Why do 300,000+ people show up to watch our open wheel hero’s take the green flag each and every May, but we cant get half that many to consistently watch a the rest of the season? This is the very question that has been driving INDYCAR officials, fans and network executives bonkers for over a decade and a half. How in the world can we have so many people that worship what happens at 16th and Georgetown only for them to disappear into the woodwork even quicker than they appeared?
“Place fans” are the ones who fill the grandstands in record numbers on race weekends, but have little to no interest the rest of the year. This is the group of people who have made the Brickyard 400 the most attended NASCAR race on the schedule. The USGP shares this distinction along with the Indianapolis Motorcycle Grand Prix. That magical mystique of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway brings people out in droves whenever an engine rumbles to life.
The Indy 500 has an even more spectacular draw than any other event the Speedway hosts. Indianapolis and its citizens have grown up with the Memorial Day Classic, but not necessarily indycar racing as a whole. The 500 is just the thing to do in late May. But this isn’t limited to the central Indiana population by any means.
For many of the attendees, coming to Indy is a family tradition. The common story seems to always follow a similar path no mater who is telling it. Someones father would road trip it to Indy with his ornery kids and friends. They are going to watch the champ cars race the fastest race on the planet, and this is what starts it all. No matter where home was, these kids would become enamored with the race and the mystique of the Speedway itself. The kids eventually grow into fathers and start the tradition once again with their own children.
Indy was the draw, the speed was the draw, the stars were the draw; not the series and not the national championship trail. Once IMS began diversifying its summer schedule with the addition of NASCAR, F1 and MotoGP, these same people came back to the faithful old Speedway. Not for support of any one series, but to watch man and machine in competition at the hallowed grounds.
I am as guilty of this as anyone. I was exposed to the 500 from early childhood but had no idea there was a series that ran in conjunction with the race until many years later. 1997 was the first year I was able to attend; that was my last one for nearly ten years. I had flirted with the speedway during pole day a few times before my 2006 raceday return, but it was nothing serious. I will admit, that was a heck of a race to see as my first one back, but I wasn’t sold on the series yet. At this point in my motorsports life I was a huge F1 fan and went to the GP later that same year and again in 2007. I was an F1 fan and a place fan.
I haven’t missed a 500 since and have continued my fan boy level of allegiance to the speedway year in and out. But us place fans can easily become race fans. Seeing the opposing disciplines of racing opened my world to all of the different styles of motorsports. I realized I like loud race machines that really go fast and by 2008 I had evolved from a place fan into an indycar fanatic. NASCAR in 2008 and 2009 nearly had me hooked as well; I gave the series an honest shot for a few years before losing interest. Starting in 2008 and every year since I have attended the MotoGP event and watch as many races as I can remember to DVR during the rest of the season.
The Speedway is what made me a race fan, but the 500 is a special kingdom where indycar racing rules supreme. The speed, the danger and the emotions all made me want to see what the drivers were doing the other 364 days of the year. A curiosity; turned into and interest; turned into an addiction; turned into this tiny corner of the internet… and all because I went to a Formula One race.
My brother, another Indianapolis native who only recently started attending the 500, became a place fan a few years ago. I kid you not, but this year he finally told me ” I really like indycar racing.” He has decided to be my co-pilot for my one day blitz to Milwaukee later this summer, and it was all because of a brick and mortar catalyst; a place fan has become a race fan.
The story of place fans turning into race fans is an occurrence than can happen at anytime. It just takes the right circumstances to pull off. The Speedway breeds race fans; albeit much slower than it used to. It’s important that there are so many place fans that fill the Speedway whenever its opened. Its crucial to the ambiance of the race and when creating new race fans.
The father who returns with his own kids years after his own childhood; the guy in college who drags his friends there because it’s a killer time; the place fans are the ones who bring new eyes to the track. It is not the same 300,000 people who have been attending for the past 40 years. The rotating door of fresh eyes courtesy of the place fans is the reason why there are so many fans of the series and speed junkies in central Indiana.
It’s because of the Speedway I became an indycar fan and same with MotoGP. NASCAR had my eyes for a few years because I was a place fan who was exposed to all of these different types of racing. Say what you will about the fair weather fans that fill the speedway anytime the gates open, but those kids with them could be the next generation of indycar fanatics and motorsport fans. I don’t see anything wrong with starting them early, repetition makes the master; after all, we were all place fans at one time.
Good post Eric. Not being from Indiana, I have always looked at Indy different then a native would. Throughout the USA there are similar events that draw hundred of thousands of patrons manly for the same reason that Indy does year after year. They are events that have a long history and tradition that is passed down from family to family. It is a sense of local pride. It could be the Austin music festival or the Big E out in Mass, They all have that anticipation and excitement because it is a unique event. This is great if it is a once a year event, but not so good if it is the cornerstone and one piece of a larger enterprise,
Being a fan of different forms of motor sports, it is interesting how some series have been able to use their marque event to help enhance there series while still maintaining the importance of that event. The Daytona 500 is a perfect example of this. The Daytona 500 is by far the number one race on the NASCAR calender with the largest TV audience. It’s the one race that every driver wants to win and victory at Daytona will often define your career. NASCAR uses that race to generate the interest for the remainder of the schedule and places as much if not more importance on the championship. This doesn’t take away from the Daytona 500, but adds more clout to it while drawing fans to other events. Daytona is not the fastest track (Talledaga and maybe Michigan now) or the longest oval (again Talledaga), or the longest race (Coke 600), but it is the most important race on the calender.
The INDY 500 is the opposite of the Daytona 500. Instead of trying to be the cornerstone of the series, it has had an insecurity complex. It is like your friend that always has to be the best looking or funniest or riches and needs you to remind him of that fact for fear that someone might be better then them. The speedway has always had this complex and it is one of the key reasons why the series has lost, so much popularity over the years (outside Indiana). They put rules in place about race length at other tracks, and limit speeds to ensure that no track is faster then Indy. They promote the race as a singular event and then wonder why no watches any other races. Instead of looking at the Daytona 500 for inspiration, they try to be the Super Bowl without the regular season. If the Indy 500 wants to return to it’s glory years and be more then just an event for the locals; they should use the 500 to build the series. By doing that, they will make the Indy 500 the greatest race again.
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