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The Indianapolis 500 is looking to diversify its audience

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Grandstands at the Indianapolis 500 will once again be packed tomorrow. After two years with no or limited numbers of spectators, most of those fans will be white and male, but organizers are trying to change that. Jill Sheridan reports from member station WFYI in Indianapolis.

JILL SHERIDAN, BYLINE: If you're an Indy fan, you know - the feeling you get when you enter the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the music pumping through the loudspeakers...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHERIDAN: ...The cars roaring around the oval topping 200 miles an hour. The Indy 500 will attract more than a quarter million people to the speedway in one day. Indianapolis Motor Speedway chief diversity officer Jimmie McMillian says that fan base is built on decades of tradition. People often give him their count.

JIMMIE MCMILLIAN: The count is - if you don't know, the count is I've been to 62 Indy 500s. I've been to 35 Indy 500s. People know the number. They have families that know the number, and it's important to them.

SHERIDAN: Sometimes it just takes one race to get hooked. McMillian, a Black Indianapolis resident, grew up on Chicago's South Side. He knew nothing about motor sports. It was friends from work who took him to his first car race.

MCMILLIAN: And the minute those cars fired up, I became a huge fan of a guy named Tony Stewart from Columbus, Ind., and he actually won the Brickyard that day. And it became a part of my heart, and it became my absolute favorite sport.

SHERIDAN: One tried-and-true way to increase fans was on display at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. Driver Scott Dixon signed autographs and took pictures with kids of all ages. Ten-year-old Avery Weary Lynch (ph) made a pitch for gender equity.

AVERY WEAREY LYNCH: I think girls should be race car fans, and I think they should drive race cars more 'cause I think girls and boys are both equal in driving cars.

SHERIDAN: A recent survey finds more females and younger fans attending IndyCar races. Many describe the sport as exciting, entertaining, even dangerous. Roger Penske bought the track in 2020, right before the pandemic and a summer of protests over racial equity. Penske Entertainment, like other large corporations, has highlighted its commitment to diversity efforts. Jimmie McMillian says new programs now reach more kids who have no connection to racing.

MCMILLIAN: We have a day where 600 kids come in from diverse communities, and all of them raise their hand and say, we've never been here before. And they're yelling and screaming. And they're meeting people like Ed Wilburn, who was the highest ranking African American in GM, who designed the Corvette. And a little kid comes up to him and say, I want to draw cars. When can I start?

SHERIDAN: IndyCar traditionally draws fans from around the world to attend the 500 here. Formula One racing is gaining in popularity, and IndyCar benefits from close team connections. Meanwhile, NASCAR attendance and viewership is declining. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, efforts to be more inclusive seem to be paying off. Ebony Chappelle (ph) grew up in a historically Black neighborhood minutes from the track.

EBONY CHAPPELLE: I did not grow up really being connected to racing at all. So the month of May, for me, was always, it's just going to be really loud in the neighborhood for however long the cars are running around the track.

SHERIDAN: But now she's a fan and says there's an effort to provide more opportunities for local organizations to find their lane at the speedway.

CHAPPELLE: We have entire lifetimes to go to really see huge changes, but it starts today. It starts with taking these incremental steps towards progress.

SHERIDAN: The 106th running of the Indianapolis 500 race is tomorrow.

For NPR News, I'm Jill Sheridan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.