What Would Mr. Hulman Do?
On Friday night, I saw the blurb on Twitter – which is where I learn most of my IndyCar news these days. It simply said “IMS seeks state aid for up to $100 million in improvements”. It only took fifty-eight characters to erase more than a century of the leaders of IMS always being able to claim that they had never taken a dime of taxpayer’s money. It was just another long-standing tradition, gone in the blink of an eye.
As I read the article that was linked to the tweet, I envisioned Mr. Hulman spinning in his grave. That was my reaction on Friday night. As I read mixed reaction later that night, and then stewed about it overnight – I found myself doing something I rarely do. I waffled.
While it’s easy to say that Mr. Hulman never would have allowed this to happen, I’m not so sure. Tony Hulman was an astute businessman. When he was handed the responsibility of improving the sales of Clabber Girl at a young age, he inherited a product that had stagnated. He introduced new and aggressive ways of promoting the product – sales methods that ruffled the feathers of the old guard. Mr. Hulman recognized that times had changed and that his company had better change with the times or be prepared to get left behind. He saw it as the new way of doing business. Suffice it to say that his method succeeded.
In the ensuing years, Mr. Hulman purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the fall of 1945 for roughly $700,000. It was his policy that all profits from their one event, the Indianapolis 500, would go back into the track for maintenance, capital improvements, etc. It was never his intention to make the people of Indiana subsidize his property.
By the time Tony Hulman passed away in 1977, many changes had taken place at IMS under his direct guidance. Some were a product of forward thinking, such as the first pit wall anywhere that separated the pits from the actual racing surface; or the massive stands that were constructed around the track under his watch.
Other changes came as a result of changing times. By the end of the 1955 season, AAA had pulled out of sanctioning auto racing. As a result, Mr. Hulman founded USAC, creating a racing body that rose to prominence in the sixties and seventies and still exists today. He probably never envisioned founding a racing body when he bought the track ten years earlier, but he adjusted on the fly. That’s what successful business people do. They maintain a state of fluidity and make adjustments when necessary.
When Mr. Hulman passed away thirty-five years ago, it was a different sports landscape – not only in Indiana and the US, but the world. NASCAR was still mostly a southern sport that was rarely televised. The Indianapolis 500 was king so far as auto racing was concerned in this country. Baseball had just added two new teams in Toronto and Seattle, to go along with new expansion NFL franchises in Seattle and Tampa Bay. There was no ESPN or CNN. For the most part, we got our news, sports and entertainment from ABC, CBS and NBC.
By the time of Tony Hulman’s death, our nation had just witnessed its first boom in civic stadium construction. Hideous multi-function stadiums sprouted up across the landscape at taxpayer expense. Round clones appeared in Philadelphia (Veterans Stadium), Pittsburg (Three Rivers), Cincinnati (Riverfront), St. Louis (Busch), Atlanta (Atlanta-Fulton Co) to name just a few. It was believed that these doughnut shaped facilities with artificial surfaces would be the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars. What was considered futuristic in the early seventies looked downright dated and ugly by the nineties.
Sports were just starting to become big business. Million dollar contracts were not the norm, yet – but they were not unheard of. Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas were wrapping up their legendary careers in strange uniforms on the west coast. The Colts were still in Baltimore, while Bear Bryant and Reggie Jackson were still creating their own legacies. The times were much different then.
Today, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is valued by some at over $1 billion. With the Indianapolis 500, the Brickyard 400 and Moto GP event in its portfolio, it is a cash cow for the Hulman-George family as well as the town of Speedway, the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana. The cottage industry of motor racing that exists in central Indiana is directly related to the Speedway. This facility has pumped a lot of money into the economy of the entire region for over a century, without taking a dime.
But in a struggling economy and changing culture, revenue is falling while expenses are skyrocketing. Motor racing is not held in awe by today’s twenty-somethings as it was a generation ago. We can moan and whine about the reasons why, but those are the facts. In today’s entertainment world, even the mighty NFL is struggling to maintain its grasp on today’s culture.
