Indy's main attraction remains tradition
INDIANAPOLIS -- Midway through the 84th running of the Indianapolis 500, Rich and Cindy Kay sat behind a grandstand, their legs dangling off the back of a parked golf cart.
They've been coming to the race since they were kids, always following the same route up from southern Indiana, always packing the same picnic lunch, always sitting in the same seats.
The stands remain filled at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day.
Yet there they were, away from the roar of the racers, whiling away last Sunday afternoon with an ice cream bar and some conversation. Rich Kay admitted they only like to watch the first 20 laps and the last 20. The other 160 just can't hold their interest.
So why come at all?
"Tradition," he said. "It's just tradition."
The Kays might represent all that is good -- and bad -- about the Indy Racing League's premier event. Still billed as "the greatest spectacle in racing," the Indianapolis 500 has lost some of its luster, thanks in part to a rift between CART and the IRL, and the soaring popularity of NASCAR.
Yet people still come. They still fill the stands in all four turns of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, still stand when Jim Nabors sings "Back Home Again in Indiana," still pack their coolers with beer, endure endless traffic jams and pay to see the race.
But is it the race they're coming to see?
Phyliss Grant, a regular for 50 years, nearly wrinkled her newspaper racing guide pondering the question.
"It's the 500," she said, giving up on finding a better answer. "Since CART has split it hasn't been so exciting. But we just keep coming from habit."
Racing historian Donald Davidson says the Indianapolis 500 has always been more than just a race since its first running in 1911.
"It had become a happening almost immediately," Davidson said. "By the late teens, early '20s, everybody knew what the Indy 500 was. Even if you hated racing, knew nothing about it, cared less, and lived states and states away, you still knew what it was about."
And he believes that's still the case today.
"There are people," he said, "that go to events."
How many people is hard to say. The speedway has never released attendance figures, though it's generally estimated the race draws as many as 400,000 people.
"We're flattered that people are concerned about our ticket sales," speedway spokesman Fred Nation said. "But as we reiterate again and again, the Indy 500 sells more tickets than any other event in the world."
But those tickets aren't as cherished as they once were. Scalpers outside the speedway were asking half-price for them on race morning.
Many in auto racing have said for the last few years that the Indy 500 is now a secondary attraction to NASCAR's Brickyard 400, also at the speedway. With Formula One coming to Indy in September, the 500 might become the track's No. 3 event.
Nation argues that the race hasn't lost any excitement, just many of its biggest names to retirement.
"Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Arie Luyendyk, and the list goes on and on," Nation said. "The challenge is to develop new names, and new heroes."
For Scott and Lori Cibert, who parked their four children on a blanket in the first turn, just the memory of heroes like Andretti is enough to keep them coming back.
"When the big names left, they said they wouldn't have the crowds," Lori Cibert said. "But it's still awesome."
For the Ciberts, the race evokes images of years past, of growing up in Indianapolis.
"It's the smell of those barbecue grills," Scott Cibert said, taking a deep breath.
"It's everything," his wife added. "It just gives you goose bumps."
For some it's a party. They down sweaty cans of beer and hoot and holler until their voices grow hoarse.
For some it's a passion. They sit in the stands pressing radio headphones closer to their ears, religiously following the race.
For most -- who pack their picnic, cooler and memories of races past -- it's just one thing.
Before the start of each race, Davidson takes a grandstand seat in the center of the front straightaway, fixes his eyes to the left or right and does a slow pan across the whole scene.
"Let your eyes sort of float over all that mass of humanity," he said. "All those colored dots, they've all come together for a reason. Everybody in here has a story to tell."