INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Motor Speedway staged "Throwback Day" with a 1970s theme this past weekend. The only thing missing was the crowd.
Throwback Day was certainly appropriate for me because the weekend marked my 30th anniversary at IMS, dating to Bump Day 1977 when Janet Guthrie famously became the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. So I celebrated by taking the day off -- which meant spending a beautiful spring day at The Speedway, albeit without chasing interviews or typing a story.
With plugs firmly installed in 10-month-old Patrick's ears, wife Kathleen and I headed for Turn 1 and fired up the grill for a barbecue with my sister and a crew of her friends. But as much as the tie-dyed shirts the IMS staff broke out for Throwback Day added to the festive mood, the lack of action on the track and atmosphere in the stands brought me back down to earth.
At one point, my sister said, "Man, you should have seen it! There were seven cars out there at once, all running in a pack!"
That was it for me.
"You should have seen this place back in the day -- back in 1977, for example," I snapped. "There would have been 30 or 40 cars pounding around here practicing on the second weekend, and you could actually tell them apart because they all looked and sounded different. And there would have been 20 times as many people here, some of whom actually gave a toss about what was going on!"
I caught myself before I ranted any further; after all, I didn't want to be a total buzzkill to a group of Indy neophytes who were having a good time at The Speedway. But the continuing diminishment of one of the world's iconic sporting events is a source of frustration to anyone who works in American open-wheel racing -- not to mention its dedicated but dwindling fan base.
Want proof that a "huge" Pole Day crowd used to mean more than 25,000? Take a look at the picture of Pole Day 1977 spread across pages 210-211 of this year's Indianapolis 500 Official Program. Every seat down the frontstretch through Turn 2, as far as you can see inside and out, is filled.
Admittedly, 1977 was a special year at Indy because the 200-mph barrier was broken. But six-figure Pole Day crowds were commonplace into the 1990s, and Bump Day drew 50,000-plus (not 5,000 or fewer) when it was names like Penske and Rahal getting bumped.
You can't totally blame Tony George and his decision to divide American open-wheel racing for the decline of the month of May because attendance already had been slowly dropping before 1996. There's a lot more to do in Indianapolis these days than there was 10, 20 or 30 years ago, and it's easy to follow the action from home -- if you care to.
But there's no denying that the CART/IRL split accelerated Indy's downward spiral, and the return of some of the "big names" in recent years -- such as Penske and Rahal -- hasn't done much to improve matters.
So it's time to start from scratch and rebuild the institution that is Indy and the month of May. With the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2009) and of the 500 itself (2011) on the horizon, wouldn't it be nice to restore the luster to the event and truly have something to celebrate?
Here's my six-step program to turn things around:
• Cut the month of May: The 500's Extreme Makeover should start with a major diet that cuts the current 21 days teams spend at The Speedway to 10. Make Opening Day matter by allowing everyone to run (not just rookies and rusty veterans), and post a lucrative prize for the fastest lap of the day. Maintain the positive elements of the new qualifying format (such as three attempts per car per day), but fill the field in two days rather than four. And bring back the 11 a.m. start time (even better, move the race to Monday, Memorial Day itself) to allow NASCAR or even Formula One drivers to participate.
• Show them the money: Repeating a trend from the 1970s, the Indy 500 purse has stagnated, growing only about 10 percent over the past 10 years. During that time, the purse for the Daytona 500 has doubled to more than $18 million, passing Indy as the world's most lucrative auto race in the process. The Indy winner made $1.2 million in 1991 and $1.3 million in 2003, and the record haul for the victor is $1.7 million. Bump that number up to $5 million or $10 million, and make it possible for the back half of the grid to break even on the event, and I guarantee the number of entries will rise and real bumping will return to the equation.
• Rethink the formula: By dissolving into a Dallara-Honda spec formula, the IndyCar Series has become boring across the spectrum of drivers, fans and manufacturers. So write a new set of technical rules that encourages innovation and allows competition. And don't be afraid to go radical. Part of what made Indy great through the decades was an unusual array of entries that occasionally had 4WD, diesel power or even jet turbine power. Painting a Dallara Day-Glo orange and slapping the word "Whoosh!" on it didn't exactly inspire memories of the '67 and '68 turbines.
• Make it fast again: Safety obviously comes first, but speeds need to inch up again because 230 mph is commonplace these days. Cars protect drivers better than they used to, and Indy pioneered the SAFER barrier (the most important oval-track safety innovation in decades), so bump the target pole speed up to an eye-popping number. Who wants to be Indy's first 250-mph man -- or woman?
• Bring back the fun: When I was a teenager in northern Indiana, spending time at The Speedway was a rite of passage, from skipping the occasional day of school to catch practice, to partying all night on 16th Street the night before the race before being directed into the infield at dawn. These days, hardly anyone without a connection is allowed to park inside the track, and it can't be much fun to have to ride trams everywhere around the facility after being parked in the North 40.
Encouraging a family-friendly atmosphere is all well and good, but The Snakepit and the prospect of participating in the world's biggest party were another key part of what made Indy "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." It wasn't just the cars. I'm told that Carb Day is Indy's new party scene, but I think fans who had their freedom to have fun at IMS taken away have found other places to cut loose -- such as Talladega and Bristol and Michigan and Texas. And though the marketing types huff on about the need to attract new fans, I believe it's even more important to reactivate the old fan base. Start by putting bands the old-timers recognize on stage -- such as REO Speedwagon and Styx instead of Kid Rock and Saliva.
• Don't hide the truth: The media in any town naturally will support the home team, but it also has a duty to report what is happening truthfully and objectively. In that respect, the Indianapolis media has failed miserably -- even those outlets that don't draw a part-time paycheck from IMS. Television and radio stations breathlessly rave about the huge crowds (what?!?) and pretend the number and quality of entries for the 500 is no different from what it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago. It's insulting to those who know what the month of May used to be like.
By painting a false picture of what is really going on, the Indianapolis media is doing the Indy 500 a great disservice and arguably hurting the event more than helping it. A more accurate message would be that the city's crown jewel is badly tarnished and the event is badly in need of support from the local fans.
I'm going to do my part to turn back the clock this weekend. These days, the media lot is pretty close to where we used to get parked in the infield, so before the race, you'll find me and my friends out there with the grill blazing and a bootleg Pink Floyd or Grateful Dead concert from 1977 blaring on the car stereo.
Maybe I'll even wear a tie-dyed T-shirt.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.