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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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A Slow-Go to the Speedway

Traffic from 300,000 Indy 500 Fans Poses a Daunting Challenge

By Jason Martin

Zach Crowe’s morning commute landed him in the middle of two blocks of standstill traffic at 6:30 a.m. one May Sunday in Indianapolis. Crowe was trying to get to his office inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway some six and a half hours before the Indianapolis 500 was scheduled to begin.

Bret Kelly/IMS

Thousands of fans pack the stands during the 92nd running

of the Indianapolis 500 in May.

When the web developer reached his workstation in the Speedway’s pagoda tower around 7 a.m., he considered himself lucky. Looking out at the landscape, he saw traffic snaking in every direction as the first waves of about 300,000 people scrambled for parking spots.

There’s a decided irony to the fact that the throng of fans who come to watch cars roar around the 2.5-mile oval at speeds in excess of 220 mph must often endure hours of traffic to enjoy the experience. Public transportation to what is annually the world’s largest single-day spectator sporting event is limited. Only about 15,000 in the crowd use city buses to get there; the rest ride in their own vehicles. And all those thousands of cars descending on the track at once create mass congestion and potential snafus that must be sorted out by public safety organizers in all levels of government.

On race day, about 200,000 personal vehicles, from 20-foot campers down to single-seat mopeds, are parked in the two-mile radius around the track in converted industrial and church parking lots, grass school football fields and every piece of residential front and backyard available. For blocks in each direction, every business and home gets booked with visiting cars and recreational vehicles, some for days or weeks at a time prior to the race.

The Indianapolis 500 bills itself as the “greatest spectacle in racing” for a reason. Although race officials refuse to release attendance figures, this year’s running drew what most long-time observers agreed was the largest crowd since at least 1995, when American open-wheel racing series split into two factions. They reunited in February, and increased interest—sparked in part by emerging star drivers like Danica Patrick and “Dancing With the Stars” champion Helio Castroneves—and gorgeous 70-degree, cloudless weather combined to draw in excess of an estimated 300,000 in attendance. That total is at least 50,000 to 75,000 more people than attended any Indy 500 in the past decade.

Traffic Backs Up to the City

The return of the huge crowds also underscored the challenge facing public safety coordinators, who must get the people in all those cars parked and into and out of the track safely. The Speedway, located about five miles west of Downtown Indianapolis, has a 25-person full-time public safety staff that handles traffic, parking and other travel-related logistics for the Indy 500, the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race in July and the MotoGP motorcycle event in September. Their part-time staff balloons to about 1,500 on event days.

Chris Jones/IMS

Fans pour into Indianapolis Motor Speedway on raceday morning.

Track public safety director Jim Campbell oversees a committee that includes law enforcement from Indianapolis, Marion County, the Indiana State Police, FBI, Homeland Security, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals and Speedway, the small municipality where the track is located and which is surrounded by metropolitan Indianapolis on all sides. The committee meets regularly for five months before the race, adjusting the previous year’s plan and trying to account for alterations, such as this year’s increased interest and construction on the Interstate 465 beltway that surrounds Indianapolis.

“There’s a master plan, and then we discuss how each jurisdiction will handle its own geographic part of the plan,” Campbell said. “Getting everybody in the same room makes a world of difference when you’re trying to coordinate something of this scale, and that doesn’t always happen in law enforcement.”

Campbell spent 27 years in the Indianapolis Police Department before serving the past eight as the Speedway’s public safety director. He said the race-day traffic planning is the most elaborate and cooperative effort he’s ever witnessed in his law enforcement career.

“The complexity of getting all these people directed to where they want to go, and getting them parked and in the gate is quite an accomplishment when you think about it,” he said.

And this year was no exception. Speedway officials reported minor traffic jams as early as 6:30 a.m. for the 1 p.m. start that snared motorists like Crowe. By 9 a.m., traffic was backed up and sitting still for more than two miles in every direction on the five main arteries entering the track area. By 10 a.m., the plodding along the final mile to the parking lots took about an hour. In the three hours prior to the race, Campbell said traffic extended east along 16th Street, the main entrance to the track, for four full miles nearly back to Downtown Indianapolis.

Dana Garrett/IMS

An aerial view of the Speedway area prior to the start of the

Indianapolis 500 in May.

Remarkably, however, the stands and infield were close to capacity by about 12:30 when the national anthem and military jet flyover rattled the 99-year-old facility. When the race started a half-hour later, there were no out of the ordinary problems to report.

