The foundation owns another 300 spectacular cars that for lack of space gather dust in the museum’s basement.
Will Higgins, email@example.com / 8 p.m. EDT May 2, 2016
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s museum, which looks much as it did when it opened in its current location 40 years ago, may be on the verge of transformation.
“The lighting, the technology, it’s vintage 1976,” said Betsy Smith, who is in her second year heading the nonprofit foundation that operates the museum. “We’re a racing museum, but nothing in here moves. Except the trophy.”
She nodded toward the Borg-Warner Trophy, the 5-foot tall Indy 500 winner’s trophy, which was rotating slowly on a sort of mechanical lazy Susan. “I’d like to get some interactive technology in here and some video so that visitors could really experience racing,” she said.
Smith, who was chief fundraiser for the Indianapolis chapter of the Nature Conservancy before joining the museum as its executive director, said board members recently gave the OK to explore a plan that would double the size of the building, a move she figures might cost $100 million.
She envisions meeting rooms, classrooms and additional event space that would draw more people and generate revenue. The additional space also would allow the museum to show off more of its storied collection.
Now, about 60 cars are displayed in the museum’s 30,000 square feet. The foundation owns 300 additional cars that for lack of space gather dust in the museum’s basement. “You never want to display your entire collection all at once,” Smith said, “but (with the expansion) we could display maybe 150 and rotate them more often.”
Instead of visitors simply inspecting parked cars, she wants to do a better job of telling the stories of the cars, possibly with video tablets placed around the vehicles that show the race cars actually racing or by other high-tech methods. “Like a hologram of Donald Davidson that you could ask questions to,” Smith said. Davidson is the Speedway’s encyclopedic historian who is known for having the most minute detail at his fingertips.
Some smaller changes already are in effect. Earlier this year, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum quietly changed its name. It had been the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum. But its hall of fame, one of literally dozens of racing halls of fame around the country, amounts to a single plaque mounted on a wall.
The decades-old film that told the history of the Speedway in the museum’s small theater has been replaced by a new version. The theater itself has been updated, with new lighting, a new screen and new seating.
Ticket prices have risen dramatically. Adults paid $5 two years ago, $8 last year and $10 this year. (Attendance for 2016 isn’t available, but visitation fell a little from 2014 to 2015.)
Later this month, the museum’s exhibits will expand into 6,000 square feet of space to the north of the current exhibit space. The area opened up after the Speedway’s accounting staff moved to another building. Their clearing out will give the museum nearly 20 percent more space. The new area opens May 12 with an exhibit of Tony Stewart’s race cars through the years. The Hoosier-born racer recently announced his retirement from NASCAR.
“We’re hoping Tony will be here for the opening,” said Ellen Birely, the museum’s longtime director. “We’ve been doing a lot of special exhibits in the last few years,” she said, noting the half-dozen Roger Penske-owned cars on display in the older gallery. “This new space will give us more flexibility to do more.”
Visitors come from all over the world to see the Speedway’s museum. Eighty-three nations were represented last year. But total attendance, 127,000 last year, is well below that of the city’s other major museums, such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art (134,000 visitors in the first four months of 2016) and The Children’s Museum (about 1.2 million a year).
Doubling the size of the Speedway museum is a tall order. Unlike other museums, it has no endowment fund, no corporate sponsorship and until recently no members. Recently it started a membership drive, and about 100 people signed up at varying levels, from $75 to $1,000 (the $1,000 members got a private tour of the basement, a sort of mecca to the cult of Indy 500).
Until now, the museum has never in its history tried to raise any money. It has relied on the Hulman-George family, which owns the track and allows the museum to stay in its building rent-free, and on gate receipts that amount to about $1 million a year.
“So you see, a capital campaign would be a huge change for us,” Smith said, “and it’s probably something that would need to be done in stages.”