The Big Mac Blog

Indy 500 is not the same but remains atop sports bucket list

Kissing the bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the race, are a must for any sports fan.
Kissing the bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the race, are a must for any sports fan. AP

The memory of our youth is always better than today and as much as the Indianapolis 500 has changed, and its importance waned, it is still the best.

For a sports fan, or an American, the Indianapolis 500 should always be near the top of every sports bucket list. Do this event at least once.

Along with the Kentucky Derby, the Rose Bowl and a select few others, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its marquee event has retained its status as the most powerful one day event for a sports fan.

“It’s still Indy and it’s what America is all about,” Indy driver Graham Rahal told me. “It’s a part of our past and who we are as a country. That’s what makes it great and so special. It’s like the Kentucky Derby in that sense – it’s our history as a country.”

There is no better 15 or 20 minutes in American sports than the moment “Start your engines” is uttered through the first 10 laps of the race. The enormity of the crowd, the colors of the cars and the power of the 33 engines generates a tangible feel in your body that no other sporting event has ever managed to equal.

It is a smorgasbord of sensory stimulation that the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals or Stanley Cup Finals cannot equal.

If you are lucky enough, the final 10 laps of a close Indy 500 can make for an afternoon that will be one of the best sporting days you will ever experience

Sunday marks the 100th running of the Indy 500 and to give you an idea of how much this event has changed, it is the first time it is sold out in 20 years. Decade after decade this was a tough ticket and now the demand, save for this year, has disappeared.

The Indy 500 is now a tourist attraction and more of a civic event in its city than a sporting event. There is no real rooting interest in the outcome other than the hope everybody gets some sun and maybe there will a “safe” yet cool crash and a close finish.

The status of open wheel racing has decreased to the point where a common fan may not be able to name a single Indy car driver. Guys like Foyt, Rutherford, Unser and Mears have been replaced by the likes of Who?, Don’t Know Him and Nameless Driver From Spain.

Indy car and open wheel racing is a good product but it’s like so many other sports not named football – it’s niche and its fan base loyal but small. There is an audience for Indy car but it is a small decimal point compared to the main sports of today.

Former Indy Racing League president Tony George’s decision to essentially split with the previous other open wheel racing league – CART – is often blamed for the sport’s crash. As much as George’s vision for the sport failed, open wheel racing was likely doomed to be sent in this direction either way.

To suggest the state of Indy racing is all the fault of the egos involved at CART, which is now gone, or Tony George is too much.

NASCAR has become the preferred motor racing sport in the country and the proliferation of cable TV are two developments Indy car did not handle effectively, most likely because it could not.

The inherent problem is the sport has a narrow audience and no amount of market research can change or infusion of young and hip marketing strategies can change that.

Indy car is a good product that is more than fan friendly. If you have the chance, the Firestone 600 in early June at Texas Motor Speedway is a worthy event.

Despite the fall of open wheel racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway remains an “It” item to be checked.

The venue for the 2.5 mile oval on the west side of Indianapolis has been updated and well kept despite its size. There will likely be 300,000 people in attendance on Sunday. Just the size of the place alone is a draw.

The Indy 500 is essentially the Kentucky Derby - a one day event America does because it always has. It is our link to our past and even if you can’t name the drivers its appeal is the awesome power and the fact you can say you saw the Indy 500.