“We’re always trying determine what is the best route and how do we get people in and out the fastest,” Campbell said. “Unfortunately, that changes year to year, and depends a lot on the weather, and how many people decide to come at the same time, which you can never really predict. We do our best to get them all in here, and all in at the start of the race, and usually it works out that way. So, whatever we’re doing must be working.”

Unlike after the race, when local authorities open all four lanes of traffic on 38th, 30th, 16th and 10th streets heading away from the track, the pre-race traffic bottlenecks more because lanes are kept open for emergency vehicles and police escorts of VIPs. Despite this year’s return to a nearly sold-out crowd, Campbell said there were no major snags for fans exiting the track and surrounding areas.

“Sometimes it just takes time,” he said. “We always encourage people to realize we’ll get them out of here as soon as we can get the roads moving.”

Some major changes to the Speedway’s landscape and traffic patterns are planned for the coming years as the track celebrates its centennial as a facility in 2009 and the 100th anniversary of the first Indy 500 in 2011.

Steve Snoddy/IMS

Mario Andretti leads a pack of cars through a turn in May's

Indianapolis 500.

The Town of Speedway is moving forward with plans to alter the traffic pattern at 16th Street and Georgetown Road, which is the track’s famous intersection and the location of the first turn of the race. According to plans, 16th Street would be diverted south, gobbling up some private residences and small businesses through eminent domain. A roundabout would be installed at the old intersection. And Georgetown Road would be closed from the old corner of 16th Street up to 25th Street, which would allow for less-congested foot traffic and ease some concerns for anti-terrorism authorities, but perhaps would create even more traffic headaches as motorists struggle to become aware of the altered design and different parking options.

“I think that the changes that we’re proposing will revitalize this area,” said Scott Harris, of Speedway’s municipal redevelopment commission.

Federal Rule May Put Brakes on Buses

Another modification in the routine race-day plan may not be as welcomed. While bus passengers remain in the distinct minority among the race fans, the option of using public transportation was nearly lost this year.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) enacted regulations in January that limit how transit agencies can compete with charter bus companies to make sure public money wasn’t being diverted from private companies that could just as easily provide the service. Specifically, the FTA wants special event shuttles, like the one used for the Indianapolis 500, to be offered first to private charter companies to prevent what the government sees as potentially wasteful uses of public funds. However, the rule has created problems in smaller cities like Indianapolis and Cincinnati, where public demand for the event shuttles is limited, potential charter bus operators are few and the potential cost of importing buses and workers is prohibitive.

IndyGo initially scrapped its plans to continue the Indy 500 shuttles due to potential fines it would have incurred for operating on race day. Public bus companies also could face a loss of federal funding if they violate the new rules.

Dana Garrett/IMS

Scott Dixon celebrates winning the 92nd

Indianapolis 500 by pouring the traditional

bottle of milk over his head.

In the interim, Indianapolis transit officials met with charter bus operators to try to offer an alternative, but more expensive, solution. The plans called for more than 100 buses to be imported from neighboring states and workers to be hired to drive the vehicles and provide security to operate the same shuttle routes IndyGo ran for less. Ultimately, these plans were not used.

Lew White, one of the charter operators, said he was doubtful that even the private bus service would have panned out this year due to the last-minute necessity of importing out-of-state charter operators who wanted to charge higher fees. “It was just going to be a big risk and a gamble,” White said.

Yet IndyGo officials appealed, and three weeks before the race, the FTA issued IndyGo a waiver for the 2008 Indy 500 and July’s Brickyard 400 NASCAR race, but not the motorcycle race in the fall. Next year, IndyGo will have to follow the FTA’s guideline and solicit charter bus companies to replace the public bus routes, said Michael Terry, IndyGo’s vice president of business development. If no private company volunteers, and IndyGo passes some other more detailed FTA procedural hurdles, the city buses might be cleared to run again next year, although there’s no guarantee. The FTA has made it clear to IndyGo it would like to see charter bus companies take over the operation, Terry said.

Eric Dollar took the IndyGo shuttle this year with his 10-year-old son Jackson, and said he was pleased with how quickly he was able to get to the track. The bus traveled from downtown west on Washington Street without delay, then hooked north on Lynhurst Drive, where police had blocked off side streets. The Dollars zipped into the track at the drop-off point in about a half-hour, and were in their seats at the first turn just minutes later, more than two hours early for the start.

“If I was going to party, I’d prefer to drive and get there early and spend more time in the track,” Dollar said. “But traveling with a 10-year-old, the bus was a great way to limit the walking he has to do.”

Jason Martin is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis.

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