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Indy’s First Sports Strategy

Super Bowl 2012 has been called the crown jewel in Indianapolis sports strategy. Indeed, a direct line can be drawn from the Pan Am games in the 1970s and construction of the Hoosier Dome in the early 1980s to the city playing host to the world’s biggest sporting event.

Scholars, politicians, and journalists find their own sport in debating whether games lead to economic development. Yet that point was proven over a century ago when Indianapolis launched its first sports strategy: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS).

When Indianapolis automobile entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher built the IMS in 1909, he envisioned the raceway as a testing ground for cars before they would be delivered to consumers. The state had already become an epicenter for auto manufacturers and suppliers, and Fisher wanted the capital city to leverage this asset. “Indianapolis is going to be the world’s greatest center of horseless carriage manufacturers, what could be more logical than building the world’s greatest racetrack right here?” declared Fisher.

Competition and necessity were the perfect factors that led to the construction of the speedway. After a trip to France in 1905, Fisher returned to Indiana convinced that European race cars were superior both in design and craftsmanship. A world-class speedway where automobiles could be tested and honed would help reinvent America’s car industry and perhaps even attract European drivers. The soon-to-be Brickyard would be an innovation in itself, since up until the early 20th century all races had taken place on horse tracks and public roads—not ideal surfaces for car racing and testing.

While Fisher and his crew were working through the kinks in their speedway design, other entrepreneurs were making headway in Indianapolis’s run as the country’s most important city for automobile manufacturing. Companies like Overland Auto and Cole Motor Car—best known for “The Man’s Car That Any Woman Can Drive”—were responsible for branding as many as 90 automobile makes during this time. Other more famous auto companies like Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg, Hammond, Marmon, and Stutz were all born in Indiana factories, from 1914 until 1933.

By the mid-1990s, Indianapolis had long ceded to Detroit as the automotive manufacturing giant in the country, but the city reclaimed its role as the center of auto innovation. From a “skunk works” office park in Castleton, Indiana, Bill Wylam and his team of GM engineers became the pioneers of vehicle electrification. They invented such breakthroughs as the EV1 battery, electric motor, and power electronics for GM’s first high-volume electric car.

The Indianapolis-based Energy Systems Network (ESN) has taken pole position in championing both electric vehicle (EV) usage and Indiana’s competitive advantage in production. Just last fall, ESN went back to the future by convening a three-day summit at the speedway exploring the future of an EV racing series.

Skeptical observers of the burgeoning EV car industry might scoff at the notion of electric car racing. They might conjure images of the classic kids’ car-racing set or high-powered golf carts. They also might strain their necks while trackside as the electric Tesla Roadster accelerates from 0 to 60 in under four seconds—a feat that took the Chevy Corvette 60 years and six generations of gasoline engines to achieve.

One of the ESN Summit participants, Sagamore Institute colleague John Waters, was part of the team at Delco Remy that set the world record for EVs at 183 mph. Waters more recently founded the Bright Automotive company in Anderson that invented a commercial van that offers a 100 mpg alternative to the postal service and other predictable route vans currently guzzling 10 mpg.

Waters is using his EV experience to communicate the pro-economic and pro-social role behind alternative energy innovations. “It’s about making ourselves a better neighbor while improving the quality of our lives–economically, educationally, and environmentally.” Waters calls this approach “natural capitalism”[1] and says that no green solution is truly sustainable until it is economically viable. In other words, it’s not only possible but essential to reduce Indiana’s harmful emissions while increasing our companies’ bottom lines.

And that brings us back to racing as Indianapolis’s first sports strategy. Our hotels and restaurants are soon to be filled with Super Bowl revelers, and for that we can be thankful to the farsighted civic leaders who rebuilt our downtown through sports and its happy companion, the convention industry.

Yet it is more than a historical anecdote that racing was our first sports-economic development tandem. The speedway’s races produce a staggering $767 million annual impact on the city. This is the equivalent of two Super Bowls per year. The advent of EV racing will not only help preserve that investment but also jump-start Indianapolis’s next round of manufacturing innovation.

Published in American Outlook, Winter 2011