The Indianapolis 500 In Prime-Time?

There is not much debate that I am a traditionalist, especially when it comes to the Indianapolis 500. Being a traditionalist requires a good bit of inflexibility. After all, if you calmly go with the flow without any griping or complaining – can you really and truly call yourself a traditionalist? We traditionalist like to gripe and complain about anything that changes something true to our heart – no matter if it’s a good idea or not.

There was a discussion on Trackside this past Tuesday night. Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee were neither condemning nor endorsing the topic. Instead, they were just throwing it out there. I’m curious to know how fans really feel about it. I know what my first reaction was. But after I simmered down, I figured it was at least worthy of a discussion.

The topic was the possibility of running the Indianapolis 500 at some point in prime-time. That’s code-speak for running it at night.

Of course, in order to hold it at night – lights would have to be installed. Most realistic estimates say that comes with a $20 million price tag. But for argument’s sake, let make the assumption that that will get done.

Being the traditionalist that I am, my first reaction on that topic is an emphatic No! Since 1911, every Indianapolis 500 has been run during the day. There is one side of me that says that’s the way God intended it to be and this point should not even be up for discussion. I was opposed to lights at Wrigley Field and thirty years later, night baseball on the north side of Chicago still seeems odd.

But there is another side of me that wants to see the Indianapolis 500 return to its rightful place on the American landscape. Last year’s 100th Running went a long way in restoring its former glory, but there is still a ways to go.

This year’s “500” is very important toward that goal, because it is the year after the milestone 100th Running. If TV ratings and attendance drop to the level of two years ago – or lower – we’ll know last year’s success was simply a result of the hype for such a milestone event. If there is a significant increase in either or both for the 101st Running over two years ago, we’ll know that things are trending in the right direction.

The question is, could the Indianapolis 500 really be jumpstarted by breaking tradition and doing something drastic? Holding the race at night would be drastic.

Skeptics will ask – What’s the point? The point could be potentially better attendance and better TV ratings. One obstacle would be that NASCAR owns Sunday night on Memorial Day weekend. Going up against the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night would not be a good idea. The Indianapolis 500 would have to be run on Saturday night. I would say that the traditional pre-race ceremonies (and TV coverage) would have to start at 6:00pm local time with the drop of the green flag around 7:19pm. That means a normal race would be over around 10:30pm or slightly later.

My question is…what would a Saturday night race vs a Sunday afternoon race, do to TV ratings? I’ll be honest, I don’t know. It has been years and years since I spent the Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend at home. I have no idea what my TV viewing habits were back then. As I’ve gotten older, I’m always home on Saturday nights. But in my younger days, that was certainly not the case. As a single guy in my twenties, I was much more likely to be in front of a television on a Sunday afternoon than a Saturday night.

As an attending spectator, a night-time Indianapolis 500 might actually be more convenient. Under the current schedule, we get up at 4:30am to leave our hotel at 6:00am. We are generally inside the track by 6:30am in time to see the sun come up behind the Pagoda.

Why do we leave so early? Because I’ve had two nightmare scenarios in traffic over the past several years. I got outvoted by my group in 2006 and didn’t leave the hotel until 8:00am. Our hotel was much further out (in Greenwood) than where we stay now. We missed out on the (then) free parking in the infield and had to pay a small fortune for the chance to walk forever. We didn’t miss the start of the race, but we got there much later than I like. I was not pleasant to be around for a long while. In fact, the rest of my group (except for Susan) chose to walk on the other side of 16th Street to avoid my wrath.

In 2011, I had no one else to blame. I missed the normal exit and ended up in an industrial park somewhere north of town. I made the mistake of doubling back and somehow ended up in a residential section without moving for almost two hours. As we all were standing outside of our cars, I just knew I was going to miss the 100th Anniversary Running of the race. Miraculously we started moving and we found ourselves on 30th Street just north of the track. It’s the only time I’ve ever entered the track on Race Day from the north end.

It might be a lot easier on Susan’s nerves to have a 7:00pm start. That way, we could get to the track at a leisurely pace. We’d get in late Saturday, night but be able to sleep in Sunday morning. We could even cut our hotel stay from three to two nights; which may not go over so well with the gouging hotel industry.

But those are the views of one person – an overaged blogger from Nashville. Different people have different TV viewing habits and rituals when they go to the race. Traditions aside, I’m just not convinced that moving the Indianapolis 500 to prime-time Saturday night is such a good idea. I love night races, but I think I love the Indianapolis 500 in the daytime more.

