Steven Wright, the comedian famous for his deadpan delivery, once said of America’s greatest automobile race, “I watched the Indy 500, and I was thinking that if they left earlier they wouldn't have to go so fast.”
The Indy cars definitely are speedy: They can zoom from 0 to 100 miles an hour in less than three little seconds, and they rocket around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at average speeds of 220 miles per hour. Three weeks before Sunday’s main event even starts, however, motor heads begin arriving at the famous Brickyard for festivals, practice and qualifying laps, all of which adds mightily to Indy’s whopping $336 million economic impact annually. That’s greater than either the Daytona 500 or the Super Bowl, according to Strategic Media Worldwide.
It costs a racing team from $5 to $8 million to compete in the 17-race IndyCar Series season. In 2008, the cable network Versus paid $67 million to televise 12 of those races for ten years. That same year, ESPN/ABC paid $10 million annually in a four-year deal to retain the rights to five of the 17 races on the schedule, including the Indianapolis 500. Last year, more than 4.5 million households with televisions were tuned into their broadcast.
The impact of auto racing is most keenly felt, of course, in Indiana, where more than 400 motorsports-related companies do business, according to a 2004 study by The Center for Urban Policy and the Environment, a research organization at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. About 8,800 individuals work in full-time jobs directly related to motorsports, earning an average of $48,359. That’s 35 percent higher than the average ($35,953) for all sectors of the Hoosier State’s economy.
There is permanent seating for 257,000 people at the Brickyard, and the infield crowd can boost that number to more than 400,000, making the Indy 500 the most attended single day sporting event in the world. Like the gas-guzzling Indy cars – which burn 1.3 gallons for a single two-and-half-mile lap – Indy 500 spectators are prodigious consumers.
The cheapest item in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s gift shop is a post card for 33 cents. Yet fans buy so many of them each year that if those cards were laid out end to end, they would cover three miles. The most expensive item in the shop? A TAG-Heuer watch, which goes for $1,450. Meanwhile, nearly 16,000 gallons of Coca-Cola products are consumed during the Indy (enough to fill two tanker trucks) and more than 10,000 pounds of Brickyard Burgers (or the weight of six Indy cars).
And just which comedian, by the way, is the most famous son of Indianapolis? That might be David Letterman, who co-owns the auto team Rahal Letterman Racing with 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal. They won the 2004 race with driver Buddy Rice, and this year, behind the wheel, will be Rahal’s son, Graham. Of course, Letterman, once a pit reporter for ABC in 1971, makes considerably more now as a late-night icon, reportedly $32 million a year. Yet he supposedly treasures the Indy 500 trophy more than his multiple Emmy awards.
Why? Well, this might help explain it:
“The Top Ten Perks of Winning the Indianapolis 500,”according to Late Night with David Letterman:
10. Getting showered with 10W-40 in victory lane celebration.
9. Honorary New York City taxi license.
8. Right to represent Earth in Pan-Galactic Monster Truck Rally.
7. Invitation to start Mr. Gotti's car for him.
6. Good chance of meeting Kamaar the Magician backstage at Letterman show.
5. Don't have to shut off lights and lock up speedway like guy who finishes last.
4. Get to throw one free punch at Mr. Goodwrench.
3. Offers of employment from Domino's Pizza.
2. Trophy, bouquet of roses, and a big, wet kiss from Jim Nabors.
1. All the Valvoline a guy can drink.
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