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Brock Yates
December 03, 1973
More than moonlight is bright on the banks of the Wabash these days: Indianapolis is pushing its way into the sporting big time
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December 03, 1973

A Hot Time In The Bold Town

More than moonlight is bright on the banks of the Wabash these days: Indianapolis is pushing its way into the sporting big time

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All of this traces to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the aged, traditionally dangerous and controversial 2.5-mile track in the northwestern suburb named, naturally. Speedway. While the so-called Brickyard (it was originally surfaced with bricks) gained almost instant fame when it opened in 1909 and began running its annual 500 two years later, it has reached its zenith of notoriety and prosperity under the ownership of a bashful Brahmin, 72-year-old millionaire Anton J. (Tony) Hulman. While he is strongly identified with Indianapolis, Hulman actually is a resident of nearby Terre Haute, where he grew up as the heir to vast family holdings in industry and real estate.

Hulman bought the track at the end of World War II from that old warrior and ex-racer. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, and turned it into one of the most opulent sporting facilities in the world. Everything about the track is hyperbolic, including the speeds, the danger and the crowds. It is estimated—only the management and the Internal Revenue Service know the actual turnstile count—that nearly a million people enter the Speedway for practice, qualifying and the race during the month of May. Hulman, a gracious man who was a track star at Yale, has plowed most of his profits back into the Speedway, which now has permanent reserved seats for 240,000.

"We have tried very hard to do the best with what we have, so that this track is a source of pride to Indianapolis and a pleasure to attend for all the people who come to the race," Hulman says.

Hulman's distraction with pride and pleasure has undergone some serious alterations. The 1973 event was a Wagnerian Sturm und Drang of historic proportions, and at last he is modifying the track for improved driver and spectator safety. Until 1973 Hulman's stewardship of the Speedway made him a beloved patron of Indiana life—a celebrity with no enemies—but now the track has come under severe criticism. Hulman spent $1.6 million in 1972 on such frivolities as a sumptuous VIP suite at the second turn and a multilane entrance tunnel under the track, but public outcry following the deaths of two drivers and a mechanic, and serious injuries to a number of spectators this year forced major expenditures for track safety, measures the critics have been requesting for years. So far, $300,000 has been allotted to widen the pit lane and its approaches, to raise the track's crash wall and to better shield the crowd from the 200-mph racing cars.

Tony Hulman has more than any other individual fostered the city's identity with motor sport. For better or worse, Indianapolis is the capital of auto racing, be it the 500 or the zany tire-frying ritual of the National Hot Rod Association drag racing " Nationals" at Indianapolis Raceway Park every Labor Day or the endless local stock car, midget and sprint races that unwind at a multitude of short tracks in the area. What's more, many of the major racing teams that compete for the United States Auto Club National Championship use Indianapolis as home base during the season.

Gasoline Alley, the rows of garages behind the pits at the Speedway, is occupied by professional race teams for most of the summer. These men, a talented and raucous gang of vagabonds, add new life to the quiet suburbs when they are in town. Two saloons, The Cove, which is located in a shopping plaza across from the track, and The White From on 16th Street have long been famous as hangouts for the hard-drinking race crowd.

The Speedway's economic impact on the area is inestimable. Millions of dollars pour into the local economy during May, causing surges in sales for everything from beer and potato chips to clothing, gasoline and advertising lineage. A spin-off of the race is the 500 Festival, a month-long blowout of parades, beauty contests, celebrity appearances, grand balls and gin rummy tournaments that is considered by many to be surpassed in scope only by the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena. Mrs. Jo Hauck, the festival's director, estimates that her event brings 12 million new dollars into the city, in addition to the whopping quantities of cash collected by the track itself.

Yet there is a certain unspoken reservation about the Speedway that is apparent among the men who are seeking major league sport for Indianapolis. While they expend lavish praise on behalf of Tony Hulman and his track and acknowledge that the "500" makes the city a one-day worldwide focal point of sport, some feel that it has distorted the town's image. The "racetrack in a cornfield" is a serious concern to others. "The 500 gives the impression that the city is crazy about auto racing and very little else," says one civic leader. "Couple this with the Labor Day drag races held here, plus a number of events held at the state fairgrounds and Indianapolis Raceway Park, and an outsider is inclined to think that all we ever do is watch cars rip around a track. That might have negative effects." The Fantus Report noted: "Aside from the publicity generated by the 500, it is doubtful that this event contributes greatly to the image of Indianapolis as a community. The Speedway is the focus of national attention for only once per year and for a very-short period of time. Unlike a major cultural or educational institution, an automobile race does not strongly convey a positive impression of the quality of life of a community."

"We all love the race and we all go, and the drivers are heroes to our kids," says John Weissert (although the last Indianapolis native to win a 500 was Joe Dawson in 1912, and with the exception of Wilbur Shaw and Rodger Ward, few big names in the sport have claimed the city as a residence). "There is no doubt that it is unique, specialized and self-contained. Yet without in any way diminishing the importance of the race, there is simply more to the city than the Indy 500."

He is right. There is much more to Indianapolis than roaring engines and smoking tires. Indy is on the rise, on the verge of a great leap forward into the realms of the "major leagues." It will surely happen.

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