Tim Sullivan grew up in Franklin in the 1950s, when the Indianapolis 500 was approaching middle age.
A grade-schooler at the time, Sullivan, like many Hoosiers, loved the race. But his passion for it ran deeper than most.
His childhood dream was to be involved in the race. And for the past 35 years, he has been — including the past 13 as manager of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center.
In that capacity, Sullivan is the gatekeeper for all IMS races, overseeing media credentialing for each, including next month’s historic 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
A seasonal occupation, Sullivan has worked with the media center since 1981. He became the manager after retiring in 2003 from his full-time job at Eli Lilly.
Since then, he has handled the thousands of media requests for Indianapolis Motor Speedway races, most notably the Indy 500 and Brickyard 400. His job is to determine who does — and who doesn’t — receive credentials and to supervise the distribution process.
For the Indy 500 alone, credential requests annually approach 1,300. They come from an array of local, national and international media outlets ranging from TV to radio to newspapers to websites to bloggers.
When requests are made, Sullivan discerns whether they are for legitimate working purposes or for a free view of the race from the Speedway pressbox and access to the garage and pit areas.
“Am I a gatekeeper? Yes,” Sullivan said. “I’m trying to make sure we’re credentialing the right people, making sure they are legitimate.”
What follows is a Q&A interview with Sullivan, a New Palestine resident who spent his childhood in Franklin. He attended Northwood Elementary from kindergarten through sixth grade and has attended 48 straight Indy 500s.
Q: How do you discern who’s requesting a credential for a genuine working purpose and who is not?
A: Part of it is experience. This is my 13th year of being involved with media credentials here. When they (credential applicants) mention a website, I go look at the website and see what they’ve been doing. And then I just flat-out ask sometimes for statistics on their website.
For a newspaper, it’s a little easier because you know most of them are legitimate. Again, I try to go to the website of the newspaper to see if this person has written anything, to see if their byline is on the website somewhere. That’s a little harder to do these days because so many sites for newspapers are subscription-based, and so you can’t really see as much.
TV and radio, again I look and see if there’s a website out there for them, see if the names are actually legitimate employees.
It’s a little bit of investigation for the new requests. For (returning) requests, sometimes I’ll just ask for proof of coverage, and if I don’t get any, I won’t credential them again.
It’s experience. You can tell sometimes, too, the way someone writes their request. I had one this year that was a really funny story. The guy says, ‘Here’s my information, I want a credential.’ I went back to him and I said, ‘Who do you work for? This is the other information I need.’ He never came back with anything. I don’t know what he’s trying to do, but he’s certainly not getting a credential.”
Q: How many credential requests to do you get in a typical year?
A: Last year I think I credentialed some 400 different media outlets or 400 different organizations, whether they’re TV, newspaper, radio. I ended up doing some team (public relations) reps and some other things through IMS Productions. We get some video crews in here that have to pay a rights fee because they’re doing a documentary or a commercial, and I get involved with that.
Last year I credentialed somewhere in the neighborhood of over 1,300 people, and I’m hoping not to get any more than that this year.”
Q: What’s the demand been like so far?
A: I’ve told a couple of people that I think the demand this year is probably the greatest it’s been in the 12 previous years that I’ve been involved with this. (The year) 2011 may have been about what it is today, but I don’t remember it being this bad. Since the first of March, I’ve just been inundated with emails, and not just national but a lot of international requests this year, too. They’re legitimate publications.
In Europe, it’s a big deal for the Indianapolis 500 to have 100 races. It’s a big deal for the Indianapolis 500, and that’s why there’s so much media attention.
Q: What’s it mean to you to be a part of this historic running?
A: It’s very important because I’m contributing to the event itself, as I have over the years that I’ve been working here. It’s important to reach a milestone. For me, it’s the 48th race I will have been to in my life. Some of it was as a spectator, and since 1981, I’ve been working here on race day. So it means a lot to have reached this milestone.
It will mean a lot to know that this place will reach the 200th race some day, and that’s the thing that I hope. I won’t be able to see it, but that’s my hope.
Q: The race’s popularity seems to be on an upswing. What do you attribute that to?
A: What we have seen is definitely an improvement in the number of people who want to come out here for the race. We’ve seen that over the last few years. We’ve had exciting races the last few years. I think that means a lot to bringing fans out. We’ve had three races in a row where you had close finishes. And you also have fast speeds and close racing, in general, and that excitement builds to the next year because there’s that anticipation of that occurring again this year. That helps as much as anything, not just the anniversary.
Q: What do you enjoy about your job?
A: To be quite honest, there are a lot of headaches with the media credential process, which I don’t think a lot of people realize. Just getting through all that is a big accomplishment for me, and I think that’s one of the things that I look forward to.
But I also look forward to the race once they drop the green flag. That’s when the race is, that’s what everybody’s really here for, and my job is generally through. At least that portion of my job is, so I’m really happy to see that come about.
Q: Do you have a favorite race or races?
A: Seeing (A.J.) Foyt win his fourth in ‘77. I was always a big fan of A.J. Foyt’s because he actually won the first race that I ever saw, which was the 1961 Hoosier 100 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, so I was always a big fan. And so it was good to see him win his fourth and become the first one to do that.
Beyond that, all of them have special moments. One that I will always remember was 1986 when Bobby Rahal won, because I was a fan of Rahal’s. But the big thing was, Jim Trueman, the car owner, was sitting there in pit lane, and he was dying of cancer. He actually died a couple of weeks later. That was a very special moment. I actually got to meet Jim Trueman over the years, and he was a really nice guy.
I always found that to be a special moment, that he finally got to see his car win a race.
Name: Tim Sullivan
Job: Media center manager, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Born: Beech Grove
Family: Wife, Becki; sons, Robert, 41, and Scott, 36; four grandchildren
Resides: New Palestine
High school: New Palestine (1969)
College: University of Indianapolis (1979)
Local connection: A former Franklin resident, he attended Northwood Elementary from kindergarten through sixth grade