The Indianapolis 500 is set for its 107th edition this weekend, with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Álex Palou on pole for the fastest field in the event’s history.
One-third of what is widely regarded as motorsport’s triple crown – along with the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix – the Indy 500 is IndyCar’s flagship event.
What started as a very American race, though, has slowly become one of the most international events in all of motorsport, which is fitting given that organiser Carl Fisher christened the very first Indy 500 ‘The 500-Mile International Sweepstakes’.
“Over time, I think we’ve gotten to the point where it truly is an international sweepstakes,” Doug Boles, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), tells BlackBook Motorsport.
“We had our first foreign-born winners in the third and fourth races [Frenchmen Jules Goux and René Thomas], but then our last foreign-born winner for an awfully long time was [Gaston Chevrolet] in 1920.”
It wasn’t until British Formula One icon Jim Clark won the event in 1965 that an American didn’t cross the finish line first. This kicked off a trend of Formula One world champions winning the legendary race, with the likes of Graham Hill (1966), Emerson Fittipaldi (1989 and 1993) and Jacques Villeneuve (1995) following suit.
This also led to the infamous moment where two-time world champion Fernando Alonso failed to qualify for the race in 2019 in pursuit of the ‘triple crown’. It highlighted both the grandeur of the event but also its unforgiving nature, which is a point of pride for Boles.
“It is one of those events that everybody in the US knows,” he explains. “And I think, globally, if you were to ask most race car drivers to name a triple crown, they’re going to say the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and probably Monaco. That’s pretty good company to be in.”
Two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso infamously failed to qualify for the 2019 Indianapolis 500
Preparing for 300,000 fans
IndyCar has been on an upward trajectory since Roger Penske took over in 2019, a move which saw the American bring the US open-wheel racing series, IMS, and IMS Productions all under the same roof. Last season’s broadcasts on NBC averaged 1.3 million viewers, representing both a five per cent increase on 2021 and the most-watched campaign in six years.
The series had been criticised in the past for not doing enough to promote its drivers and the wider series. Ahead of this season, however, Penske confirmed a 60 per cent increase in the series’ marketing budget, which has grown to US$17 million for 2023.
With the Indy 500 the standout event on the calendar, there is perhaps no better time to drive traction among fans than around the historic race at the Brickyard, which has become the subject of IndyCar’s answer to Formula One’s Drive to Survive. It’s tempting to make comparisons between the ‘100 Days to Indy’ docuseries and the Netflix show that kicked off Formula One’s love affair with the US, but Boles believes there are some key differences.
“Our drivers are enjoying the opportunity to have their story told,” he says. “It’s a little different than Drive to Survive in some ways. A lot of our focus right now is helping people understand what the sport is. So there is an awful lot of racing in it, as you begin to develop personalities and the people behind it.
“I think generally we’ve all been very excited about where it is and where it’s going. Certainly as the president and the promoter of the Indianapolis 500, it’s fun to have a series that’s focused on what it’s like from 100 days out and all of the work that the teams go through [and] understanding the behind the scenes piece of it as well leading into the Indy 500.”
Crucially, IndyCar has been able to flourish after a particularly challenging pandemic, which without Penske’s help could have been terminal for the IndyCar Series as a whole. Boles is quick to highlight the motorsport mogul’s role in helping the series get back on its feet.
“In 2020, we had an Indy 500 for the first time in our history with no fans in the grandstand, which was pretty odd,” he recalls. “What makes our race special, beyond its history and tradition, are the 300,000-plus people that show up here on Memorial Day Sunday to be a part of it.
“The best thing that happened to us in the pandemic is that Roger Penske bought [IMS] and, in typical Roger Penske fashion, he looked at the pandemic as an opportunity: let’s invest in the things around the facility that we don’t have an opportunity to because normally we have fans and you can’t do some of that work.”
This is lore, passed down from generation to generation. It’s where heroes become legends, and legends become legendary.
This is the #Indy500. But you’ve never seen THIS 500.
THIS. IS. MAY.
— Indianapolis Motor Speedway (@IMS) February 18, 2023
This resulted in around US$30 million being spent on upgrades to IMS. When 2022 rolled around and the Indy 500 was allowed to return to full-capacity crowd for the first time since the pandemic, the circuit achieved its best attendance in the last 25 years – outside of the record-breaking 100th running in 2016.
Boles claims that this is only set to improve this year, with “well over 300,000 people in the venue”, which could “be really close to 325,000” come race day. Boles also reveals that around 180,000 spectators that attend the Indy 500 “renew their tickets within 500 hours” of the race finishing, highlighting the event’s prestige among fans.
The personalities that have been showcased through the 100 Days to Indy series have opened up a new avenue for audiences to connect with the series and its drivers, but IndyCar’s international field – with 14 different countries represented across a 34-car grid this weekend – will also ensure the race generates global attention.
The Roger Penske effect
The increased attention on IndyCar will only benefit the series’ commercial strategy, which also improved when Penske came on board. The “door-opening power” that he brings, as Boles puts it, is a valuable asset.
