We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 16 days to go, Heather Lloyd talked to IMS President Doug Boles about how the Indy 500 celebration comes in many different shapes and sizes.
The Indianapolis 500 is more than a race. It’s the realization of a dream – how one man’s vision became an obsession. It started out as a feat of mankind and turned into a tradition that launched an American dream.
The 100th Running of the Indy 500 celebrates history and progress, speed and precision, passion and ingenuity. A storied past meets an exciting future at the biggest single-day sporting event in the world.
Today’s technology can bring any sport into your home or even onto your phone. But that’s not what “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is about.
The Indy 500 isn’t a radio broadcast you listen to. It isn’t a television production you watch. It’s an event you experience. And the only way to experience it is in person.
Growing up near the track, Doug Boles spent as much time there as he could. His dad worked for the United States Auto Club, the sanctioning body of the “500” at the time. Boles says in his home, it was all about racing.
“I haven’t known anything but the Indy 500 and a lot of my best memories with my dad are around qualifying and practice and getting to hang out with my dad.”
He wasn’t allowed to attend the race until he was 10 years old, but he hasn’t missed it since. The 100th Running of the Indy 500 marks Doug Boles’ 40th race.
And when it came time to go to college, the choice was easy. Boles chose Butler University because it was close to the Speedway.
“Just the idea that I could hear the cars run when they were tire testing,” he says.
When he did, he’d jump in his car, head to the track, and sit in the museum parking lot to study.
“And occasionally, I would park on Georgetown Road and I had figured out which gates that the gap between the bottom of the gate and sidewalk was enough that I could shimmy underneath it and actually get in and sit in the grandstands and watch.”
He only got kicked out once. Today, he still spends most of his time at the track. But now, as IMS president, he doesn’t have to sneak in. And no one can kick him out. It’s more than a hobby. It’s more than a job. For Boles, it’s a lifestyle. And one he doesn’t take for granted.
“There’s not a day that I don’t wake up in the morning and pinch myself and can’t believe that I have the opportunity, really as a fan at some level, to try and protect the things here at the speedway that are so important to us.”
It’s a fine line, balancing progress with preservation. But that’s what he does every day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And it’s what he considers the most important part of his job.
“There are so many traditions and so many things that make the speedway different. But the one thing that we know makes it different sort of globally, is our tradition and history. And without that tradition and history, we’re just another racetrack.”
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is not just another racetrack. And the Indy 500 is not just another race. What makes them both special is the people.
“It’s the 100 years or the 99 races that have come before the 100th Running of the Indy 500 that makes it special. It’s the 758 men and women who’ve competed at the Indy 500 that make it special. It’s the thousands of owners and mechanics. But what really makes it special are the hundreds of thousands, probably millions of spectators and fans that have come through here and the traditions that they’ve made.”
When the inaugural Indy 500 was held on May 30, 1911, many fans arrived by horse and train. Those who came by automobile pulled into the infield, parked along the fence and climbed up on the roof to watch the race.
Whether they sat on cars, the grass, or in the stands, they did so in their Sunday best. It was the social event of the season. The women showed up in long skirts with hats and gloves. The men wore suits and ties.
As times changed, so did the Indy 500. Today, some fans don’t even wear a shirt. There is permanent seating for more than 235,000 from the Pagoda to the Paddock, Tower Terrace, the suites and the stands. The Speedway becomes its own city on Race Day.
“The communities are diverse in the sense that there are folks that have been in the Paddock Penthouse or E Penthouse for generations and it’s passed down from maybe the third or fourth generation of family that have been sitting in those,” Boles says. “And you’ve got something new like the new Snake Pit, not the old Snake Pit that a lot of people know about, but the new Snake Pit that’s in the infield, it’s geared at 30s and under that are here for the music and our job now is to convert them to say, ‘Hey, I also want to watch the race while I’m here.’”
Another addition to the infield is glamping – camping with a few added comforts.
“It’s a great opportunity for 300 or 400 people and about 100 tents out there that experience the Speedway in a way that nobody else gets to. It is spending the night here and getting up in the morning in a tent. They don’t leave.”
Depending on how you watch it, where you watch it, and who you watch it with, the Indianapolis 500 is a different experience for everyone.
Since he took over as president in 2013, for Doug Boles, that experience includes wearing a suit.
“It goes back to that history and tradition and you look at the Carl Fishers of the world and the Wilbur Shaws and Tony Hulmans of the world, they wore a suit and tie and to me, that’s part of the tradition. The face for the time of the Speedway needs to represent what the history is. And the best way for me to do that is with the respect of a suit and a tie. And on a 100-degree day, it’s miserable. But it’s also what this brand deserves.”
So, where does Boles watch the race? Most people would assume he’s in the Pagoda, rubbing elbows with the VIPs. But that’s not where you’ll find him.
“Other than the fact that I wear a tie, I would rather be walking in the grass and talking to folks. I don’t belong in one of those suites. I’m a fan and I want to be out with them.”
From the kid sneaking in to watch practice to the man in charge – at heart, Doug Boles is still a race fan who started coming to the track with his dad.
“The Indianapolis 500 in particular, is blessed that it’s got people who care so much about it, it feels like theirs. It’s a privately-owned company that 300,000 people think they own. And that is the most magical thing about the Indy 500.”