The Walt Disney World Speedway and the Indy 200
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The Walt Disney World Speedway and the Indy 200


Walt Disney World was always more than just
theme parks. Even back in the 70’s when it first opened
it offered guests other activities like golf, camping, and boating. It was just a way to round out a vacation
destination. However once the 80’s and 90’s rolled
around, that attitude changed. People were making Disney World one stop out
of many on their Florida vacation, but why not change that? Disney’s thinking was that if people were
coming to Florida for other experiences, they could offer their own Disney version of that
experience and keep them on property. Local night clubs? Pleasure Island. Beaches and waves? Typhoon Lagoon. Cruises? The Disney Cruise Line. Timeshares? The DVC. Many people made trips out to Daytona for
the Daytona 500. Well, Disney had an answer for that too, and
it was the Walt Disney World Speedway. In the mid 1990’s, there was a rift in the
world of racing. A man named Tony George felt that Indy racing
was getting too expensive. He argued that the variation between oval
and street tracks, along with the lack of standardization among the cars lead to this
sort-of arms race of increasingly expensive vehicles. It reached the point where the average IndyCar
season cost a team as much as fifteen million dollars to participate. He tried to work with CART or the Championship
Auto Racing Team to change the series to help, but they were unable to come to an agreement. So in 1995, he started his own series. IRL was the Indy Racing League. George claimed that it was going to return
the sport to it’s true form by lowering the number of races, focusing on oval tracks,
and limiting the car specs to lower the costs to participate. He claimed his league would lower that $15
million cost down to $3 million. Now George wasn’t just some random fan. You see, he was the president of the Indianapolis
Motor Speedway, home to the world famous Indy 500. So he not only had the resources to make the
Indy Racing League a reality, he had the pull to give IRL racers preferential treatment
when it came to the next Indy 500. The qualifying rules of the Indy 500 were
changed so that 25 of the 33 car spots were given to participants of the IRL. The racing community didn’t like this. His goals were noble, sure, but to many it
felt like a kid taking his ball and going home because he didn’t like the rules of
the game. Many big name drivers spoke out against the
changes to the Indy 500 and pledged to not partake in the IRL. Some were just contractually bound to the
other IndySeries anyway and couldn’t switch over even if they wanted to. CART countered by establishing the US 500
in Michigan to compete with the Indy 500. So it looked like regardless of public outcry,
the IRL series would be moving forward, though with a shortage of big name racers. This is where Disney enters the picture. The Indy Racing League partnered with The
Walt Disney Company to build a 1.1 mile tri-oval track just south of the Transportation and
Ticket Center in order to host the inaugural Indy 200 in 1996. It might not have been the first thing people
expected out of Disney, but it wasn’t much of a stretch either. Disney World had moved more into the world
of sports those past few years with their own marathon, bike tour, and even mini-Olympics. So racing didn’t feel far out of place. General manager of Disney Motorsports, Michael
Waggoner, claimed that he had been pitching the idea of moving into racing to Disney for
four years before it finally happened. By hosting the first of the five races, Walt
Disney World would lend a novelty to the new event. On the flipside, by kicking off the series
in January, the event would benefit Disney by bringing in more guests during what was
normally their slow season. Disney sold package deals for hotel stays,
park tickets, and race tickets for the event, and later claimed that most of the attendees
for the race were from the Midwest and purchased said packages. The Speedway itself was a barebones facility. It was built in under a year at a cost of
just $6 million. There were no permanent bleachers or sky boxes,
nor were there any garages for the cars. It was more or less just a track. That track was made up of 3.2 million paving
bricks, including one cornerstone brick from the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway, often
known as the Brickyard. The track in Disney gained the nickname of
the Mickyard. Using temporary bleachers and sky-boxes able
to seat over 55,000 guests, the first Indy 200 was slated for January 27th, 1996, with
a prize purse of $1 million. As expected, the series struggled to attract
many big name racers, but according to Disney that wasn’t a problem. They claimed that their research showed that
people were going to the races for the cars and competition, and less-so for notable racers
themselves. And it seems that Disney was right, as the
inaugural event was attended by over 55,200 guests and was broadcasted on ABC, which Disney
had just acquired over the previous six months. The race itself went well, and averaging 139
miles per hour and winning by just .866 seconds, Buzz Calkins was the first winner of the Indy
200. Over the following 4 years the Walt Disney
World Speedway saw continued use. The Indy 200 would take place there up until
the year 2000, and a couple of NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races would be held at the speedway
as well, not to mention a number of smaller supporting races for both events. After the IRL race in 2000, Disney and the
Indy Racing League failed to settle on an agreeable date for the 2001 race, causing
the IRL to go with a different venue. Disney didn’t know it at the time, but it
would mark the end of professional races at the track. With the rise in popularity of stock car racing,
and the continued rift between the IRL and CART, the racing scene was starting to struggle. However that wasn’t the end of the speedway’s
use. Introduced in 1997, the Walt Disney World
Speedway became one of the permanent homes to the Richard Petty Driving Experience. The experience allowed guests to pay anywhere
from $99 to $1250 to get into the passenger’s seat of a stock car and experience the speeds
of the vehicle firsthand, or even drive it themselves. Eventually the offerings expanded to the Indy
Racing Experience, and the Exotic Driving Experience. So what happened to the Speedway? Well, the very decisions that made it a low
risk investment for the Walt Disney Company also made it really easy to get rid of. The facility had only cost them $6 million
to build and didn’t involve any large permanent structures, and it was squeezed right below
the TTC parking lot in order to avoid laying new utilities. As the popularity of the parks continued to
grow, that land found itself becoming more valuable for extra parking space, and without
any professional races, it became harder to justify keeping around. So it was decided in early 2015 to close and
demolish the track in order to expand the parking facilities at the TTC. With the announcement there was virtually
no surprise. If anything people were more surprised the
speedway had lasted as long as it did. The Walt Disney World Speedway was one of
the more interesting projects for Disney in the 90’s. It certainly wasn’t the only instance of
Disney trying to dip their toes into a new venture, but usually when they did it either
involved a major investment, or extreme success, or extreme failure. The Speedway had none of that. It was built on the cheap. It saw some professional use, but that just
petered out without any fanfare. The use after that was small and sparse, and
then one day it was just removed. It felt like an afterthought, not just for
guests who visited, but to Disney as well. But even as an afterthought, it was a testament
to how willing Disney was to try something new.

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