By Chris Erskine
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 22, 2011
Reporting from Indianapolis
Like speed, greed kills. And a civil war between two racing factions of open-wheel racing threw this town's grand event into a near-lethal tailspin.
After a 2008 reconciliation, IndyCar racing now has a dynamic new leader, Californian Randy Bernard, who faces the challenge of reversing declines in Indy 500 attendance and TV ratings. Last year, the national audience was down 40% from four years before.
The Indianapolis 500 isn't what it used to be before the civil war broke out in the mid-'90s. But what is these days, except for perhaps the Super Bowl?
Yet the race remains one of the top motor-sports events in the world, drawing an estimated 300,000 spectators a year, making it still the biggest single-day sporting event in attendance.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, five miles northwest of downtown, dates to 1909, when Carl Fisher built it as a place for auto companies to test and promote their products. It has a fabled history, including the fact that war hero Eddie Rickenbacker once owned it.
Today, it hosts only a few racing events a year, including the Brickyard 400. By far its biggest day is the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, when 33 drivers from around the world fire up machines that easily top 200 mph.
As a friend notes, ultimately it's just a bunch of short cars zinging around for three or so hours, so if you're in Indy, enjoy the food, enjoy the weather, enjoy the moment and try not to get distracted by the racing. It's tradition.
As with most spectacles, there is plenty to do in advance.
One of the biggest pre-race events is Saturday's 500 Festival Parade (www.500festival.com), which winds around Monument Circle and features all the qualifying drivers.
Other times, look for drivers hanging out at the downtown landmarks: St. Elmo, the Conrad Hotel, even some of the joints along Meridian. The Indianapolis Star newspaper offers a daily log of driver appearances around town, including autograph sessions.
For access to drivers and machines, the Bronze Badge, which grants backstage access to the speedway and the garage area known as Gasoline Alley, comes highly recommended ( 492-6500, http://www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com). Badges cost $100, $75 for ages 9-17. They are good for the month leading up to the race, when teams test and tinker with cars, but not on race day.
Race day infield tickets cost $20, and seats in the stands start at $40. Practice day general admission tickets are $10.
If you get in town early, you can take a lap around the speedway in your own car, during community day on Wednesdayfor $7 a person (www.500festival.com).
And be sure to check out the Hall of Fame's Museum, which features winning cars that go back 100 years (www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com/history/35204-Museum). Admission is $5, and for another $5, you get a shuttle bus ride around the track itself.
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