archaic policy that it could fill a book, but this is a 1,200 word post, so we will be forced to edit the list down a bit.  Back in the 1940s and 1950s, there was a notion among baseball owners that local TV would kill the live gate.  Chicago Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley was convinced that there could be no marketing more impactful than the three-hour daily commercial game telecasts on WGN represented.  For a putrid team that is not likely to win more than 70 games for the fourth straight years, the Cubs will draw far more than two-million as they always do.

The last professional sports franchise to embrace the notion that watching home games should be a privilege reserved for those who buy tickets was the Chicago Blackhawks.  Owner Bill Wirtz died in 2007, the blackout was lifted, and the average Hawks attendance jumped from 12,727 in 2006-2007 to 16,814 in 2007-2008 and then to 22,245 in 2008-2009.

Operating outside reason and logic is a great way to turn away the young.  They are smart, and when parents are forced to answer the question, “Why isn’t the race on TV?”, the answer is either “I don’t know” or a bunch of gobbledegook just as illogical as the policy itself.  Kids walk away thinking that their parents are as stupid as those running the IMS.

Exposing the young to a great civic event will engage interest and ticket sales, not repel it.  Back in the day, people waited patiently for the replay, and those who attend the race still watch, but to think that locals will plan their Sunday before Memorial Day evening around watching an eight-hour old race is nuts (especially when live in-car coverage is available on ESPN3).

Louisville allows the Kentucky Derby to be broadcast, and Churchill Downs continues to enjoy record attendance.  Those who don’t attend the day of racing either host or attend Derby parties.  It’s time that this civic celebration extends to neighborhoods.

Live TV can be the gateway drug for a whole new generation of fans.

End the fans bringing their own cooler business – This cuts close to my heart because taking advantage of the ability to bring beer and sandwiches into the track reduces cost for fans, but the revenue loss to the IMS is huge.  The logistics of selling concessions to a quarter of a million people would even depress Wavy Gravy (a very dated reference to a hippie who helped serve breakfast in bed for 400,000 at Woodstock), but where there is a buck to be made, there is a way.

Eventually, someone is going to sue the speedway for its role in not monitoring the alcohol consumption on the grounds, if they haven’t already, and why shouldn’t the Hulman-George Family make a lot of money by selling beer to the thirsty.

Monitor the lines for beer at collar events – There is nothing like an hour long wait for a beer to make concert goers or race fans intractable in their decision to never return.  During Saturday night’s Jason Aldean concert in Turn Four, the wait for warm beer was nearly that long – even in the VIP area.  There were a total of two tents and two portable carts offering beer sales, for what appeared to be 10,000 thirsty customers for those who paid a significant premium to be “VIPs”.

To say people were impatient and intolerant is an understatement.  There was a limit of two beers per customer, but  many left with entire six-packs.  It was camp runamok out there, and the vendors were unable to control the thirsty cowboy boot and jeans clad crew who asserted their own limits – or lack thereof.

When you host a party, beer must be easily and plentifully available.  If it isn’t, people find alternative arrangements.  Aldean was great, and so was Tyler Farr, but all people were talking about was the disappointing length of the lines for warm beer.

Never end a race under yellow again – There is nothing less satisfying that watching 198 laps of great racing only to see a back marker clip the wall and cause a drab finish under caution.  Drama should build throughout the race until the checkers fall, not come to an abrupt end with a couple of laps left.

The powers that be made a bold and brilliant call yesterday when they red flagged the race with under ten laps left as Townsend Bell crashed.  Sure, it might have altered the result of the race for the teams and drivers, but spectator events need to embrace the needs of spectators.

An Indy 500 should be like sex – the climax needs to be at the very end.


Ignore the traditionalists when re-building the Indy 500 – An event should be deconstructed year after year to ensure continued evolution to improve customer and participant satisfaction.  Indianapolis is very imaginative as hosts for the Super Bowl, Final Fours, and Big Ten events.  The Indy 500 should mirror that creativity, and hiring Mark Miles as the Hulman Company CEO should continue to enhance that process.

Miles is crazy smart, and knows exactly how to build fun events from the ground up.  Hopefully, he is able to get done what needs to be done year after year without interference from those who would like the month of May to return to what it was back in 1958.

Concerts, music festivals, additional races, tighter (less complicated) qualifications, and a better overall customer experience have continued to move the experience forward, but there is a lot more to be done.  My wife wants the IMuSic Fest on Carb Day and the day after.  I like it.  Why not have a Lollapalooza type show with multiple stages servicing 80,000 who then stick around for the race?

I love the direction the Month of May is heading, but with a couple of annual tweaks the Indianapolis 500 will become a must attend event for people all over the midwest.  It’s time that people in St. Louis, Chicago, Columbus, and Louisville see the magic at 16th and Georgetown as a traditional pilgrimage whose allure is more than tradition.

