Centennial Era Celebration Notes From Indy

Speedway, IN


In case their message hasn’t reached you yet, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been celebrating its Centennial Era with a three-year party that ends next Sunday with the running of the 95th Indianapolis 500.

For those of us who have experienced some of this century of history first hand, the Celebration has really been an on-going festival since the 1911 inaugural event. No year goes by here on 16th and Georgetown, that images of Pat Flaherty, Wilbur Shaw, Rex Mays and Louie Schneider aren’t seen on billboards, t-shirts, coffee mugs and post cards. Keeping the traditions alive, even through merchandise, is one way that they do it here.

Four-time race winner AJ Foyt will drive this year’s pace car on the 50th anniversary of his first win. Ray Harroun drove his winning Marmon Wasp on race day 1961 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his 1911 victory. Parnelli Jones will take that same yellow Wasp around the track one more time on race day this year to honor the track’s centennial. Historic connections are very important around here. Sixty-seven past 500 winning cars are on display until June 1st in the track’s impressive infield museum-the first time that such a gathering has been organized. The museum courtyard has a marble wall with names engraved on it of early automotive pioneers. This surrounds a bust of Louis Chevrolet, whose participation in the race dates back to the days when the track, and the city of Indianapolis, were the center of the automotive industry in the US.

Coming to the race for the first time in 1961, the facility was not as impressive as I thought it would be, given all the pictures and film that I had studied from afar. Terre Haute businessman Tony Hulman had saved the track, and the race, in 1946 after years of neglect during the WWII.

After the war, Hulman improved and maintained the world-famous facility, but it moved into the modern era after 1989 when Hulman’s grandson, Tony George, became CEO. Adding a road course and new garages, and updating many other aspects of the facility, George lured the F1 set to the track in 2000, and added the Moto GP a few years later.

In not too many other sports are the participants made as available to the fans as they are in auto racing. But especially here at Indy, the connection between those past heroes and their fans is encouraged. Hundreds of surviving 500 race drivers, along with all of the surviving race winners have been invited back for a giant autograph session in the infield on the day before the race. A sold out memorabilia show will give collectors the opportunity to purchase historic items from the track’s past. Even the vintage Pace Cars that led races since 1911were displayed this weekend in the infield.

But all of this basking in history and nostalgia would become irrelevant if the actual 500-mile race itself didn’t continue to be relevant in a world of sport and entertainment that is quite different than it was during the past century.

The division among open-wheel owners in 1979, coupled with the formation of the Indy Racing League in 1996, soured many fans on the sport as NASCAR became the flavor of the day. Attendance at Indy has waned somewhat from the halcyon days of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s when an influx of international driving stars buoyed fan’s attention. Today, TV ratings aren’t what they once were, and with the addition of the Brickyard 400 Sprint Cup race, multiple race weekends may have lessened the 500’s mystique.

Former CEO Tony George is not an important cog in the track’s operation these days. Jeff Belskus took over the reins in 2009 with plans to bring both the track and race back to their former prominence. Once the glow of the Centennial celebration is over, Belskus’ job will begin in earnest.

As for the racing end, hands-on CEO Randy Bernard came on board with the sanctioning body in 2010 to bring a renewed enthusiasm to the INDYCAR paddock. Most observers agree that he’s made a good start with that mission in just over a year.

Bernard has managed to keep tire supplier Firestone aligned with the series through 2013, and has a strong series sponsor in IZOD, the first such partner since 2001. In 2012 Dallara will introduce a new chassis, and Chevrolet and Lotus will join Honda as engine suppliers. Now he just has to find a TV partner that is able to reach a wider audience and strengthen the sport’s appeal.

So as the first day of time trials winds down on Tom Carneige Pole Day at the Speedway, the voice of the track’s late, legendary public address announcer echoes one more time, stirring the fans with his now taped baritone calls.

Harroun, Vukovich, Andretti and Foyt will never race here again, but their influence and aura will hang heavy over the 500 just as they have for years. Here’s hoping that the recent Centennial activities stir the historic track and its fans to make additional memories in the upcoming hundred years.

Share Button