On Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, marching bands will play, balloons will fly, crowds will cheer and finely tuned cars will race in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500.
Except it won't be like it was just 15 or 20 years ago. The television viewing audience will be insignificant, the national media's attention close to nonexistent and the interest level about the race, even for Indianapolis residents, will be very low.
There was a time, not too long ago, when national media obsessively covered the events and personalities at the Speedway. The best-known drivers were household names. The race itself was destination television, watched by millions and millions around the world.
How did the Indy 500 go from being one of the premier international sporting events to its current status, rivaling Major League Soccer and the WNBA in terms of passionate fans? The causes are many and well documented: the USAC/CART debacle of the mid-1990s, the management (or mismanagement) of the brand by the George family and the explosive popularity of NASCAR racing.
Despite several decades of decline, the Indy 500 is still considered the largest single-day sporting event in the world. Its traditions are the stuff of legend. The event still brings thousands of visitors and millions of dollars of revenue to our city.
So why, then, do I not know a single person who can even name five Indy Car drivers, much less cares who wins the race? The race may still be considered a success financially but the race has lost the hearts and minds of its hometown fans.
People used to anticipate for months going to the track to see the great drivers. The people who attend the race now either do so because they receive free tickets, because they've always gone or simply because they want to get good and drunk for several days and not go to jail for public intoxication.
With the massive level of disengagement and general ambivalence towards the Indy 500, it may be time to begin to state what just a few years ago would be an unthinkable notion: Maybe the Indy 500 should either fade away entirely or be held once every two or three years instead of annually.
The fan base for IndyCar racing just simply does not exist anymore. No amount of marketing will change this fact. While the Speedway is a beautiful facility and the track is a feat of engineering marvel, a 500-mile race on an oval track just isn't very exciting to modern audiences.
IndyCar drivers are anonymous athletes whose escapades barely make the local newspapers, let alone the national and international media outlets. Decades of bad public relations have left the race in a sorry state and very real thought should be given to abolishing it altogether.
While other once-beloved sporting events have dropped in popularity, the disappearance of IndyCar racing from the national spotlight happened quickly and is even accelerating. Various schemes to bolster its popularity have all failed. Of the two drivers who might be recognized east of 16th Street, Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick, one is dead and the other has left the sport.
It's hard to overstate the importance the Indy 500 once had among local residents. Denied live TV broadcasts, Indianapolis neighborhoods echoed with the radio broadcast of the race. Office pools were held to predict the winner. All of that is gone now.
Since there is no way to revive the event's former popularity, and with no budding superstars in the sport, it's time to hit the reset on the Indy 500. Holding a race every two or three years would allow for a sufficient marketing campaign and retooling to work. Perhaps it could become an international championship of motorsports, with NASCAR and Formula One drivers competing against each other for a trophy.
Under those circumstances, the race could be an event similar to the World Cup or the Olympics — something that would draw significant worldwide attention even among non-fans of auto racing.
I'm sure there are other, better ideas to revitalize the Indy 500. But time is running out on the race. Too many more years of this level of disinterest and the race will become even more irrelevant than it is today. This is tough news for us to accept in Indianapolis, but it's true.
Decades of neglect by management and changing public tastes have left our city's landmark event in a sorry shape. Only rational, well-planned ideas will save the Indianapolis 500 from extinction, a death that could come more quickly than any of us realize.