INDIANAPOLIS - The Indianapolis Motor Speedway always has been a place where legends are made. It was from this cathedral of motorsport where the names Foyt, Andretti, Unser and Mears first were chanted.
"The Speedway," to its credit, has not rested on its laurels. In recent years it has added NASCAR Winston Cup and International Race of Champions events and even Senior PGA tournament golf at the Pete Dye-designed Brickyard Crossing to its list of annual events.
But if there were any questions about Indy's standing in international motorsport, they will be put to rest in September when the eyes of the entire world focus on the 90-year-old race track for the Formula One United States Grand Prix.
"Without a doubt, besides maybe 1911 when the first 500-mile race was first run, this year is the biggest," says Anton Hulman (Tony) George, president and chief executive officer of the Speedway, reflecting on his first year hosting three "world-class" racing events.
"No matter how big the Indy 500 is, there are going to be more people watching television of the F1 race at Indianapolis than there will be for the 500," says former F1 champion driver Jackie Stewart. "Grand Prix racing is now the largest television sport in the world on an annual basis. It goes to more than 130 countries live and has an audience of billions."
To prepare the venerable track for the international spotlight, Mr. George has spearheaded a construction effort unparalleled since his grandfather bought the facility in 1945.
In the last two years, the speedway has spent "tens of millions of dollars" on several projects to facilitate Formula One racing and improve participant and spectator conditions for the "500" and the NASCAR Brickyard 400.
"We have a tradition here of over-delivering on people's expectations, and as we do that, the cost is growing," says Mr. George. "At a given time I know we had nine construction projects going on concurrently. Probably the biggest challenge has been undertaking this capital program to prepare for the three events."
The first project was to install seven high-definition video screens along the back stretch to give fans sitting there views of racing action elsewhere on the famed 2.5-mile oval. Six new video screens have been added for 2000 and more are planned.
A project started last year and expected to be mostly completed in time for this month's Indy 500 is the new "pagoda" control tower, patterned after a wooden structure that stood in the early years of the raceway.
Will the new tower, which was planned prior to the announcement of the F1 race, be functional for the annual Memorial Day race? "It should be. I hope so. It'll be close," says Mr. George.
In addition to the new control tower, the Formula One race has forced the Speedway to make some major changes to its property. First and foremost, a 2.61-mile road course had to be built. It encompasses turn one and the front straightaway of the oval. Racing observers expect the F1 cars to hit between 180 and 190 mph (288 to 304 km/h) in this area.
Formula One requires its tracks to have permanent garage facilities for its teams and permanent suite facilities for its Paddock Club. The Speedway has delivered.
Just south of the new pagoda, workers are putting the finishing touches on 36 garages with 12 suites perched directly above. Grandstands will be erected above the suites, and temporary stands will be placed in front of the garages for the Indy car and NASCAR races.
A new state-of-the-art press room and broadcast center is rising to the north of the tower. Although not expected to be fully functional for the May race, it will seat more than 500 journalists and accommodate 46 separate broadcast teams.
Other changes made for the Formula One race include a permanent podium for the top three finishers, reconstruction of the pit lane in front of the new garages and a building to house F1 association offices and television support personnel.
Although many of these new facilities were foisted on the Speedway by Formula One, each will be used during the track's other events. The Speedway, for instance, will rent the suites and fans will find concessions in the new garage area during the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400.
There's no question that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has blossomed under the leadership of Tony George. But his tenure has not been without controversy.
The first debate came when Mr. George invited NASCAR to bring Winston Cup racing to the Brickyard. Many open-wheel purists thought of the Speedway as hallowed ground and were opposed to stock cars racing there.
"People are certainly entitled to their own opinions about the Speedway, but I don't feel that way, and my family doesn't feel that way," says Mr. George. "There had been talks between ourselves and NASCAR for a long time, but we didn't feel the time was right to hold a NASCAR race here until we did in 1994. I think it's been a successful event. And I think it will continue to be a successful event."
Controversy arose again in 1996 when Mr. George founded the Indy Racing League.
Designed to control the rising cost of racing and focus on oval track racing in America, the move split the open-wheel racing community into two camps - that of Mr. George and the IRL or the Michigan-based Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). CART promotes races all over the world and runs on road courses and temporary street circuits as well as ovals.
Thus far, reconciliation talks between the two sides have been fruitless.
"I have many ideas, and my family has many ideas, on how the sport should move forward," says Mr. George. "And they are not in agreement with CART. I don't see those differences being resolved anytime soon."
Controversy aside, the future of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the new millennium looks extremely bright.
"We make a lot of decisions here because we think they're the right decisions, not because they have short-term returns," says Mr. George, referring to the fact that the Speedway is still a family business. "The best excerpts of the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have yet to be written."
Time will tell if he's right.
Before the track was paved in bricks in 1909, it hosted hot-air balloon races, airplane races as well as automobile races.
It took 63 days to lay 3.2 million bricks in 1909.
Ray Harroun won the first 500-mile race in 1911 averaging 74.6 mph.
Arie Luyendyk won the fastest 500 in 1990 averaging 185.9 mph.
World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker bought the speedway from its founder Carl Fisher in 1927.
Tony Hulman bought the track in 1945.
Hall of Fame Museum opened in 1976.
Jeff Gordon won the first NASCAR Brickyard 400 in 1994.
U.S. Grand Prix debuts at Indy on Sept. 24, 2000.