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At Century Mark, Indy 500 Sells Out For First Time In Decades


Tomorrow marks the 100th running of the most famous auto race in the world, the Indianapolis 500. But as Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET reports, the iconic American event is in a race of its own to stay relevant.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: In the expansive infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, near the entrance to the garage area known as Gasoline Alley, a young couple watch their children run past model racecars to hug a two-story fuzzy statue of a polar bear. Jenn Naas says she's drawn to the carnival-like midway of Indy.

JENN NAAS: I just like getting into it with my family. There's a lot more than just the cars going around the track. There's a lot of fun things involved with the whole month of May.

KLINEFELTER: But her husband, Brian Naas, says his wife had to do some fast talking to get him here.

BRIAN NAAS: I didn't know much about Indy until we really started dating. My family was a NASCAR family.

KLINEFELTER: NASCAR stock cars skyrocketed in popularity in the mid-1990s, scoring twice the TV ratings of the Indy 500 after internal squabbling between the top IndyCar teams and then-Indianapolis Speedway President Tony George split the series into two rival leagues. They reunited in 2008, but the damage was already done. And no one knew it better than the legendary Mario Andretti. Andretti is the only driver to ever win the Formula One World Championship, the Indy 500 and NASCAR's crown jewel, the Daytona 500.

MARIO ANDRETTI: We lost a generation after Tony George split the series. They all went to NASCAR, and touche to NASCAR. I mean, they made the most of it. But meanwhile, we lost the fan base because the fan base felt cheated.

KLINEFELTER: Yet, Andretti says not even NASCAR can match the worldwide acclaim afforded the winner of the Indy 500.

ANDRETTI: This is the only race on the planet that is worth a championship, if you will.

KLINEFELTER: And in this centennial year, Indy is trying to market that cachet like never before. For the first time in decades, Indy's grandstands, which hold a quarter of a million people, are completely sold out. Hotel rooms are booked for hundreds of miles away. Speedway President Mark Miles says the track marketed 30,000 tickets alone to millennials attending a Mardi Gras-esque electronic dance music festival held on race day in a sunken portion of the infield called the snake pit.

MARK MILES: They can't see a video board to watch the race from the snake pit, and we're OK with that, right? They want to be here and they want to be in this ambience. And I figure sooner or later they'll slow down and we'll get our share to get a reserved seat and watch the racing.

KLINEFELTER: Yet, it's racing history that attracted a quartet of millenials from Chicago today to the track's stately infield museum. Seventeen-year-old Jamie Burbatt says she was iffy about Indy at first but not now.

JAMIE BURBATT: It's just a fun experience and, like, all the cars are really cool. And they all have, like, some kind of little story about it. It's cool.

KLINEFELTER: Her brother, 27-year-old Tony Burbatt, says Indy offers something that can't be found on a smartphone.

TONY BURBATT: It gets that primal thrill in the bottom of your gut going. I think there's something primal about feeling the rumblings from a car going 200 miles an hour as you are standing there.

KLINEFELTER: Just how lasting that appeal is may not become apparent until the glow of this centennial celebration fades and track officials discover just how many fans return for the 101st running of the Indy 500 next year. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quinn Klinefelter

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