From The Vault (2016): 107-Year Old IMS Continues To Thrive

Start of the 100th Indianapolis 500 (Mike Harding/IMS Photo)

This is an update to the 10-part “History of Indianapolis Motor Speedway” that ran on ESPN.com just prior to the 2011 Indianapolis 500. 

Though many key traditions endure, much has changed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since the three-year celebration of the ‘Centennial Era’ came to a close in May, 2011.

Spruced up throughout 2015 and ‘16 through a $90 million series of improvements dubbed ‘Project 100,’ the 107-year old Brickyard was in grand form by May 2016 for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

A year’s worth of hard work and promotion went into the 100th event, and the public responded in kind. For the first time in many years – at least since the CART-IRL split of 1996, because as a privately owned company, IMS is vague about releasing attendance information – the Indianapolis 500 was declared sold out. Beautiful weather prevailed on race day and the large crowd that turned out, estimated upwards of 300,000, resembled one from the late 1980s or early ‘90s.

The racing, however, was a lot better than it was during the height of CART era. The race featured 54 lead changes and a surprise winner in rookie Alex Rossi, who coasted across the line to take the checkered flag at reduced speed after playing a fuel mileage strategy to perfection.

The safe and entertaining race continued a trend that started with the introduction of the Dallara DW12 spec chassis in 2012, the first major equipment change in the IndyCar Series since 2003. Along with a new Dallara chassis, there was a new engine formula: a 2.2-liter turbocharged V-6 with strict cost caps and mileage life requirements. There was also the return of engine manufacturer competition, with Chevrolet (in partnership with Roger Penske’s Ilmor Engineering) making a comeback to Indy car racing to square off against California-based Honda Performance Development.

With bulbous sidepods that extended to the outer edges of the rear tires and bumper pods behind the rear wheels, the DW12 looked more like a hybrid sports car than an Indy car, to the displeasure of many fans. The drivers didn’t much care for it much at first either, with experienced veterans like Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti struggling to get the rear-heavy machine around IMS at more than 210 mph.

It may initially have been maligned, but the DW12 was developed into a car that put on some very entertaining races – especially at Indianapolis, where the shrouded rear wheels created a drafting effect that produced plenty of passing. Franchitti joined the ranks of three-time Indy 500 winners in 2012, but only after a charging Takuma Sato crashed in Turn 1 while trying to pass for the lead on the final lap. The race featured a record 34 lead changes and the first 1-2 finish at Indianapolis for team owner Chip Ganassi.

More records were set in 2013 – most lead changes (68), most finishers (26), fewest number of caution laps (21), and Kanaan scored a popular victory at a record average speed of 187.433 mph. The 2014 race was another classic, with Ryan Hunter-Reay prevailing after a tense late-race battle with Helio Castroneves. A notable entry came in the form of NASCAR star Kurt Busch, who adapted quickly to Indy cars to score a sixth place finish for Andretti Autosport.

Juan Pablo Montoya, who raced Formula 1 and NASCAR since winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, made a successful return to Indy cars and triumphed in the 2015 race over his Team Penske teammate Will Power. ‘Aero kits,’ a controversial a Randy Bernard’s tenure as INDYCAR CEO that allowed Chevrolet and Honda to build their own unique bodywork for the basic Dallara tub, were the main talking point as team owner Roger Penske extended his record number of Indianapolis 500 wins to 16.

Sadly, the man who did the initial development of the 2012 Dallara chassis never raced it. Dan Wheldon won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 for Bryan Herta Autosport in what was scheduled to be his only start of the season, taking the surprise victory when rookie JR Hildebrand crashed in the last corner of the last lap. Wheldon spent the rest of the year testing the prototype 2012 Dallara – in fact, the car was later renamed ‘DW12’ in his honor – but was lured back for the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in a gimmick devised by INDYCAR CEO Bernard that would pay $5 million to any non IndyCar Series regular who won the race.

It was the last race for the 2003-2011 Dallara, and it turned into the kind of pack race that many feared before the violent multi-car accident that killed Wheldon put an end to the madness after only 16 laps. Bernard’s time was soon up as well; after months of awkward silence from the IndyCar camp during the winter, the former rodeo executive lasted through the 2012 season before he was dismissed in October. Bernard brought a lot of energy and passion to the job along with some fresh thinking, but ultimately, his lack of auto racing knowledge hurt him and he now manages country music artist Garth Brooks.