“Roger’s in here at least once a week throughout the whole year, oftentimes more,” he explains. “When Roger Penske picks up the phone and says, ‘hey, I’m interested in talking to somebody on your team about a sponsorship or partnership’, those calls tend to get answered.”
The most important partnerships for IndyCar at the moment are those with a tangible benefit to the series, with Boles picking out the likes of Firestone and Shell as key partners, especially with IMS’ ongoing focus on sustainability.
Roger Penske (centre) is a legend of North American racing, the man behind Penske Corporation, IndyCar, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Team Penske, reigning champions in both Nascar and IndyCar
“The Firestone [partnership] is really important with the guayule rubber [which debuted at last year’s Indy 500],” he highlights. “You’re trying to find more natural ways to create the rubber for our race tyres.
“Shell has been our most engaged partner, they’ve helped as a consultant in terms of looking at everything, not just where we are on the energy side of things. So [for example], how are we thinking about our water management?
“Shell has been a really strong partner, [especially] when starting to think through what projects make the most sense moving forward and how to invest in them.”
Boles also highlights how Shell offered advice on upgrading the LED lighting around the circuit, vastly reducing the overall energy consumption of the venue after years of predominantly relying on old fluorescent tubes.
On top of this, Boles explains how the circuit’s partnership with Verizon ensures a seamless fan experience at the circuit.
“We have the largest sporting 5G network in the world here, we did that in 2020 and it really became available in 2021,” he highlights. “If you’ve got a 5G phone, you’re going to get better service here than anywhere else. We have 500 DAS [Distributed Antenna System] antennas here which help distribute our WiFi and cell data in a much better way. We’ve done that for the last three years.”
Boles also reveals that the series is attempting to figure out a way to geofence, so that fans watching the Indy 500 in the facility can also view the broadcast as the race is going on. This is necessary because of the Indianapolis-specific TV blackout that occurs while the Indy 500 takes place, with those not at the race limited to a tape-delayed broadcast later in the day.
Making a difference
Like other motorsport series, IndyCar is upping its efforts in sustainability and diversity as it attempts to engage with the next generation of fans. To its credit, IndyCar is much better than its motorsport peers when it comes to on-track diversity, with Katherine Legge qualifying for this year’s Indy 500.
Paretta Autosport, a female-led team that debuted at the 2021 Indy 500, will be absent though, highlighting just how much more progress is required. This is something that Boles is acutely aware of.
“If you don’t get up every day and think about what am I going to do today to advance these causes, it’s pretty easy to find out a year from now that you haven’t moved any further than where you were the year before,” he explains.
Feeling ALL the emotions today, but mostly relief.@katherinelegge is IN the 107th #Indy500 and goes down in history as the fastest female qualifier in the history of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”@RLLracing | #ThisIsMay pic.twitter.com/ociqKvxLo3
— Indianapolis Motor Speedway (@IMS) May 20, 2023
This focus also extends to improving racial diversity too. In 2020, Penske launched the Race for Equality and Change initiative with a mission to address the lack of diversity in IndyCar and underpin efforts to find someone to follow in the footsteps of Willy T Ribbs and George Mack, the only Black drivers to have taken part in the series.
“How can we have an African American try and qualify for the Indianapolis 500 by 2025?” Boles asks. “Myles Rowe is having some great success in the feeder series on his way up to IndyCar, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the Indy NXT series next year, and then potentially IndyCar in 2025.”
It’s not just on track that IMS is looking to diversify, with the huge staffing requirements for the biggest motorsport event in the world creating numerous hiring opportunities. Boles explains that raceday attendance makes the Indy 500 “the second largest city in the state of Indiana and one of the 75 largest cities in the US” on the day of the event.
“One of the things we’ve really focused on over the last few years is our diversity initiatives,” he continues. “Not just in the folks that we’re hiring, but how do we make our fanbase more diverse? Motorsport across the board is typically not as diverse as the communities in which we race.”
Myles Rowe currently competes in the USF Pro 2000 Championship, the third tier on the ‘Road to Indy’. There are high hopes that the young driver will be the first Black entrant to the Indy 500 since Willy T Ribbs and George Mack
The logistical challenge
The sheer scale of the Indy 500 requires the event to be run essentially like a city, with a public hospital in operation that caters for everything from “pregnancies and heart attacks” to “slips and falls and too much drinking”. It takes about 5,000 people to stage the event, and only around 200 of these are full-time employees at the circuit.
All told, it takes around 18 months to properly plan and stage the Indy 500, meaning preparations are already well underway for the 2024 edition. The “operational nightmare”, though, is something Boles finds richly rewarding.
“If you love events, you love logistics, and you love the operation side, it’s pretty fascinating,” he says. “The one thing I’m focused on the least is what happens on track. We make sure our track’s prepared, we’ve got a whole team that worries about asphalt, curbing, [track] walls.
“But it’s really about putting on this massive event that takes 5,000 people to execute.”