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Indy 500 Attendance, As Ever, Remains A Mystery

May 29, 1996

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ If numbers were droplets, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would drown in its own statistics.

Despite the river of race data, though, the track’s media office goes bone dry over one seemingly simple and obvious figure: the number of fans attending the Indianapolis 500.

The privately owned Speedway keeps the attendance figure a fiercely guarded secret without even offering an explanation. Once again, after the race on Sunday, track officials turned away a request for the official attendance.

Given Speedway secrecy, it’s nearly impossible to tell whether the Indianapolis race held its own or lost ground to the competing U.S. 500 race held the same day in Michigan.

Although this year was no different, the gate size took on new meaning. While the rival Indy 500 and the new U.S. 500 in Michigan _ both run on Sunday _ are battling for top-name drivers and rich sponsors, the fight ultimately is for the loyalty of race fans.

Estimating crowd size at the 433-acre Indy track is a daunting task. Grandstands surrounding the 2 1/2-mile oval stretch nearly a mile between the farthest points. Tens of thousands of fans may be moving around the huge infield at an given moment. Unofficial estimates range from 350,000 to 400,000.

``Crowd estimates have always been a matter of controversy,″ said Farouk El-Baz, director of Boston University’s Center for Remote Sensing.

He should know. Developing a complex, mathematics-based system and using computers to analyze aerial photos of the crowd, El-Baz led a team that estimated attendance at the Million Man March in Washington at more than 800,000 _ twice the figure used by the National Park Service.

The center’s formula even took into account people hidden by tree foliage and the awnings of hot dog stands. With top-quality photos, El-Baz says the center’s methods could be accurate within 6 percent.

Police staffing practice days and qualification for the 500 _ when crowds can top 100,000 _ believe fewer fans showed up for those events this year.

``The crowd was definitely down, and the weather wasn’t bad enough that it should have kept the people away,″ said state police Capt. Dean Petree.

On race day itself, vendors of souvenirs and food reported disappointing sales and attributed the weak showing to a smaller crowd.

El-Baz, though, dismisses such eyeball estimates as mere guessing. ``There is no way of even getting close to 70 percent″ accuracy, he said.

And a sports marketing expert says the gate numbers aren’t even the most important. William Sutton, a professor of sports studies at the University of Massachusetts, says, ``I think the thing to watch is the TV rating.″

The Indy 500 was televised by ABC. The Michigan race was carried on ESPN. According to preliminary numbers released Tuesday, ratings for Sunday’s Indy 500 were down 20 percent from a year ago but were still about three times higher than those for the U.S. 500.

A.C. Nielsen Co. reported a 6.8 overnight rating and 20 share for the Indy 500. The last three years, the race averaged an 8.6 rating and 26 share.

ESPN planned to release ratings for the U.S. 500 today. The cable network on Tuesday estimated it had a 3.0 cable rating for Sunday’s race, meaning 3 percent of homes with cable tuned in.

Wounded ratings could hurt the Indianapolis race, Sutton said. ``If there’s no wound, and no bleeding, I’m sure the (Indy) 500 people will feel justified in their decision and won’t feel the need to negotiate.″

Even with marketing competition, he says, the Indy 500 remains a one-of-a-kind race.

``The Indianapolis 500 and Memorial Day weekend are synonymous,″ Sutton said. ``The new race, no matter how good it is, how thrilling it is, has got to be second banana to the 500.

``It’s not just a sporting event, it’s a cultural event.″

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