Indianapolis 500 seeks centennial bump for 101st edition

There was a palpable sense of excitement everywhere Doug Boles went a year ago, whether it was the gas station or grocery store or his office on 16th and Georgetown just outside Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Everyone was talking about the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Boles shared in the excitement, too. The president of the speedway seemed to be everywhere at once, shaking hands with some of the estimated 350,000 fans on race day, taking selfies that showed up on all manner of social media and ensuring the centennial edition would be one to remember.

But just below the surface was also an underlying fear: What would happen next year? Would all the build-up to such a milestone event leave many of those fans done for 101?

''We were worried that one of two things could happen,'' Boles explained. ''People who had been coming for a long time would view the 100th as sort of the end point - they had gotten to the 100th and they were going to do something else, listen to it on the radio, watch it on TV, but weren't going to come.

''And the other one,'' Boles said, ''is we knew we'd have a lot of bucket-listers and first-timer people who were coming, and we were hoping that we could get them to come back a second or third time.''

It appears many of those first-timers will indeed be back next weekend.

After strong crowds for qualifying weekend, Boles told The Associated Press that ticket sales are strong to watch Scott Dixon lead the field to green on Sunday. The crowd won't reach the complete sellout last year, which allowed the local TV blackout to be lifted for the first time since 1950, but it could surpass 250,000 fans, continuing an upward trend that followed years of stagnation.

''Our number on race day is going to end up being better than any race day we've had in at least the last 15 years, other than last year,'' Boles said. ''If you look at 2011 through 2015, we were on a slow-growing trajectory, which we were happy with, and then 2016 obviously was a huge boom. We want to maintain as much of that lift as we could and we're really pleased with how much we gained.''

The speedway doesn't release official attendance numbers, making it difficult to quantify the amount of lift the centennial race gave to the ''Greatest Spectacle in Racing.'' At least anecdotally, those who have spent much of May around the racetrack have experienced a similar buzz to last year.

There are more people walking through Gasoline Alley, posing for pictures in front of the Pagoda, and campers have been showing up for days.

''We've seen a great amount of interest in the race,'' said Graham Rahal, who will start in the middle of the fifth row. ''There's been a good buzz about it and that's only going to continue to get better. Even the Grand Prix, it was packed, maybe double what we had from last year.''

Yes, the momentum from the 100th race carried over to other IndyCar events. The series' 16 races last year averaged 1.28 million viewers, their highest TV ratings recorded by Nielsen since 2011 - numbers that are noteworthy with Indy 500 broadcast rights up for bidding this year.

Helping the cause of the 101st running are the numerous story lines serving as a backdrop:

- Speeds are back after years of temperance. Dixon qualified with a four-lap average of 232.164 mph, the fastest attempt since Arie Luyendyk set the track record of 236.986 in 1996.

- Big names are back, too. Helio Castroneves will again try to join Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser Sr. in the club of four-time winners, while Juan Pablo Montoya tries to become a three-time champ.

- The rookie winner has returned. Alexander Rossi is hoping to defend his title from the outside of Row 1, the young American driver part of powerful a six-car Andretti Autosport stable.

- There's a former Formula One champ making headlines. Fernando Alonso qualified fifth, proving the Spaniard's shot at winning the Borg-Warner Trophy is far more than a publicity stunt.

''It's tough to beat the 100th running, but I think Alonso coming over helps,'' said Will Power, who will start outside Row 3. ''On Carb Day and race day, that's when you really see how big the event's going to be. So we'll see then. It's tough to get a feel for it yet.''

Boles thinks he has a feel for it now.

He spends a few minutes every night calling ticketholders, not so much to sell them on anything but simply to touch base. Boles wants to know what people are thinking, what the speedway has done well, where it has fallen short and what it could do better.

''The one thing I've heard a lot, especially from people who are 30-plus year attendees of the 500, is they walked into the venue last year and said, `That's why we fell in love with the speedway,''' Boles said. '''We fell in love with it because of the electricity that it had, the number of people it had.' So at some level, it reaffirmed for them why they love the place so much.''

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AP freelance writer Jim Johnson contributed to this report.

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More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

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