The World Series lost something when it went to all prime-time games, but not viewers. There is a reason that the Super Bowl has kicked off at 6:20pm Eastern time for over a decade. It’s because that’s when the majority of viewers want to see it. Personally, I enjoyed the Super Bowls that kicked off around 1:00pm and it was still daylight when they were over, but what do I know? Will an Indianapolis 500 produce a lot more eyeballs on a Saturday night than on Sunday afternoon? That’s the million dollar question.

Whether you watch the race on TV every year or you’ve been going for the last thirty, I’d like to hear your thoughts. I’ve been selfish and looked at it from my standpoint and how it affected me. Tell me what you think. Tuesday night, Curt Cavin said a prime-time Indianapolis 500 would happen in his lifetime. He’s not that much younger than me, so he’s predicting it will probably happen in mine as well. Do you agree with that? I’m not so sure that I do. The traditionalist in me sure doesn’t.

George Phillips

30 Responses to “The Indianapolis 500 In Prime-Time?”

  1. Indyspeeddmon Says:


  2. Paul M. Dalbey Says:

    But what time do you RRREEAALLYY need to leave in the morning??

  3. Ed Emmitt Says:

    I don’t know how many 500’s this old bird has left in him but the day they go to night time racing at Indy is the year I will sit on my couch at home and watch it.
    I went to 1 Daytona 500 because it was on my bucket list and I’ll never forget the nightmare of leaving in the dark.

  4. J.D. Ellis Says:

    I thought conventional wisdom was switching around to think that night races actually did worse in terms of ratings.

    Also, I don’t see the logistics going well of getting a 500 crowd out of town at 11pm or worse.

    I just don’t see the return to justify the expense.

  5. Do “Carb Day” festivities still take place on Friday? I’m selfish too, leave well enough alone.

  6. Lets see, Saturday night: traditional night to be at the beach all day, the park, picnining, grilling in the backyard, etc. with family and friends.

    Give up your Saturday night on a holiday weekend to watch a race? I predict low TV ratings.

    Plus, invest $20M, change the traditional start, day, etc. Piss off a lot of people, let’s say 15% of whom decide to punish you by not buying race tickets, plus you lose 20% or more of your TV audience because they are not giving up a Saturday night on a holiday weekend for your race?

    Is this from the Boston Group?

  7. Bruce Waine Says:

    Another novel perspective on the subject………….. “Prime Time At Night” …………… As in no live telecast/broadcast ? ? ………….. But then released to the viewing public (those not in attendance at the actual event) via media as tape delay at night ? ?

  8. Indyfan 67 Says:

    Absolutely not. Night races ma draw more viewers (for a while – but sustained) but they are not fan friendly. Walking back to your car in the dark and then sitting in the usual traffic means you may not get home until 3 in the morning. And if it rains? The race may not even start until 10 pm or later. Bad idea, waste of money!

  9. Baseball was actually hurt big time by the move to night games, as well as no longer starting the World Series on Saturday. They may well have lost a generation. I still remember listening to world series games on our transistor radios at school.

    All this starting stuff later is for the benefit of the TV networks, in the hope of getting more sets of eyes on the west coast. Its all about their advertising money. I’m not sure that any sport has benefited by this. Even in the NCAA tournament, most people I know who have an interest are not willing or able to stay up late to watch the later games, and they may have watched, or listened, to the games earlier in the day.

    Indy would be smart moving the start back to 11:00 a.m.

  10. Nope, no, never, please. Only thing I want is to see the race times settle out so more can do the double, I just want to watch Monoco, Indy and then the 600 in between cooking out and friends, never change that, please.

  11. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Let’s use the Kentucky Derby as another example.

    Would you feel the same, more, or less interested in the Derby if it was held under lights at 7:20pm? LESS.

    Do you feel it would take away from some of the pageantry and tradition and spectacle? YES, absolutely.

    I consider myself open to progress and examining new ideas for most anything. It IS how things get better over time. In this case however, it would cease to be “the Indianapolis 500” for me and be much closer to “just another Indycar” race.

    Don’t waste your $20 Million IMS, unless you see benefit in hosting other events and races that specifically are NOT the Indy 500.

    PS I’d attend a 12-hour or 24-hour sports car event there in a heartbeat.

  12. Absolutely not. Leaving IMS in daylight is a major concern. Let alone no lights.Listen, the amount of people, in that part of town, is asking for trouble. That is a high crime area in day time. 30th street and North is a huge crime area. Stay with tradition.

  13. Maybe do a night race every 5 years unless you get rained out on race day then you could slip in a night race . I would like to ask the IMPD , Indiana State Police how they feel about moving 200,000 fans out of the IMS at 11:30pm would be a great start .

