Checkered Future

The rise of NASCAR and the hubris of the Indy 500's owner have reduced the race to a shadow of its former self.

May 30, 2004

Forty years ago, there were only two ways to see the Indianapolis 500 - be among the lucky 400,000 or so who got into the packed track on race day, or go to a closed circuit television broadcast of the race.

That's right. In the early 1960s, thousands spent their Memorial Day in darkened movie theaters watching cars race around the venerable 21/2-mile rectangle.

Few events other than championship boxing matches could sell tickets to closed-circuit broadcasts. But the Indianapolis 500 could.

It was that big. In the Midwest, it made Memorial Day the equivalent of Christmas and Fourth of July. It drew the most spectators of any sporting event. It had the fastest cars, the bravest drivers.

It attracted more attention than any automobile race in the world.

"It was the race," says Robert Post, retired curator of transportation at the Smithsonian Institution. "There was nothing like winning the Indy 500."

That is no longer the case.

It's not the greatest race in the world anymore. It is not even considered the biggest race in America. That title goes to the Daytona 500, Nascar's premier stock car event.

Where once scores of mechanics and drivers descended on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the entire month of May, all searching for the speed needed to get their car in the race, now there are barely enough cars to fill the field.

Since 1986, the race has been broadcasting live. But now ABC is having trouble giving it away. In 1992, 14.1 million people watched the Indy 500. Last year, 6.7 million watched. Almost every NASCAR race gets a bigger audience than that. The Daytona 500 is up to almost 18 million. And, there were plenty of tickets available for today's Indy 500.

The decline and fall of the Indianapolis 500 is a story of an increasingly parochial America changing its tastes and its relationship with technology. It is the story of the transition of sporting institutions into entertainment industries.

It is also a tale of hubris on the part of Tony George, who seemed to think that the Indy 500 was so big and important that it could never sustain serious damage. But he managed to land some crippling blows on the American institution that was in his care.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway that George owns was built in 1906 by automotive pioneer Carl Fisher.

"The track was really built as a test facility in the hope of bringing automakers to Indianapolis," says Ben Shackleford, a graduate student in the history of technology at Georgia Tech. "It didn't really work, so they had this idea of putting on this big race.

"Indianapolis really didn't have that much else, so you have to put this in the early-20th-century context of large urban areas trying to position themselves as centers of culture," he says.

After an early race proved disastrous - there were several fatal accidents as the surface of the track broke up - Fisher repaved the track with bricks. Though only a yard remains at the start/finish line, the name brickyard has stuck. Five hundred miles was chosen as a distance that could be run in a day.

"There is a reason the Daytona 500 is called that," says Shackleford, who is writing a doctoral dissertation on the history of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. "Because that's what Indianapolis was. Anything to do with auto racing in this country after the 1920s was in the shadow of the Indy 500."

Roy Harroun won that first race averaging 74.59 mph. For the next few decades, the race was a showcase for manufacturers - particularly Europeans hoping to sell cars in America - who sought to demonstrate the speed and reliability of their products.

As Shackleford relates, it was run by the AAA - the Automobile Association of America - now best known as the people you call when your car breaks down. The AAA had a "contest board" for racing staffed by unpaid volunteers. "It was an adjunct to the general promotion of the automobile," he says.

Those early years of the race reflected the keen interests of the founders of the automobile industry, in the United States and in Europe.

"They were enthusiasts," says Stuart W. Leslie, a historian of technology at the Johns Hopkins University. "You can look at the old photos and see Henry Ford racing people like Barney Oldfield. They were gasoline-in-the-veins sorts of fellows."

Fisher sold the track in 1927 to a group led by World War I ace - and former race car driver - Eddie Rickenbacker. The race suffered from the Depression. It was not run during World War II and the track was abandoned, overgrown with weeds. Many thought it would be turned into a housing development for returning GIs.

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