By Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 has supercharged the local economy, putting the event on track to cash in on what is hyped as the 'Greatest Spectacle in Racing'.
For the first time since Ray Harroun nursed his Marmon Wasp to victory in 1911, the Indy 500 was declared a sellout on Wednesday setting cash registers into overdrive as thousands of motor racing fans flooded into the greater Indianapolis area for a week of high-octane partying.
Indianapolis is no stranger to big events having hosted the 1987 Pan Am Games, 2010 Final Four and 2012 Super Bowl but none pack a bigger economic punch than the Indy 500.
While the Super Bowl poured an estimated $178 million into the local economy, the Indy 500 has traditionally dwarfed that.
The last study commissioned by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) in 2000 pegged the Indy 500 economic impact at $336 million.
With close to 400,000 fans expected to pack the Brickyard on Sunday, and swarm souvenir and concession stands, a record haul seems certain.
With the centennial race sold out and hotel rooms as scarce as a horn on an IndyCar, Indianapolis is primed for a sizzling Memorial Day holiday weekend on and off the track.
"It is safe to say that this year's 500 will be record breaking in terms of economic impact and the number
of visitors, not only inside the speedway, but in the city as a whole," said Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing and communications at Visit Indy, the convention and visitors association.
"Our estimate is 400,000 who will race into Indianapolis for the best part of the weekend. It is setting up to be record setting in all aspects - arguably twice as much as generated by the Super Bowl."
For local businesses big and small, the Indy 500 is the tide that raises all boats.
At a price tag of $1,750 per seat, the Hulman Terrace Club alone will generate more than $2 million in ticket revenue.
Outside the IMS gates, Indianapolis officials claim that more than 33,000 hotel rooms are reserved for race week, most at a premium of 20 percent above standard rates.
Interested in having dinner at St. Elmo steakhouse, one of Indianapolis' most famous eateries? Forget it. The popular restaurant has been booked solid for private parties for months.
Money is being made on the usually bucolic side streets around the Speedway with entrepreneurial home owners renting out their lawns to campers, motor homes and race day parking.
If looking for something a little more upscale, voice mail inventor Scott Jones is renting out his 26,000 square foot Carmel mansion, complete with theater and basketball court, for $5,000 a night.
"All barometers are trending in the right direction," said Gahl. "All of the indicators are dramatically higher.
Gahl said Indianapolis hotel rooms sold out two months ahead of last year.
"We are now placing visitors as far out as South Bend (150 miles/240 km), where Notre Dame is located."
While many will watch the race packed into the popular general admission area known as the Snake Pit, it is in the trackside suites and hospitality tents where the race will have a real impact.
Billionaire businessmen and A-listers are also drawn to the glamorous world of motor racing and look on in lavish style from air conditioned private suites where deals are done.
"There are a lot of corporations, domestic and international, that are entertaining using the Indy 500 as the backdrop," explained Gahl.
"The suites at the Speedway sold out in record setting time and will be jam packed with executives who have the buying power to come back to Indianapolis and relocate businesses."
With the IndyCar Series struggling to reclaim its place in the ultra-competitive U.S. sporting landscape, there is a feeling in some quarters that the 100th running will be more of blip than a boom.
But others insist the Indy 500 is back in the sporting fast lane.
"The 100th running of the event, twice as old as the Super Bowl, is the ultimate bucket list event and we are confident that if they witness it this year they will be hungry to come back," said Gahl.
"Certainly having a successful 100th is important to that growth heading into the 101st."
(Additional reporting by Rick Horrow; Editing by Larry Fine)