  14. Ron Ford Says:

    IMHO this is not a discussion even worth having. I feel that way because I cannot recall anything in my life that was ever improved by something decided by or on behalf of the TV suits. For a variety of reasons moving the Indy500 to a night event will result in significantly less fans in the stands. The TV suits and IndyCar management kept changing the date and start time of the Milwaukee Mile race and we all know the result of that.

  15. billytheskink Says:

    If the television networks demand a primetime Indianapolis 500, it will probably happen. I cannot say I would expect it to happen, as I don’t think the potential benefits outweigh the costs for IMS, attending fans, or the television partners (whoever they may be into the future).

    There is precedent for a primetime 500 from a television perspective, of course. In fact, the race’s all-time best ratings came on same day tape-delay primetime broadcasts. Those primetime broadcasts, however, were mostly on Sunday night. Either Sunday night or Monday night would the 500’s best bets for improving ratings over Sunday afternoon. Saturday night is a dumping ground, especially on a holiday weekend, though the 500 would most definitely do better there than about anything else the networks might put on.

  16. It might cut down on your hotel stay but what about the people who drive in and out the day of the race? I live about 2 1/2 hours north of the track That is without raceday traffic. I don’t really relish the thought of getting out of the track around 11PM, fighting traffic to the interstate, then getting home at 3 AM. My choices are to do that or try to find a place to stay for that night, if a single night reservation is available anywhere close.

  17. Just because NASCAR can no longer sell a reasonable amount of tickets to the Brickyard 400 (along with a drop in ratings) does not mean that IMS needs to install lights and reschedule “The 500.” The Indianapolis 500 is he Memorial Day weekend cornerstone for many, many people and a huge money weekend for Indianapolis and the surrounding area. I can’t see that a knee-jerk reaction to a NASCAR problem being a success.

  18. To repeat myself to some degree, I feel that the date and start time for any race at any place should always be decided on tradtion and on what is best for the folks who plunk down their hard-earned money to actually go to a race and take their children. A night-time Indy500 would certainly result in less children (read: “future fans”) being at the race. Screw TV ratings!

  19. Probably not for the Indy 500. The Daytona 500 that was run Monday in primtime did really well though. It’s a better idea for some of the potential oval races (say Fontana or Chicagoland if they came back), especially if it were on a major broadcast or basic cable (USA Network/ESPN). Attendance at Fontana is never going to be great so taking the hit there might be worth it. But for the 500 I am pretty sure you wouldn’t sell out if you did that. I hate to agree with all the tradionalists but on this one they’re probably right. Also because the Indy 500 brings in so many 1 time fans I am not sure they’d be able to handle that change; they might not know that the race moved.

    Night events and sports are a complicated issue. I really like night races, but I’m not sure planning the 500 for the night is a good idea. I do like the idea of the Brickyard 400 at night, and if there were a second Indy oval race or it rained that would be fine. But it is not a great plan to run the 500 at night. One issue with primetime sports (which NASCAR played around with but failed) is the question of- is your sport able to sustain it? NCAA Basketball and Football can. NBA can, NFL did well on the superbowl but no one likes Thursday Night Football, MLB sorta can, but NASCAR could not. Could Indycar, even the 500, really catch enough attention to move to a more crowded timeslot? I’m not so sure.

  20. SkipinSC Says:

    While I understand how important television is to any event, haven’t there been enough concessions made for TV? Excuse me, but once upon a time, the pre-race ceremonies were run on a 25 minute schedule by which you could set your watch. Now, they’re spread out over twice that time, filled with commercials, and so erratic that if you get up to pee at the wrong time, you’ve missed something.

    I would really like to see the Speedway tell whoever the next TV partner is, “Do what you want with the race, side-by-side, blocked commercials, WHATEVER, but let’s go back to the schedule whereby once we start with “God Bless America,” the schedule goes uninterrupted until the green flag falls.”

    And while we’re on the subject, I personally would like to see the return of the “Phillipe Soliloquy” to the pre-race festivities. NOTHING I can think of does more to express the feelings of all present in as few words as were once intoned by Jim Phillipe.

    As to running the race in prime time, I have to confess that I have considered that, but I keep coming back to trying to move 300-400,000 folks out of “The Speedway Triangle” after dark and in varying stages of sobriety.

    If you adjust the schedules to allow for a 7 pm start, you are then opening the gates to the track at 1 pm. Given that flow of individuals into the track at that time, I’d say the level of alcohol consumption might increase, perhaps even to the level that some might re-think attending.

