INDIANAPOLIS -- The sound of racing engines floated over the west side of Indianapolis last weekend. But this time the noise was actually coming from the sky.
For the first time, Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted a round of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, drawing 62,000 spectators for a much different kind of competition than the Speedway's faithful fans are used to watching.
The Air Race is the latest element in the 25-year evolution of IMS from a racetrack that hosted one huge, month-long event to a multi-purpose facility that is in use throughout the calendar year.
While many permanent racetracks struggle to generate income during their down time, the Speedway has worked hard to minimize the amount of time the 559-acre facility sits idle.
Tony George started the process in the early 1990s when he ascended to a leadership position within the Hulman family, which has owned and operated the track since 1945. One of his first moves was to upgrade the IMS golf course; the renamed Brickyard Crossing hosted a PGA Senior Tour event from 1994 to 2000 and next year will welcome the LPGA Tour back to Indianapolis for the first time since 1968 with a three-year commitment.
George also brought NASCAR and Formula One racing to IMS, and while F1 departed after an eight-year run, the current management team of Mark Miles (CEO of Hulman Motorsports) and Doug Boles (Indianapolis Motor Speedway president) have done a good job of building on that solid base. The Speedway is now home to the largest vintage car racing meeting in America, and next year the SCCA Runoffs will be contested for the first time on the IMS road course.
A round of the Moto GP championship replaced F1 from 2008 to 2015, with title sponsorship from Red Bull. This year, the energy drink giant altered its spending with IMS, replacing the motorcycles with an air race that took the Speedway back to its pre-auto racing roots. Almost a year before the first Indianapolis 500 in May 1911, IMS hosted a weeklong aviation show that attracted the Wright Brothers and produced a world record for altitude.
Despite a low cloud ceiling and some Saturday rain, the Red Bull Air Race was a success for the Speedway and the spectators who came out. Track officials said that all Tier 1 tickets sold out for Sunday's session, attendance and budget goals were met, and the event will be on the 2017 calendar, likely with a mid-October date.
"Our city embraced this exciting competition and it was a fantastic and historic weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," Boles said.
The Speedway still has its share of challenges ahead, mainly trying to revive the Brickyard 400 stock car weekend. Frequently considered boring and uncompetitive, the Brickyard is the poster child for NASCAR's declining attendance across the board, and while the event remains profitable for the Speedway, sheer expanses of empty grandstands for an event that used to routinely fill 200,000 seats looks bad for the track and for NASCAR.
It will also be interesting to see if IMS can maintain and build on the momentum generated by the historic 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May. The 500 sold out for the first time in at least 20 years, and keeping those seats filled for the 101st running and beyond will be a big test for Boles and his team.
Although Tony George no longer factors in the daily running of the Speedway, he was recently installed as chairman of the board of Hulman & Co. George takes a lot of the blame for the decline of Indy car racing in the late 1990s, but the plans he put in place for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself a quarter of a century ago are a big reason why the grand old track is thriving right now in an era when many others aren't.
So credit where it is due.