Y esterday, I experienced the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. It was truly a spectacle.  Somewhere around 400,000 people converged on a small town on the west side of Indianapolis and crowded into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), a massive complex of bleachers, garages, suites, vending stands and various other structures built around and within a 2.5 mile oval. The facility is awesome to behold.

As a native of Indianapolis, I grew up with this event.  The drama, the larger than life players, the excitement, the risk, the hype, and the incredible scale of the Race itself were part of our hometown heritage. For a time, we even lived in the town of  Speedway and could see Turn 4’s massive wall of stands from our backyard. The 500 and the Track were always there; simply part of the fabric of the City of Indianapolis.

This year, I looked on the event with a fresh of set of eyes. The 100th running of any event is no small thing.  The 100th running of something of this scale is incredible.  There was drama, there were people, there was hype, and, for those of us always looking for ideas to improve our businesses and our careers, there were lessons.

With David Letterman in the audience yesterday, perhaps a Top 10 is appropriate for sharing some lessons from The Greatest Spectacle in Racing:

  1. Plan, Plan, Plan — during the course of the day and the month leading up to it, evidence of careful planning was on display.  There were promotions upon promotions; events upon events.  It was also clear that great amounts of time had been invested considering logistics, security, flow, timing, and on and on.  Great events take even greater planning.
  2. Expect the Unexpected — yes, plan as much as possible but know that surprises will occur.  Timetables will slip, people will make mistakes, and things won’t work as you expected, or hoped.  As much it was clear that things had been planned, the folks at the IMS appeared to have reconciled themselves with the uncontrollably organic nature of many aspects of such a large event. There were rules, “swim lanes,” and other efforts to maintain control but there was also an acceptance of the unpredictable nature of people and the complexity of it all coming together.
  3. A Great Event is a Collection of Stories — 100 years!  Indy 500 organizers were very effective at weaving myriad stories together throughout the month of May: previous winners, Hulman family history, Indianapolis history, current racers, local stories, national stories, international stories, and so on. The narrative on this Race was endless: IMS even pulled in the Memorial Day theme with Pearl Harbor survivors and aligned itself effectively with our patriotic identity as Americans.  It all fit. It was effective.  It was very powerful.
  4. People Love a Winner — throughout the race, special cheers were accorded movements by previous winners. Before the race, victors from past Indy 500’s were paraded before adoring fans and were venerated as heroes. We all identify with winners, admire their prowess, and our society rewards their success. This is so American, and it is so human. We love the idea of someone coming through it, prevailing over great odds, and showing us that there is a way for us to win as well. It is powerful, compelling, and hopeful.
  5. People Love an Underdog — yesterday’s race produced a rookie victor. A very unusual occurrence and an exciting result.  The fans were cheering for the usual stars right up until it became clear that an unknown driver making an all-or-nothing decision not to refuel in the final moments of the race just might win because of his (and his team’s) moxy. The crowd was elated, the narrative was completed, and a new star was born.  One who will now be cheered in future events as a winner.
  6. There is Power and Appeal in the Known — the Indianapolis 500 is all about tradition. Ask anyone who attends regularly and he/she will have a particular routine. You would hear of the race routine: waking up at a certain time, eating breakfast at a certain place, following a certain path to the Speedway, parking in a particular lot or yard, sitting in a particular seat, grabbing a particular snack once inside etc. We love routine and tradition. The Indianapolis 500 gives us that legacy and fans eat it up.
  7. People Crave Connection — how else can you explain why 400,000 people would cram together in a relatively small space and endure one another for 12 hours? The Indy 500 connects people like no other event in the world.  Endless stories, a deep history, the endurance test of getting in and out of the area, sharing a beer in the parking lot before the race, cheering and jeering together during the race, the patriotic threads woven throughout race day itself: this event is built to connect. It draws people because of its ability to connect on a massive level and it keeps them coming because they can experience it safely and relatively harmoniously. Fans leave the Indy 500 as winners through this connection.
  8. Involvement Equals Commitment — the Greatest Spectacle in Racing is a success because of its fans and how it connects them. However, it’s ability to bring other interested parties together and give them wins of their own enables it to pull the event off. The Indy 500 is a complete ecosystem that feeds a massive array of interested parties: government, law enforcement, manufacturers, promoters, food service providers, distillers, brewers, transportation companies, lodging providers, broadcasters, and individual capitalists — the list goes on. The IMS creates wins for so many interested parties that there becomes a huge army of supporters working to make the event successful.  Involving so many disparate entities makes such a large event possible and keeps the fans coming back.
  9. Anything is Possible — one look at the throngs of people and it is clear that what you are witnessing really isn’t possible. Wading through wave after wave of individuals, watching the countless buses moving bodies into the IMS, sitting in traffic slowly moving through city streets, experiencing the roar of these crowds, and looking at mile long rows of bleachers that appear to be the artistic backdrop of some Hollywood set and it is obvious that this is impossible. Yet, there it is and seeing is believing.
  10. Patience is a Virtue — when it comes to patience, I can think of no better teacher than a day at the Indianapolis 500. There is no other choice if one is to maintain sanity. Such volumes of people. Such scale of event. It is a long day. It is an endurance test. It is an exercise designed to test your patience. It is also singular. There is nothing like it and for those of us who experienced Indy 500 firsthand, we realize the rewards of the experience outweigh the challenges.

Perhaps listing only 10 lessons doesn’t do justice to such a spectacle. However, these lessons give a sense of its power. If you should have the opportunity, I encourage you to experience the 500 for yourself. Then, let us know about your takeaways.