The Indianapolis 500 is as much a celebration of the grand tradition of the event — a race that first took place in 1911 — as it is the evolution and technological advancement of the racing car.
And that is something Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles is always mindful of as he tweaks how the event is promoted in order to keep up with today’s changing world.
There once was a time when the Indianapolis 500 was so big that promotion was not necessary.
Pole Day often drew crowds of 250,000 and it was the first of the four qualification days. Bump Day was the last and the final hour of that session was filled with teams and drivers engaged in a last-chance effort to make the 33-car starting field.
Times have certainly changed. Bump Day is now the first of two days of qualifications and for the past few years, it hasn’t been needed as there were just enough cars entered to fill the field. The run for the pole is now known as the “Fast Nine” and is held during the final hour of the second day of qualifying.
Unlike the days of speedway owner Tony Hulman, who was in charge of the Indianapolis 500 during its Golden Age, Boles, IndyCar CEO Mark Miles and their staffs actively promote the race to keep up with changing times.
Today, Indianapolis is much different than the sleepy town of 50 years ago that earned the nickname “Naptown.” Indy is a vibrant city that has hosted the NCAA Final Four and the Super Bowl. It’s a pro sports town with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts.
As it has grown into the second largest city in the Midwest, just behind Chicago, there are things to do every weekend in Indianapolis and that is why promotion is key to moving the Indianapolis 500 forward.
“We have to begin to offer more products to keep people engaged in our event and frankly, to stay competitive with other sporting events and what they offer their customers,” Boles told SPEED SPORT. “It’s the way of the world and you can’t just say, ‘We’ve always done it this way and we aren’t going to change it.’
“You’ll die if you do that.”
Much of the older crowd scoffs at what the speedway has done to entice a younger audience, but Boles sees it as a necessity.
“You start with the premise of what makes the Indianapolis 500 special is its history and tradition,” Boles said. “No matter what the new conversation is, you have to start with knowing it’s the history and tradition that has made it special. You have to think about the things that are core to the Indianapolis 500’s DNA that you can’t change. It’s 500 miles. The yard of bricks. The bottle of milk and ‘Back Home Again in Indiana.’ There are a handful of things that we all know are super important to what that event is all about and you can’t change it.
“Pre-race is that way. That 30 minutes that leads up to the start of the Indianapolis 500 is part of what makes it special.”
At the same time, speedway officials must position the Indianapolis 500 to be of interest to a new generation.
“The Snake Pit is an example of something that is balancing tradition and history,” Boles noted. “The Snake Pit conjures up one image, where this new Snake Pit is completely different but its purpose is the same as the old organic Snake Pit, which is to attract that next Indy 500 fan who may not be a race fan. You have to give them a reason to come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and hopefully, eventually, like the old Snake Pit goer they grow up and say, ‘I don’t want to go to the Snake Pit anymore, but this is what I do on Memorial Day Sunday. I’m going to buy a ticket, pack my own cooler, sit in the grandstands and enjoy the Indianapolis 500.’ So even the Snake Pit today, we looked at it through the lens of the old Snake Pit and made sure we were balancing that history and tradition.”
Today’s Snake Pit is a staged event inside turn three where live bands perform while the race is underway. Fans pay extra to attend the Snake Pit and even though they are there to watch the bands with the sound of race in the background, it introduces a younger crowd to the Indianapolis 500. Hopefully, one day they return as race fans.
In recent years, the month of May has also included a Verizon IndyCar Series race on the IMS road course two weeks prior to the Indianapolis 500.
“One of the bigger challenges with the hard-core traditionalists over the last few years has been having the road race at the beginning of May,” Boles noted. “Initially, that is something people pushed back on. Even qualifying changes, the past several years, the traditionalists have struggled with and I consider myself a traditionalist. But the qualifying format, as people have given it a chance, they’ve seen it’s pretty exciting the last several years.
“It allowed us to get network coverage on three weekends in the month of May, and that has helped the Indianapolis 500. Even events like that, when people see the purpose behind them, it’s an OK thing.”