14 thoughts on “Indianapolis 500 – Five ways to save the Greatest Spectacle in Racing

  1. Terry G. Clark

    First and foremost is speed. Back in the 70’s 80’s the single most attractive compelling reason to go to the track is to watch a person break a record. If there needs to be changes in the historic track to do this then do it.
    2nd is money.back in 77 the winner got over one million dollars. I don’t believe that there was a football or basketball player coming close to that for a season. The speedway needs to attract. The best drivers in the world. Even if that is just some off. Until they can get investors that will put up the cash of about 15mil for the winner no one is going to take it serious.
    3rd get rid of that damn golf course. Turn the place into the best ammusment park for a month. Something for the whole family whichincludes a water park as well as a outdoor music theater with local and national acts every day.

  2. steve

    Good ideas, IMS needs to find a regional marketing firm that understands 5 hour drive time marketing. Coolers enhance the live experience, IMS will never have enough concession stands for 200,000 or 400,000 people. I DO NOT WANT TO STAND IN LINE FOR ANYTHING ON RACE DAY. I go to my seat 2 beers 2 pops and a sandwich. Also I don’t need 10 beers spilled on me while missing half the race letting people in and out, NO, NO, NO.
    Maybe some bureaucrat at Home land security could direct people to a road out of speedway in lieu of down 16th street where ISP has a 45 minute barricade set up. Terry weather is to iffy for a waterpark.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      Great point about letting people in and out for runs to the vending stations. There has to be a better way to monitor the insane level of binge drinking on the IMS property. Heard stories about deaths from alcohol poisoning this weekend, and it made me nauseous. Saw plenty of addled people Saturday night at the Aldean show – one of whom was masterfully and compassionately tended to by a friend – but something has to be done to keep people safe from their own over-indulgence.

  3. Joe C

    All good ideas except the idea of ending the allowance of personal coolers. That would be a turible idea. It makes me question how many races you have attended. Do you have any idea what it would take to provide food and beverages to 350,000 (including infield) at an all day event on an 80-90 degree day? It would be a disaster. Besides, a quarter of the people only attend for the party anyway. Anyway, incredible year this year. Definitely trending upward!

    1. David Spellman

      I see the points made about personal coolers.
      Unless I misread, I think Kent was seeking a way to drive more revenue to IMS.
      Maybe a cooler fee would be a way to achieve both.

      1. kentsterling Post author

        I am recalibrating my thoughts on coolers, but would like for two things to happens – the IMS increases revenue, and people stop dying from alcohol poisoning at or near the track. Hard to drink enough beer from vendors to stun the system into a stupor.

    2. kentsterling Post author

      Let’s say 250,000 people X six beers X a very reasonable cost of $5. That’s a $7,500,000 gross with a cost of right around $1,000,000 including ice or refrigeration trucks. With that amount of cash at stake, people can find a way. The IMS is roughly the size of 16 Wrigley Fields. Treat the race like 16 Cubs games happening simultaneously.

      1. Joe C

        While I like the idea of increasing revenue, I still don’t think that disallowing coolers would do that much to the bottom line. I can all but guarantee ticket sales would drop dramatically. As much as we don’t want to admit it, a lot of people go for the party and not the race.

        Also, your comparison to Wrigley is not really a good one. A Cubs game is typically around 3 hours while most people are at the track before 9 and leave after 5. It’s a long day and sometimes a hot day … People need easy access to water. Also, much of the drinking that takes place for Cubs games takes place at the surrounding bars before/after the game. That doesn’t exist at IMS.

        Also, I don’t see how there would be enough space immediately outside the track to increase the infrastructure it would take to accommodate the concessions necessary for that many people. Lines would be too long and walking traffic would be affected. Also, people don’t want to climb up and down that many stairs for their beverages. I know from experience, it is a hike to the top of the NW Vista.

        1. kentsterling Post author

          Several of your points are valid, but the majority of fans are not in their seats at 9a, nor at 5p, and I’m not sure if you have ever been to Wrigley field, but the majority of beer is sold by vendors who do all the climbing for customers.

          Nothing wrong with taking a sliver of the profits and popping for free bottled water.

          As for bars near the IMS, the Winners Circle and Mike’s do big business through May. Seriously, Speedway’s Main Street is in the midst of a build out that it is hoped will draw people much like Harry Caray’s, Murphy’s, the Cubby Bear, Sluggers, and many other bars within a few blocks of Wrigley.

          1. Joe C

            My intent was not to say that most are in their seats from 9-5 but those in the infield arrive very early (many are in the line by 5AM) and can’t leave until well after 5 due to the traffic. With that said, most are at least near the track tailgating by 9. But, for our discussion, tailgating is irrelevant.

            Been to Wrigley more times than I can count, and not sure I agree with your take but understand where you are coming from. The point I was trying to make is that much of the heavy lifting (so to speak) is done at the bars before the game. I’m sure if Main Street can get a fraction of what Wrigleyville has, many people will be very happy. I look forward to seeing the continued growth. I think things at IMS are moving in the right direction.

          2. David Spellman

            Before we start nit-picking one another to death…worth getting back to the main point: Kent had ideas for how the 500 can thrive in these times. I mean, I raced home from school as a kid to see AJ Foyt win…and I still have that love and enthusiasm.
            Kent had some strong big-picture ideas.

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