Saturday, February 9, 2013

IMS Going Under the Knife?

It appears the Cathedral of Speed may be getting a facelift.

That's according to a release that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway put out Friday evening, highlighting a proposed legislation to pump between $70 and $100 million in public funds for a major renovation of IMS.

The news itself is kind of shocking for one reason: IMS has a very proud history of taking care of its own business. Despite some major projects that have been undertaken in the last several decades, not once have they asked the state of Indiana for money.

Maybe this time it is a must. After all, the Speedway was looking at some necessary improvements to become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act after the track recently settled a suit that requires an overhaul to some of their facilities.

You also have to think the timing of this coincides with Daytona International Speedway's plan for a major overhaul over the next couple of years. One so expansive that the possibility of surrendering the track's July Cup date in 2014 is a possibility.

I must say that many of the things listed in a release put out by IMS make sense, and are a long time coming. While the track has made some massive upgrades over the years, including the Pagoda, more seats on the north end of the race course, the pit road grandstands and suites, and of course the infield road course, much of the rest of the place looks nearly the same as it did when I first walked in there 34 years ago.

The release outlines the improvements this way:

"Potential projects that could be implemented by IMS because of this legislation include installing lights for night events at the 2.5-mile oval, the addition of high-definition video boards, LED scoring and information boards, technological upgrades designed for increased fan communication, structural renovations to stands, upgrades to seating and restrooms, and infrastructure improvements to parking, tunnels, gates and fan access points."

I'll take on the stuff I like first. The video and scoring boards are a must, and if by "technological upgrades" they are talking about Wifi and other amenities, that gets them into the 21st century, which is good.

I'm also all for improving seating (And that includes suites, they are big money. Huge) and restrooms (Which are an absolute dump. It's 2012 and we are still using troughs in the men's room, really?), as well as the infrastructure improvements. Honestly, those are a long time coming. On race day, getting into the track is a cluster, whether you are trying to park inside the track or even enter through one of the gates. The gate area at 25th and Georgetown is horrible, and as race time approaches it requires a long wait to get into the grounds. Other entry areas are not any better.

So for the ideas that are in thought to improve the fan experience...I'm all for those. The one thing I'm not too hip on is the lights. Not that I'm old school and wouldn't want to see them, but the main reason people want lights is to try and improve the Brickyard 400, and my answer to that is, you can do everything you want to try and improve it, but if the product on the track doesn't get any better, there is no point.

I'm not totally against lights. In fact, I'd like to have them there as a way to make sure races could get run to completion. Lights would have enabled the running of the last 33 laps of the 2007 Indy 500, because after the second shower at about 7 p.m. local time that gave the win to Dario Franchitti, the sun soon came out and after drying the track the race could have resumed and completed.

Trust me, I love night racing, but putting up lights isn't the cure-all that some people imagine. The 500 wouldn't miraculously become a ratings bonanza by running the race on Saturday night, and the Brickyard wouldn't turn into an exciting race because it was run after dark. Maybe the curiosity would bring people in for a while, but in the long run it wouldn't change things.

I'm not opposed to more events at the Speedway, either. Whether an event is being held there or not, every day of the year it costs money to support the track. People work there and there is always something to do. If more events is what it takes for the track to stay profitable, then that's fine. They need ways to generate revenue.

Plus, now that I've gotten used to the idea of IMS being used for other events, I like it. If you want to be called the Racing Capital of the World, you should probably hold races there to prove it.

I guess if I had to pick a reason to be "for" this project, it would be twofold. One, it would improve our experience as fans, and that in itself might bring more fans in and two, more money into the Speedway would hopefully translate into more money into IndyCar. Not to mention, more events would mean more excuses to go to the track, which wouldn't be a bad thing, would it?

In the end, what matters most is that the track remains a viable and forward-thinking place both now and in the future. It's like here in Chicago...I am a Cubs fan and love Wrigley Field. It represents the history of baseball. Still, I don't mind heading to the south side and US Cellular Field, because it's modern: it has better lighting, better amenities, video boards, a better sound system and is just an overall better place to watch a ballgame.

Even though my allegiance lies on the north side, I enjoy games at the Cell. In fact, last year I did the double, I saw a Cubs game in the afternoon then rode the Red Line south to see a Sox game that night. Awesome experience, by the way.

As I've said before, the Hulman family have been incredible curators of one of the greatest and most historic race courses ever built. I'm going to trust them on this one, and hopefully a couple of years down the road they combine history and technology into one incredible place to watch racing.

(Editor's note: I decided not to touch the whole "supporting private sports organizations with public funds" topic with a 10-foot pole. I have thoughts on both sides of the issue, but instead decided to focus on what this renovation would mean to IMS and race fans.)

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