    As to ratings, aside from an NBA playoff game that could collide with a prime time start, neither Sunday noon or Saturday night offers much in the way of competition.

    One side benefit of the Saturday night 500 might be the addition of some NASCAR drivers who might consider competing at Indy on Saturday night and Charlotte on Sunday night, albeit qualification issues would have to be resolved.

    On the other hand, installation of lights at IMS could be the thing that saves the Brickyard 400 where attendance seems to be in free fall. I know there are some who could not care any less about our NASCAR brethren, but what is good for IMS is good for the 500, the “Crown jewel” event there.

    The one certain thing is that the next television negotiation will have much to do with how things proceed. Another good showing ratings-wise this May can only strengthen IMS’s position in that negotiation.

  21. S0CSeven Says:

    No. Just plain NO.

    What happens if a little rain shower comes along? There is no time or heat from the sun to dry the track. So you just cancel the whole thing and hope tens of thousands of people will come back the next day ……. and be HAPPY with you enough to buy tickets the next year??


  22. Ron Ford Says:

    “When I dream about the daylight on the front stretch, then I long for my Indy500 of old”.

  23. Jeff Petersen Says:

    I’m not going to instantly dismiss the idea because I think there is a lot of merit in at least considering the possibilities. Indy cars look spectacular under the lights and I have no doubt the amount of eyeballs watching TV would give a significant increase, providing much needed sponsor exposure as well as growing the fanbase.

    I too am a traditionalist, but I also realize part of the lure of the Speedway is the innovation and change that is part of this great race. There are many things we consider tradition today that not so long ago was not. As most reading here know, the race was not always run on Sunday, there was a time it ran on Memorial Day whatever day of the week that happened to be, it was not changed until 1971. So, the argument of changing the day loses a little of its bluster.

    I can see good and bad for the fans, a race starting at say 7pm EDT would start in the daylight, keeping traditions such as the flyover intact. It would become a daylong party which is good and bad. I’d like having Sunday for a backup day instead of Monday for travel reasons coming from Kansas City. Most things we usually do could be adjusted to a new schedule.

    IMO , the biggest concern and drawback to lights and a Saturday night race is after the race. I have all sorts of bad visions about what could happen when 300,000+ race fans are dumped onto the streets of Speedway. I know I would not be thrilled if I was a Speedway resident with the prospect of thousands roaming through the streets after 10pm trying to remember where they parked, if they could remember. Traffic problems would compound at night. Safety would be impacted. A lot of room for things to go wrong.

    If it happens, it’s not going to stop me from going. I love the 500 and I like the 500 has to have the ability to adapt to changing times.

  24. older than both…but primetime will happen.

    Daytona in July “used to” start at 11AM to accomodate
    the predictable 4 PM rain. Indy500 will eventually have a
    ~7PM green flag for TV ratings accomodations.

    ( a college football insider told me the -difference-
    between a 4PM start and 8PM for a national
    broadcast was $3M. that was in 2007)

  25. No night race please. Apart from taking this race out of my time zone to watch from my home on Central European Time, I haven’t ever attended a night race of any series trackside and am not likely to do it because of the need to drive home during the night of the event. Getting out of a racetrack is not easy and at that time of day, sleepy drivers are commonplace.

    The only IndyCar night race I ever watched live happened a few years ago at TMS when Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick fought over 2nd place. The race was a good one and totally worth staying up late, but a 1:30 a.m. starting time is a bit too much to ask for.

    I don’t think night racing makes good TV either: the Singapore F1 race always looks remarkably like they are racing inside of an oversized underground parking garage, were it not for the city hall showing up in the background on the side of the track every lap.
    The most remarkable sight that TMS has to offer is the rather blocky and uninteresting looking building of suites in Turn 2. Phoenix, however, would offer more interesting views of the local vegetation (and lack thereof) if they held it during the day.

  26. I voted NO. What makes the Indianapolis 500 unique is the tradition. While that has changed a lot since the first race I attended in 1963 there is still a “feel” to seeing the sun rise over IMS the morning of the race and the bomb going off to signify the opening of the gates. Watching the place change from the huge, seemingly quiet, inanimate place, to an amazing, living being, is worth preserving.
    Then there is the chance to wind down after the race. Most years I didn’t leave the track on race day until the shadows were deep or it was already dark and quiet again.
    Others have already written about the effect of a move to night on the neighborhood and traffic, and the cost of the lighting, but I do want to address that cost.
    What would it mean to the series if that $20 million were to be budgeted – to add the the purses throughout the season? The 500 is THE race of the season but it is still part of a season.

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