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Indy 500 Turns 100, and That’s Not Even the Most Impressive Number

4 May, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Centennial of Hallowed Event Coincides with Unveiling of Track Improvements, City Promotions and More

Anyone who can remember 1976 can recall in perfect detail the Bicentennial fever that gripped the nation. Get ready to experience its equivalent in the sports world: the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500. Thanks to organizers and officials (as well as the sports tourism industry), the race, which takes place on Sunday, May 29, will have plenty of buzz to underscore its vroom.

In other words, this is not the time for low-key celebrations or subtle gestures.

Case in point: Visit Indy announced the JW Marriott will feature a 74,538-square-foot graphic of the Borg-Warner Trophy and race logos on its 34-story all-glass façade.

The full graphic features the trophy, an IndyCar, racing stripes and the phase “Epic Race. Epic Place.” It also includes the Host Committee logo lockup, composed of the 100th Running logo and the logo of the 500 Festival, a citywide celebration. The graphic will be installed by Hoosier company, Sport Graphics.

In total, the graphic will be 246 feet wide by 303 feet tall. The 501 panels which compose the project will be installed by hand, with full installation complete for most of the month of May. (Fun fact: if all panels were laid end to end, they would cover 13,200 ft., the 2.5 mile length of the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.)

Want quiet enthusiasm? Go somewhere else. The centennial of a sports event doesn’t come along every day, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway is partying hard. According to the Indy 500 website, Chevrolet will put motorsports legend Roger Penske behind the wheel of a 2017 Camaro SS 50th Anniversary Edition as the pace car driver for the greatest spectacle in racing. Fittingly, Penske is also marking 50 years as a team owner.

100 years for a race and 50 years as a team owner are some impressive numbers. But what about a few others? Here, for your trivia pleasure, are some figures presented by WalletHub during the run-up to last year’s Indy 500:

  • $3.5M: The current value of the Indy 500 trophy.

  • $431M: The Indy 500’s economic impact on the city of Indianapolis.

  • 14.5%: Percentage increase in the average ticket price from 2014.

  • 6.2 million: Viewership for the race in 2014.

  • 1.3 gallons: Fuel burned per lap

  • 186.563 mph: Average speed of drivers

  • 300,000 tourists attracted to Indianapolis as a result of the race

Oh, and a few more numbers, these from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s website: the infield covers 253 acres and the parking lots cover 315 acres.

The event is a fixture of the Memorial Day weekend calendar, as much a part of celebrations as cookouts and ceremonial swimming pool openings.

WalletHub also notes, “The Indianapolis 500 is one of the most quintessentially American events on the annual sporting calendar, gluing millions of pairs of eyeballs to television sets globally. We watch for many reasons. Many invariably tune in for the potential excitement of fiery wrecks and pit crew brawls. But then there are others who root for favorite driver or are mesmerized by the poetry of pit stops and the sheer engineering brilliance fueling cars that reach an excess of 225 mph.”

Much is also on the line with the Indy 500 – both on and off the track. Indy Car racing must fight to stay relevant in the face of Formula One competition, fading ratings and lackluster sponsorship. “As global television becomes the norm, the growth of Formula One in the U.S. may begin to compete even more so with Indy Car for consumer and sponsor attention,” says Joe Cobbs, assistant professor of sports business at Northern Kentucky University. As a result, “the Indy 500 must leverage technology to provide fans the most exciting viewing experience whether at the race, watching it on television, or on a mobile device,” according to Doug Blais, professor of sports management at Southern New Hampshire University.”

And speaking of mobile devices, a lot has changed over 100 years, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway wants everyone to know it has kept up with the times. The facility recently completed Project 100, a three-part capital improvement project. According to the speedway’s website, Project 100 was created to enhance fan-focused experiences and entertainment options to further establish the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as an iconic sports and entertainment facility as well as “The Greatest Race Course in the World.” 

The overall project included better technology, upgraded video boards, improved suites, wi-fi for spectators, upgraded seating areas and more. The road course itself was renovated in order to provide flexibility to host major racing events as well as smaller on-track programs that could utilize the road course in various configurations or on a very limited portion of it. For example, one portion can now be used by car clubs or for activities such as autocross.

The addition of adjacent entertainment complexes, green space, social event hosting capabilities and more to motorsports facilities is a growing trend that is seeing the evolution of race tracks into motorsports stadiums. Daytona International Speedway, for example, just completed its own capital improvement project, known as Daytona Rising.

“In the sports world, you're seeing massive investment in infrastructure, specifically new football, baseball and basketball venues," Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood told CNBC at the completion of Daytona Rising. "The younger generation, especially, expects all these things in sports arenas now, and they expect to be able to be totally connected.”

The motorsports industry is counting on facility improvements and upgrades to help propel growth. For example, in Daytona, the upgrades dovetailed with some of NASCAR's goals of coloring outside the lines of its mostly white, male spectator demographic and appealing to the Millennial generation and a more diverse fan base. (NASCAR’s announcement last summer, for example, that it would continue to prohibit the Confederate flag from being flown in an official capacity was a way of reinforcing this philosophy.)

Indy Car has its work cut out for it, trying to remain relevant to an American public whose tastes are changing. As a result, it will be a weekend for big gestures in Indianapolis, from the gigantic graphic on the Marriott, to the presentation of the newly finished product that is Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And that’s all before the flag goes down.

Indy, start your engines.

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