Indy 500 seeks centennial ‘bump’ for 101st running

By DAVE SKRETTA

AP Sports Writer

There was a palpable sense of excitement everywhere Doug Boles went a year ago, whether it was the gas station or grocery store or his office on 16th and Georgetown just outside Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Everyone was talking about the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Boles shared in the excitement, too. The president of the speedway seemed to be everywhere at once, shaking hands with some of the estimated 350,000 fans on race day, taking selfies that showed up on all manner of social media and ensuring the centennial edition would be one to remember.

But just below the surface was also an underlying fear: What would happen next year? Would all the build-up to such a milestone event leave many of those fans done for 101?

“We were worried that one of two things could happen,” Boles explained. “People who had been coming for a long time would view the 100th as sort of the end point — they had gotten to the 100th and they were going to do something else, listen to it on the radio, watch it on TV, but weren’t going to come.

“And the other one,” Boles said, “is we knew we’d have a lot of bucket-listers and first-timer people who were coming, and we were hoping that we could get them to come back a second or third time.”

It appears many of those first-timers are indeed coming back this weekend.

After strong crowds for qualifying weekend, Boles told The Associated Press that ticket sales are strong to watch Scott Dixon lead the field to green today. The crowd won’t reach the complete sellout of last year, which allowed the local TV blackout to be lifted for the first time since 1950, but it could surpass 250,000 fans, continuing an upward trend that followed years of stagnation.

“Our number on race day is going to end up being better than any race day we’ve had in at least the last 15 years, other than last year,” Boles said. “If you look at 2011 through 2015, we were on a slow-growing trajectory, which we were happy with, and then 2016 obviously was a huge boom. We want to maintain as much of that lift as we could and we’re really pleased with how much we gained.”

The speedway doesn’t release official attendance numbers, making it difficult to quantify the amount of lift the centennial race gave to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” At least anecdotally, those who have spent much of May around the racetrack have experienced a similar buzz to last year.

Early last week, there were already more people walking through Gasoline Alley and posing for pictures in front of the Pagoda. Campers have been showing up for days.

“We’ve seen a great amount of interest in the race,” said Graham Rahal, who will start in the middle of the fifth row. “There’s been a good buzz about it and that’s only going to continue to get better. Even the Grand Prix, it was packed, maybe double what we had from last year.”

Yes, the momentum from the 100th race carried over to other IndyCar events. The series’ 16 races last year averaged 1.28 million viewers, their highest TV ratings recorded by Nielsen since 2011 — numbers that are noteworthy with Indy 500 broadcast rights up for bidding this year.

Boles thinks he has a feel for it now.

“The one thing I’ve heard a lot, especially from people who are 30-plus year attendees of the 500, is they walked into the venue last year and said, ‘That’s why we fell in love with the speedway,'” Boles said. “‘We fell in love with it because of the electricity that it had, the number of people it had.’ So at some level, it reaffirmed for them why they love the place so much.”