One of the most challenging jobs any one person could possibly take on might be President of IMS. If you are not related to someone of Hulman lineage it would no doubt be even more difficult. That is the challenge facing Doug Boles today. It is not as if he is not up for the challenge. He has been rising through those ranks for a few years and has been running a good portion of the show through these various transitional periods. He appears to ‘get’ IMS, its place in history and where it needs to go.
Perhaps the most important component of his new job from a track legacy point of view is the portion of the description that includes the word ‘facilities.’ That encompasses a lot and is loaded. IMS is 104 years old and is showing its age. Boles has to worry not only about ADA compliance but making the grounds a destination for more than motorsports, and always with a goal of selling the most tickets possible for the big motorsports activities held there.
After Tony Hulman rescued IMS from the brink of non-existence in 1946 each subsequent year was spent improving the facility in some small (and occasionally large) way year after year. That was the mantra. Make the place better during the next year than it was in the preceding year. That philosophy was engrained. Tony Hulman and most members of his family got it. Clarence Cagle got it. Joe Cloutier got it. Everyone who ever worked there got it. Hulman’s grandson Tony George got it. Perhaps too much. When you compare the condition of the place when Hulman took over with what we enjoyed into the decade of the late 2000’s the evolution is stunning. Tony George gets a lot of grief for his perceived extravagances but could a new state of the art control tower NOT be shaped like a giant pagoda? How could one place stage the biggest motor race known to man, a prestigious NASCAR event, a successful Formula One run and one of the biggest events on the two-wheeler schedule? But it has.
Part of Doug’s current challenge is location. When IMS was built the track location was out in the middle of nowhere. It pretty much stayed that way until after WWII. With post-war prosperity came neighborhoods of quickly built factory homes for young families and their baby booming activities on most sides of the track. That worked out delightfully until the late 1980s and early 1990s when population demography shifted radically. In Indy the middle class migrated outside the 465 loop to places like Carmel, Fishers and Noblesville, west toward Avon and beyond or south down Greenwood way. The result has not done wonders for IMS. The city can put all the fancy medians they want down the middle of Westside thoroughfares such as Crawfordsville Road or 38th Street but it will not change pervasive decay eating away at either side of the main drags. 38th Street is essentially a blighted ghost town from 465 to 65. The once great Lafayette Square has become a crime-infested wasteland that is dangerous during even daylight hours. Honda West became the last major new car dealer to flee just this month. The entire length is littered with abandoned buildings that once housed national brands for shopping and commerce. Crawfordsville Road is a good place to get a payday loan, fast food, liquor or tobacco but is it something that complements the historic palace down the street? How can Boles and crew effectively enhance a facility that sits in the midst of areas that increasingly resemble urban Detroit?
The town of Speedway and the state of Indiana have been embarking on meaningful gentrification of Speedway for ten years, and their efforts have begun to pay off. The Main Street redevelopment just outside the main gate is quite impressive, and that process is still relatively young. There is opposition in many cases; e.g., mere mention of closing Georgetown Road permanently draws cackles and howls of protest. Many residents are suspicious of IMS as adjoining property gets purchased, structures destroyed and unkept vacant lots increasingly dot the area.
Speedway redevelopment does not seem to address ghetto neighborhoods that now plague the vicinity. Most of the post-war houses are falling apart. The middle class who meticulously looked after their piece of the dream either died off or fled. There are a few diehards (like me) who still meticulously maintain properties in the immediate area of the track (outside turn 4 for me), but that seems like a losing battle much of the time.
What happens outside the track is almost as important as what happens inside it. Boles and crew can only directly control land and structures they own. What they must consider would keep most in a state of long term insomnia. They need to begin inside their own gates. Re-galvanizing sections of stands annually is necessary, but visitors don’t really notice anything except shiny iron next to rusty iron. Visitors DO notice weed-infested, un-mowed grounds. And broken, cracked, missing pavement in the museum parking lot. And litter. And giant cracks (complete with weeds) in sidewalks along pit road. And video monitors that outlived their usefulness around the time VHS became passé. And someone else’s urine (or worse) that drips from cracked pipes attached to troughs in cinder block restrooms.
Human nature being what it is you might actually believe your own house is clean and well-kept but visitors may believe they have entered a pigsty and are too polite to say anything. IMS is too personally important for politeness. There are so many small, basic things that need to be done immediately that any grand plans are not really important at the moment. How difficult is it to keep weeds out, grass mowed, stands and structures shiny and pavement unbroken? Meticulous attention to that kind of detail, Penske style, is necessary. Boles and crew must see the place as outsiders would.
Longer term? Here are a few suggestions. Race fans tend to reflect most of society. They are fatter and take up a lot more room these days. It is just as easy for most these days to plant their bulbous arses on an oversized sofa in air conditioning facing a 60-inch HDTV with all the junk food they can inhale. It takes actual work for most to travel to any entertainment offering much less an auto race. Every step of their journey must be made easy. Once they get inside they need to be kept comfy. Aluminum slabs with seat numbering far too close together (not to mention rows) will no longer get the job done. Take rows out of every stand and increase the leg room. Add a minimum of 6 inches to the width of seats. Start the stands in the turns higher up. Get rid of metal folding chairs wherever they currently exist. What Pocono did with many of their aluminum benches is ingenious. Plastic seats with backs were permanently attached and were spaced to accommodate normal sized people. Consider building condos in the area occupying now removed Northeast Vista seating at the end of the backstretch. Give fans something tangible for the increased prices they are now paying for tickets.
Another Boles challenge? Finding the funding to pull it off. Several now in charge of things but mostly Jeff Belskus have a reputation of bean counting. Fiscally tight to the point where Belskus could swallow coal and defacate diamonds. Sooner or later the purse strings must be loosened for facilities improvement, or there may not be a facility to improve. IMS has fallen woefully behind just about every other big time track in terms of amenities and appearance. Boles needs to ensure the track regains its traditional pack leader position. It must start today.
Doug Boles is a good guy who gets the history and is not shy about asking questions of others. In the event he needs input from those who have always been passionate about the place and spend an inordinate amount of money there are a few of us willing to help. He has my best wishes and support.