May in Indianapolis


The following is by guest blogger Joel Thorne.


(Mr. Thorne is a motorsports expert, journalist, and historian. He most recently co-hosted "Pitlane Radio," a weekly interview format radio show with guests, including some of the greatest names in auto racing, providing insights to experiences driving, managing teams, and marketing the sport.)


Ahh...the month of May, and Indianapolis....more specifically,  the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500.  Memories of my lifetime were implanted there, beginning in 1963, when my brother and I sat in the third turn bleachers, in a sunshine-drenched, first day of qualifications atmosphere that still gives me goose bumps recalling that special day.  Simpler times, to be sure before all hell would break loose in the near future when our 'simpler' world would be rocked by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the adored President of our country. 


Simpler times, yes.....and innovative times that captured the crowds of  300,000 + fans, with ingenious and inventive mechanical ideas that formulated so much of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's legendary history as a test bed for the progressive automotive minds.  During the time of 'run what ya brung' mentality (i.e. innovative rolling artistry),  fans hungry for speed could watch a turbine literally fly by (because you sure couldn't hear them!); or, perhaps a motorcycle like contraption, with no less than two metal hand outstretched at the front of the nose, as if to brace itself for  a wall impact;  or  a crazy rear engine GREEN machine, with what appeared to be a bundle of snakes hanging off the back end for dear life; or, hopefully get the idea.  Ahh.....the Mays of our memories........


Now, as I write this, I am still looking forward to the 500, and the Indy GP......largely in part, because a lot of my life and memories of my brother and family have been etched in my memory bank, after having been exposed to the famed two -and-a - half mile oval.  As a 'veteran' race fan, I am always pondering ways that might enhance someone else's experience at IMS, as well as bringing positive changes to the sport that I still so much enjoy.


First, and I believe most importantly, I believe that prices must come down.....and not continue to trend up, like everything else in the world.  Imagine just for a moment, that prices at hotels, as well as the track, would drop in the month of May. For example, according to Trip Advisor, a hotel room at one of Indy's downtown suites hotels, would cost you $179 per night, if you stayed before the Indy GP.....but would increase to $339 per night if you were to check in on Saturday before the 500.  For grins and giggles, let's say that, at the least, the rooms would stay the same price.....or even better, DECREASE by $10 per night.  I hear you...'it is what the market will stand'. I get it.  How is that working out so far?  In case you have been unconscious for a loooong time, start watching not only IndyCar racing but NASCAR as well.  The average family's wallets have been strangled beyond recognition, and the evident nonchalant attitude toward the all-important fan base has taken a toll.  I remember as a teenager, walking into the IMS restrooms with the wooden troughs and nasty urinals, thinking that, with the stands literally full for at least two days(first day of qualifications, and the race itself), IMS could surely provide nicer facilities. Even as a teenager who didn't buy his own ticket, I felt used somehow.  Thankfully, IMS has continually upgraded the track, and facilities on an ongoing basis, in large part due to the  F1 program coming to IMS, making it a truly world class attraction. 


As far as ticket prices go, what do you think would be the public's response if an announcement would be made by IMS stating that all ticket prices would decrease by....oh, $20?  Again, play with this scenario in your mind for a few minutes, as you contemplate ordering next year's tickets.  What would be YOUR reaction??


Secondly, for anyone except the grizzled, hardcore IndyCar fan,  watching the cookie-cutter rendition of the DW12 car trying to pass another one can be about as exciting as watching chrome rust.  Personally speaking, yours truly would watch every lap of every race...that's what hardcore fans do.  But let's face it, even my interest will carry me so far if things don't change.  I am eagerly looking forward to 2018, with new body configurations and engine packages, and the hopes that we will have some more seats filled, and more genuine excitement.  I have spoken with a few drivers, and they have each said that they want the car back in their hands, i.e. more horsepower and less downforce......and, in my humble opinion, that is where the true driving personality would come out on the track. 


And, let's face it, personalities are what have formulated many drivers' resumes at Indy.  AJ Foyt's brash give 'em hell attitude,   Eddie Sachs's comedic antics, Mel Kenyon's  fierce bravery while remaining the quiet gentleman,  and Scotty Brayton 's boyish smile that every mother could love, as he proved to not only be adaptable but also blindingly fast.  As we all know, there are hundreds of such personalities that we could explore, that has made the legends of the Speedway what they are today.  Today, if a driver isn't on Dancing With the Stars, chances are pretty good that most of America (and the rest of the world) would never hear of them. 


As has been noted by many around racing, the venues, they are a ch-ch-changing.  And, honestly, they must.  Just like the old business model of jacking up hotel and motel prices for the month of May won't cut it anymore, neither will just showing up at a race track for the sake of going to a race.  Case in point: the concerts on Carb them or not, they are needed, in order to bring in folks other than 'just race fans'....and that is one way to grow a future fan base, exposing them to the sounds, smells and  color of auto racing....which they probably did not expect.  Hats off to those who have thought outside of the box on this one.  One of the best changes that have come to not only IMS but to many major tracks across the country, is the SVRA (Sports Vintage Racing Association), headed by Mr. Tony Parella, who seems to understand pretty much what people want; the racers  and vehicles of our memories, once again competing on our hallowed grounds.  BOOM!  When you get those personalities like we mentioned, in the likes of Al Unser, Jr, Al Unser Sr, Willy T. Ribbs, Lyn St. James, Paul Tracy, and oh so much more......winner,  winner, chicken dinner!!  Family friendly, a photographer's paradise, and memories galore prove that fans want to come to the race track, but not necessarily to watch the same body styles try to get out of each others' way.


Oh, and there is the TV coverage conversation that never will go away.  Without going into cumbersome numbers and stats, I would only say this:  ONE broadcasting outlet, please!  When races are changed back and forth, nobody knows where to find the race.  Also, many of the 'common folk' fanbase do not have the upper tier cable channels like NBCSN, which might be cause for not only frustration but also an arrow to the heart of public relations positivity.  The common fan does not like an air of exclusivity that tends to swirl around big money piles.  I also (just a personal sidebar) would like one experienced set of broadcast announcers.  I enjoy Paul Tracy, as well as Dario Franchitti, in the booth, two of the best wheelmen to ever strap on the belts.


So, as I ponder this month of May, and the many memories I have enjoyed with my brother, friends, and family, I also look forward to this month. For me, it isn't even about who wins the race (I do have my favorites), but more about the memories I have that envelop me totally when I take a break from reality. These are the types of memories I hope other families will forge, around the sport so many of us love. And that is exactly why the folks will reach deeper into their thinning pockets, to pay for their future memories.


The future will be brighter.....and it seems that IndyCar management might finally be listening, at least a little.  Let's hope that it isn't too late.