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Few big celebrities in pole position for Indy 500

7:53 AM, May 24, 2013   |    comments
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 17: A detail of the Indianapolis 500 logo on Firestone tires during practice for the 2013 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 17, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Terry Brown and Brian Anderson are celebrity autograph collectors.

Hoping to add to their collections of thousands, the Indianapolis-area pair was first in line at a Kentucky Derby eve charity event in Louisville earlier this month. They waited for celebrities such as country music's Luke Bryan, actress Jane Seymour and actor Jason Biggs while standing outside of the Galt House in Louisville, where the fundraiser Unbridled Eve was happening and stars were filing in.

"We just come for the celebrity watching," Brown said.

"Since we don't get anybody in Indy," Anderson added.

The pair - who have more than 17,000 celebrity autographs between them - will be looking for more this week in Indianapolis as the Indy 500 comes and goes. But they say it isn't the same.

By the time Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened for 500 practice on May 11, star watchers had no idea who they'd see coming through town for the race.

No celebrity announcements had been made by the Speedway. Nothing on who would serve as its celebrity pace car driver or sing the national anthem. Since then, officials have announced that San Francisco 49ers coach and former Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh will drive the pace car, Sandi Patty will sing the national anthem and Michael Pena, a voice in the animated DreamWorks film "Turbo," will wave the green flag to start the race.

Members of the WNBA champion Indiana Fever will serve as the grand marshals of the 500 Festival Parade. Also featured will be the race's 33 IndyCar drivers, rocker Eddie Money, members of the band Foreigner, and Jim Nabors and Florence Henderson, who are 500 regulars.

Although the celebrity roles were eventually filled, some say by not filling the roles sooner, the IndyCar series and the Indianapolis 500 missed shots at bringing bigger names to the race.

Troy Hanson, a former Hoosier who lives in Los Angeles and serves part time as a celebrity wrangler, said he has been trying to help race officials get celebrities for the red carpet."If I'm the only one who thinks this is important, then it's not worth it," Hanson said.

Drivers are stars

Hollywood's celebs are cool. But IndyCar drivers are cooler, according to Speedway officials.

The drivers are the real stars of the Indianapolis 500, said Doug Boles, vice president of communications for Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On Sunday, about 250,000 fans will pour into the Speedway to watch them race for millions in prize money.

"Do you give the event a grade based on what celebrities are here? No," he said. "The event should be graded by the on-track product and the personalities that have race cars strapped on their backs."

The red carpet is a nice side show, but the main event is on the famed 2.5-mile oval, he said.

"For 100-plus years, the stars of the Indianapolis 500 have been the 33 drivers that compete there," Boles said.

"That is the most important component. The next are the military men and women who participate in our event or just attend."

Ask and they will come

Former Bond girl Jane Seymour would be up for a trip to check out the greatest spectacle in racing if someone offered hassle-free travel.

"It sounds like something I'd really enjoy, and it would be really fun to do," said Seymour, also known for her 1990s role as "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." "What would it take to get me there? An invitation and then an easy way."

Bryan, who performed in Indianapolis recently at a fundraiser for the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent, wants to attend the 500.

"It's up there like the Kentucky Derby," said Bryan as he and Seymour signed autographs for fans and talked to reporters before Unbridled Eve on May 3. "It's something you always dream of attending."

There's a sizable list of other stars with their arms up for a trip to the Indy 500, said Hanson, who is a racing fan.

He's planning to make the trip to Indy this weekend with Tim Daly, who starred in "Private Practice" and "Wings," and Kim Coates of "Sons of Anarchy," who was also in "Black Hawk Down."

By not working harder to bring big names to town for the race, Indianapolis is missing opportunities to advertise the 500 in popular culture, he said.

"It's about relevance and additional press," Hanson said. "We bring a big name, and that big name goes on Jay Leno and they start talking about Indy because I brought them there. That's cool."

But it's expensive to offer expense-paid VIP trips to the Indianapolis 500 - as much as $7,500 to $10,000 per celebrity if you consider first-class airfare, minimum multiple night stays for the star (and possibly a makeup artist and a hair stylist) in local high-end hotels over Memorial Day weekend and other niceties.

"We want celebrities to attend our event because they want to be there. We don't want them to attend our event because we paid them to be there," Boles said.

At the Derby

Kentucky Derby officials don't pay celebs to attend their event or cover travel expenses to Louisville. Instead, the Derby offers celebrities tickets to the race through the Derby parties that recruit celebs to attend, according to Darren Rogers, senior director of communication for Churchill Downs.

"We work with those parties and sell them blocks of tickets," said Rogers, who added that when celebrities contact Derby officials about attending the race, they tell them to call party organizers.

In turn, the parties reach out to celebrities.

This year, actor Emilio Estevez, singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson, retired Chicago Bull Scottie Pippen, country music's Jo Dee Messina and actress Angela Bassett were among a list of stars, including Seymour and Bryan, who showed up for the Derby.

At the Indy 500

The 500 reaches out to some celebrities. Racing teams have connections - "Late Show" host David Letterman co-owns a team, for example - and IMS officials enlist some celeb-wrangling agencies to help, Boles said.

"I don't know if you call that a recruiting program, but it really is just this big network of people communicating with each other," said Boles, who added that race officials don't pressure stars to walk on red carpets and meet the public.

The Indy 500 has drawn bigger name stars in the past, race officials acknowledge.

Three years ago, IndyCar's sponsor, Izod, made it a priority to attract celebrities to the race and create parties to showcase them. A string showed up, including Mark Wahlberg and icon Jack Nicholson. Since, that effort has tapered off.

Boles said he doesn't know the reason for the change, but the push for stars came early in Izod's sponsorship of the IndyCar series, and it also led up to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first 500.

"That was a big moment for us. ...A lot of it is we were really focused on making sure 2011 was a big event," Boles said. "It's hard to keep that level all of the time."

The stars they really want to come are the ones who help broaden its fan base, Boles said.

For example, when Robin Roberts of ABC's "Good Morning America" was the celebrity pace car driver in 2010, she talked on the show about her experience.

"What she brought was really important to the folks at Chevrolet and to us," Boles said.

And because ongoing ticket sales are key, Speedway officials are financing efforts to make the Indy 500 Snake Pit in Turn 3 an unforgettable experience for 20-something fans this year, he said. Celeb DJs Afrojack and Diplo will perform, and billboards are up all over town.

Still, corporations use celebrities to market products because it works, and the Indy 500 could do the same thing, said Jennifer Beaver, a co-owner of sports marketing company Branded Management.

"Buick put Peyton Manning in a commercial, L'Oreal pays a myriad of celebrities to endorse their products, Super Bowl brings the A-list," Beaver said. "Whether it's the Derby, a car or beauty, celebrities endorse products and people pay attention."

Cathy Kightlinger, The Indianapolis Star

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