Into the void stepped a new CEO for all of Hulman & Company: Mark Miles, an Indianapolis sports executive who ran a successful local tennis tournament before heading the ATP tennis tour from 1990 to 2005. Back home in Indiana, Miles headed the organizing committee that brought Super Bowl 46 (XLVI) to Indianapolis. In short, he had significant international sports business experience along with the kind of hometown ties to Indiana the Hulman-George family is keen to maintain.

One of Miles’ first moves was to promote Doug Boles to the position of president of IMS. An Indianapolis attorney with longtime family ties to the Speedway, Boles was a minority owner of the Panther Racing team that was formed to compete in the Indy Racing League. Boles joined IMS in 2010 as vice-president of communications and since ascending to the top, has worked tirelessly to promote and grow the Indianapolis 500 and the Speedway with a personal touch likened to IMS savior Tony Hulman.

The most visible sign of growth came in the 300,000-plus crowd at IMS for the 100th running of the ‘500.’ But Month of May attendance at the Speedway has grown in other ways in recent years during the Boles era as well. Carb Day’s popularity continues to increase, and IMS has added a major-act country music concert in the infield the night before the ‘500.’

The biggest change to the month of May was to compact the oval schedule to a week of practice and a single weekend of knockout-style qualifying. The May festivities now kick off with a three-day IndyCar Series event on the IMS road course, bringing a taste of the rest of the season back to the locals in Indianapolis.

Another IMS first was a stand-alone rock concert. On July 4, 2015, the Rolling Stones played to a crowd estimated at 50,000 in the IMS infield, with many more enjoying the sounds of the show from outside Turn 1 from the new roundabout at the former intersection of 16th Street and Georgetown Road, built to ease traffic flow to Crawfordsville Road and the Town of Speedway’s vibrant Main Street.

Adding the road course event and the concerts, and a general tendency toward trying to use the IMS facilities more while extracting the maximum amount of cash out out of paying customers, resulted from a study that Miles commissioned from the Boston Consulting Group.

The sleepy old track that for almost a century sprung to life for only one month of the calendar is now a year-round facility. Whether it’s a driving school, a two-seat Indy car giving 180-mph rides or an IMS Museum tour bus, there’s almost always some kind of vehicle on the track.

The Moto GP motorcycle series ended an eight year run at IMS in 2015, but it won’t come at much of a loss to the Speedway because Red Bull has transferred its marketing effort into the first Red Bull Air Race, scheduled for October 1-2. Indianapolis now annually hosts a round of the SVRA vintage car racing championship, drawing the largest fields in series history, and the Speedway is set to host the 2017 SCCA National Runoffs for the first time.

Boles and Miles have some challenges on their plate. Brickyard 400 attendance has continued to plummet since 2011, when it was generously listed as 140,000 by NASCAR. The crowd is less than half of that number now, and moving the same-weekend Xfinity Series race from the nearby Lucas Oil Raceway short track to IMS was unpopular with fans and hasn’t boosted Brickyard 400 weekend attendance.

Perhaps their biggest challenge is to maintain the momentum that was generated by the celebration of the 100th Indianapolis 500, especially with a 24-year old American-born Indy 500 champion who remains undecided about whether he really wants to remain an Indy car driver. The Indianapolis 500’s longtime reputation as a star-maker is on trial right here, right now.

The crowds for the Indy 500 will surely be smaller next year, but if they continue the slow upward climb that was on display from 2011-15, that will still buck the trend of noticeably decreased attendance at major Formula 1 and NASCAR events.

A bigger concern may be the overall health of the IndyCar Series, which now features just 21 full-time entries. Only 33 total entries materialized for the vaunted 100th running of the Indy 500, eliminating the chance of any meaningful bumping and creating valid worries that the traditional Indianapolis ‘Field of 33’ may be reduced in the future. To their credit, Miles and Boles seem to have a greater understanding than previous generations of company management that a strong Indianapolis 500 requires a strong IndyCar Series – and vice versa.

Rumors always pop up that the Hulman-George family might be interested in selling the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the Indianapolis Business Journal recently reported that steps were taken decades ago to place the property in a generation-skipping trust to minimize tax liability. In family tradition, 82-year old matriarch Mari Hulman George’s grandchildren – including Jarrod and Kyle Krisiloff, Lauren George and Tony George Jr. – are being groomed for leadership by working jobs within the company.

After all, the ‘Bicentennial Era’ at IMS is well underway…