The decline of the Indy 500’s popularity and hopes for renewal are the subject of Dean McNulty’s column in the London Free Press:
Back in the day when gasoline was 40 cents a litre and the big auto manufacturers were selling SUVs faster than Ben Johnson in a 100-metre dash, the Indianapolis 500 was top dog in motorsports. Everyone in the racing world, including Formula One and NASCAR, were also-rans in the television ratings on motorsports’ biggest weekend of the year.
But more than a decade after Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss Tony George on one side and a bunch of billionaire team owners on the other began a self-destructive civil war, the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” will rely on three kids next Sunday to lead them out of the subsequent ruins. Gone are 13 years of Indy 500 history where the winner got his drink of milk but little else as crowds at the track shrank from a high of nearly 400,000 in 1995 to about 250,000 in 2007.
The feud in Indy racing is well documented, and while it’s likely not the sole cause of the 500s decline, it didn’t help.
The 500 has fallen to near obscurity. In this year’s starting grid, I could recognize only eight names, and half of those were based on recognizable family names. Looking back on Wikipedia to starting lists from the early 1980s, I recognized half or more of the field. My office neighbor, an Indiana native and racing fan (mainly NASCAR now), could identify 20 or so in the current field versus the entire grid from the 1980s.
Given NASCAR’s rise, Indy racing will likely not regain its glory days. Nonetheless, the 500 could fuel a tremendous amount of interest by openly courting key NASCAR racers back into the field. Former Indy racers like Montoya, Hornish, and Franchitti are obvious candidates, as is Tony Stewart who did the Indy-NASCAR double a couple of times. If the 500 could lure Stewart and Jeff Gordon into the race, those two names alone would draw a ton of fans back to the race. Moving the race to Saturday (with a Monday race in case of rain-out) would be one option to avoid the conflict with NASCAR. That, however, would require both a big change in tradition along with a major helping of humble pie for Tony George — something not likely to happen.