This Sunday marks the 100th running of the most famous auto race in the world – the Indianapolis 500.
But the iconic American event is in a race of its own to remain relevant.
In the expansive infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a few days ago, near the entrance to the garage area known as Gasoline Alley, a young couple watched their children run past model race cars to hug a two-story fuzzy statue of a polar bear.
The mom, Jenn Naas, says she’s drawn to the carnival-like Midway at Indy.
“I just like getting into it with my family,” she said. “There’s a lot more than just the cars going around the track. There’s a lot of fun things involved with the whole month of May.”
But her husband, Bryan Naas, says his wife still had to do some fast talking to convince him to come to the famed Brickyard speedway.
“I didn’t know much about Indy until we really started dating. My family was a NASCAR family,” Naas said.
And Naas is far from alone.
NASCAR stock cars skyrocketed in popularity in the mid-1990’s, scoring roughly twice the TV ratings of the Indy 500, after internal squabbling between the top Indycar teams and then-Indianapolis Speedway president Tony George split the series into two rival leagues.
They reunited in 2008. But the damage was already done.
And no one knew it better than the legendary Mario Andretti.
He’s the only driver to ever win the Formula One World Championship, the Indy 500 and NASCAR’s crown jewel, the Daytona 500.
Andretti said, “We lost a generation after Tony George split the series. They all went to NASCAR. And touche’ to NASCAR, they made the most of it. But meanwhile we lost the (Indycar) fan base because the fan base felt cheated.”
Yet Andretti maintains not even NASCAR can match the worldwide acclaim afforded the winner of the Indy 500.
“This is probably the only race on the planet that is worth a championship, if you will,” said Andretti, who dominated the 500-mile race numerous times but earned only one trip to Victory Lane in 1969.
In this centennial year Indy is trying to market that cachet’ like never before.
For the first time in decades Indy’s grandstands, which hold a shade under a quarter of a million people, are completely sold out.
Hotel rooms are booked for hundreds of miles away.
Speedway President and CEO Mark Miles said the track expects to have 100,000 more fans for the 100th running than attended last year.
Miles said the Speedway marketed 30,000 tickets alone to millennials coming for a Mardi Gras-esque electronic dance music festival held on-and-around race day in a sunken portion of the infield called the “Snake Pit.”
“They can’t see a video board to watch the race from the Snake Pit,” Miles chuckled. “And we’re okay with that, right? They want to be here. They want to be in this ambience. And I figure sooner or later they’ll slow down and we’ll get our share to get a reserve seat and watch the racing.”
Miles notes that Indycar racing incorporates high-tech devices ranging from onboard cameras to telemetry beamed from the car to the pits showing how an engine is running or when a tire might be ready to deflate. And all drivers use radios to communicate with their crew and often provide some, uh, interesting commentary.
All of that, Miles said, positions Indycar well to have a big online presence and offer a variety of apps, from data to pictures to fantasy games. (Broadcasters have been reluctant to allow live feeds of races, however, since they pay a pretty hefty fee for the rights to them.)
Yet it’s racing history that attracted a quartet of millennials from Chicago to the track’s stately infield museum during last weekend’s qualifying runs.
Almost 17-years old, Jamie Burbatt says she was iffy about Indy at first “when I was a kid.”
But not now.
“It’s just a fun experience,” Burbatt shyly smiled. “All the cars are really cool and they all have like some kind of little story about it. That’s cool.”
Her brother, Tony Burbatt, adds that Indy offers something that can’t be found on a smartphone.
He said, “It gets that primal thrill in the bottom of your gut going. There’s something primal about feeling the rumblings from a car going 200 miles-an-hour as you are standing there.”
The look, the feel, the sound of cars shaped like fighter jets combined with the pageantry surrounding the 100th call for the “Gentlemen (and sometimes Ladies) Start Your Engines!”
It’s been a winning combination at the Speedway for this month of May.
Just how long that appeal lasts, however, likely won’t become apparent until the glow of the centennial celebration fades, and track officials discover next year just how many fans return for the 101st running of the Indy 500.
To hear the FULL INTERVIEW with Mario Andretti click here