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Indianapolis Speedway Needs Boost, But With Taxpayer Funds?

May 26, 2013
Originally published on May 26, 2013 1:24 pm

Sunday is the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500, which draws hundreds of thousands of fans to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While it's an economic boon for the area, the 104-year-old track needs renovations — and just how it's getting the money is rubbing some Hoosiers the wrong way.

When you take in a race at the Speedway, you are seeing it at the world's largest spectator sporting facility. The place is huge, big enough to fit Yankee Stadium and the Roman Colosseum inside. The smells of barbecued turkey legs and Italian sausage fill the air, and souvenir tents line the perimeter.

The centerpiece is the track itself; the 2 1/2-mile, four-turn oval, where cars hit speeds near 230 mph. No matter where you are in the 250,000-seat stadium, you can feel the heat and energy that rises from the asphalt.

But the track is beginning to show its age. From the outside, you can see the stadium's grey concrete walls are starting to fade, and the bleachers inside are sprinkled with rust. The video boards are ancient by today's technology standards, and there are no track lights.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Mark Miles says the aging infrastructure makes it hard to compete against newer, more modern tracks.

"We are immediately affected by tracks popping up in Ohio and in Illinois and in Michigan," he says. "The bar keeps getting raised, and we have to be competitive."

That's why the state is issuing $100 million in bonds for renovations, money from the taxpayers that's going to the track's owners. At the bill signing ceremony this past week, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence argued the privately owned Speedway's economic impact is worth the investment.

"The motor sports Industry pumps more than $3 billion into the Hoosier economy annually," he said. "And this is an industry in Indiana that contributes more than 23,000 jobs for our state, paying an average wage of nearly $63,000 a year."

But the state's financial package isn't sitting well with some residents. Indianapolis lawyer and political blogger Gary Welsh says tax money should be used on schools, roads and social services.

"There's a variety of basic services that I think should always come first," he says. "And recreational uses that benefit billionaire or multimillionaire sports team owners doesn't come anywhere close to the top of my list of priorities."

Even Speedway booster Pat Everett understands the controversy. Now 71, she fell in love with the track on her first visit in 1964 and has been coming back ever since.

"If there is money to be had, let's look at it very carefully, and I want to see all of that balanced out," she says. "Of course, that's in a perfect world, I understand."

Track officials and others are convinced that once the upgrades are complete, the track will attract a new generation of fans, much as it mesmerized Everett decades ago.

Copyright 2013 WFYI-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wfyi.org.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today is the Indianapolis 500. The race draws hundreds of thousands of fans to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track is 104 years old, and it needs renovations. But some Hoosiers are unwilling to foot the bill. Sam Klemet of member station WFYI in Indianapolis reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACECARS)

SAM KLEMET, BYLINE: When you take in a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, you are seeing it at the world's largest spectator sporting facility. The place is huge - big enough to fit Yankee Stadium and the Roman Coliseum inside. Indy car driver Josef Newgarden compares the Speedway to another cultural touchstone.

JOSEF NEWGARDEN: I've described it as going to Disney World.

KLEMET: Like Disney World, the speedway has a unique history and mystique. The smells of barbequed turkey legs and Italian sausage fill the air here as souvenir tents line the perimeter. But the centerpiece is the track itself - the two and a half-mile, four-turn oval where cars hit speeds near 230 miles per hour. No matter where you are, you can feel the heat and energy that rises from the asphalt. Sporting sunglasses and a red Firestone racing cap, 71-year-old Pat Everett reminisces on her first visit here with two friends, in 1964.

PAT EVERETT: We heard about this race and we thought, well, it's not that far away. Let's give it a try.

KLEMET: Once she experienced the roar and speed of the cars whipping around the 250,000-seat stadium, she couldn't leave.

EVERETT: We just loved it, and here we are now. All three of us have been in Indianapolis ever since.

KLEMET: But the track is beginning to show its age. From the outside, you can see the stadium's gray concrete walls are starting to fade, and the bleachers inside are sprinkled with rust. The video boards are ancient by today's technology standards, and there are no track lights. Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Mark Miles says the aging infrastructure makes it hard to compete against newer, more modern tracks.

MARK MILES: We are immediately affected by tracks popping up in Ohio, in Illinois and Michigan. The bar keeps getting raised and we have to be competitive.

KLEMET: Which is why the state is issuing $100 million in bonds for renovations; money from the taxpayers that's going to the track's owners. At the bill singing ceremony, Indiana Governor Mike Pence argues the privately owned Speedway's economic impact is worth the investment.

GOVERNOR MIKE PENCE: The motor sports Industry pumps more than three billion dollars into the Hoosier economy annually. And this is an industry in Indiana that contributes more than 23,000 jobs for our state, paying an average wage of nearly $63,000 a year.

KLEMET: But the state financial package isn't sitting well with some residents here. Indianapolis lawyer and political blogger Gary Welsh says tax money should be used on schools, roads and social services.

GARY WELSH: There's a variety of basic services that I think should always come first and recreational uses that benefit billionaire or multi-millionaire sports team owners doesn't come anywhere close to the top of my list of priorities.

KLEMET: Even Speedway booster Pat Everett understands the controversy.

EVERETT: If there is money to be had, let's look at it very carefully and I want to see all of that balanced out. Of course that's the perfect world, I understand.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEMET: But track officials and others are convinced once the upgrades are complete, the track will bring in a new generation of fans who will fall in love with the Speedway in much the way Pat Everett did. For NPR News, I'm Sam Klemet in Indianapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.