Keeping up with the changing culture is why new sports venues built to house premier franchises like the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees are costing well over $1 billion to construct with all of the amenities demanded by today’s consumer. Items such as multiple High-Definition video boards, available Wi-Fi, gourmet and health-conscious concessions, climate controlled common areas, massive hospitality grounds, easy entrance and exit and ADA compliance; were all things we would have considered either frivolous or beyond our imagination twenty years ago. Now they are expected – or demanded.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one-hundred and four years old. I began going there when it was only fifty-six years old. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes – but so much of it still looks the same. That’s why it appeals to us hard-core fans. But in another twenty-five years, I’m probably going to be too old to go much (if I’m still around at seventy-nine). We find it quaint, but what about those coming up in the next twenty-five years?
My son is twenty-three. He has been to IMS more times than I can count since he was three. His last time there was for the 2005 race and I think it would suit him fine if he never went again, except possibly for the melee that is Carb Day. I look at IMS and see it as a shrine. He and his generation look at sports as a waste of time and consider IMS an antiquated facility that houses an outdated activity.
While I normally detest change and see IMS as almost perfect for my needs, I also want the facility to be there for the next hundred years. To meet that goal, it has to be a viable business entity for the next generations. They can’t wait until it’s too late, they probably needed to make the necessary changes a few years ago. The video boards are old, outdated, too small and too few of them. You can’t see them in the sun. they don’t utilize the 16:9 wide-screen format of HD technology and they are scattered too far apart. Granted, IMS is a vast area but you must meet the needs of today’s consumer.
Personally, I love the Tenderloin sandwiches at the track. The Track Dogs and burgers at IMS aren’t bad. But adding nachos to the fare is not really keeping up with today’s concession market. Go to any NFL game and you’ll find a large variety from chicken and pasta, to fresh sushi and fish tacos along with an offering from some of the best local restaurants in the area – as well as the standard junk food that I’m partial to.
More tunnels need to be constructed for better access in and out of the track. I’m not sure there is such a thing as too many restrooms. But all of these things cost money – lots of money.
Then there is the subject of lights at IMS. Personally, I’m against them for many reasons – but I can also understand not wanting to attend the NASCAR race on a sun-baked aluminum bleacher in July. As much as we open-wheel fans turn our collective noses up at the idea of stock cars running at IMS, just remember – the money the Brickyard generates is what keeps the IZOD IndyCar Series afloat. If that race goes away, so might our series. If running the Brickyard at night makes it possible for us to keep attending the Indianapolis 500 in the daytime each May – I can live with it.
I’m not a resident of the state of Indiana, so the use of state funds won’t affect me much except my hotel bill each May might be a little more. Politically, I’m not a fan of relying on tax dollars to solve a problem. I also don’t believe that just because all sports entities are getting subsidies, that makes it OK for IMS to get theirs. But I also realize that Mark Miles, Jeff Belskus, Doug Boles and the rest of the IMS brain trust are in a tough spot. There are major funds needed to get the ever-aging facility up to modern standards – standards that are needed to keep pace in the constantly changing entertainment market place. And when it’s all said and done, IMS is an entertainment venue.
So, if you were looking to me to take the stance of the old guard and lament the use of taxpayer dollars the way I would defend roadsters, Novi’s and turbochargers – you’re probably now very disappointed. I’m not thrilled about it, but I really see no other alterantive.
If IMS is to survive well after I’m gone, then this is money that needs to be spent now. We can argue the merits back and forth all day long, but the statement that Tony Hulman would never do this should not be part of the argument. Mr. Hulman was an astute businessman with an eye on the future. I think he would see it as the only means to get to the future in today’s business climate. Just as when he took over Clabber Girl, he knew how and when to adjust and would see this as the new way of doing business.