The decline of the Brickyard and more racing notes
INDIANAPOLIS -- When NASCAR arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Inaugural Brickyard 400 on Aug. 6, 1994, it was an event of epic proportions.
Not only was it the first time since 1918 that a race other than the Indianapolis 500 had been staged on the "hallowed grounds," but also the event helped launch NASCAR on its meteoric rise to national acceptance.
Sure, the 1979 Daytona 500 is regarded as the race that brought NASCAR into the national consciousness. But the first NASCAR race at Indianapolis proved that stock cars were just as worthy of racing at Indy as "the cars and stars" of the IndyCar racing.
The race was a huge success. Ticket demand was so high that it was estimated the first race could have been sold-out two-times over. In true NASCAR fashion, a young Jeff Gordon -- who spent his formative racing years in nearby Pittsboro, Ind. -- won the race for his second career victory. It helped make him a true legend and helped the Brickyard attain iconic status, leading some to predict that it would be bigger than the Daytona 500. With the late Dale Earnhardt winning in 1995 and Dale Jarrett in 1996, it was a race where the "big names" of the sport would triumph.
But 15 years later, the AllState 400 at the Brickyard is no longer the "earth-stopping" event that it once was. Last year's race had as many as 50,000 empty seats at the massive Indianapolis Motor Speedway. These weren't simply scattered empty seats throughout the facility but large gaps in the North Tower Terrace, Turn 3 and both the north and south chute areas.
And as Sunday's AllState 400 at the Brickyard looms closer, that trend is expected to continue in the face of a horrible economy with gasoline prices around $4.25 a gallon in the Midwest.
"Any time the economy takes a downturn, entertainment dollars become affected," says Joe Chitwood III, the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "Motorsports is more expensive to participate in because of the travel and the days of activity with the hotels. [The economy] affects the [racing] customer more than it does those who follow a stick and ball sport. That works against us."
But the 400 itself has become "just another race" because of several other factors:
1. THE ADVENT OF THE CHASE
About the only race not affected by The Chase in terms of stature is the season-opening Daytona 500. In other words, The Brickyard has become race No. 20 of a 26-race preseason to making the 12-driver Chase field.
"If there is one thing that probably is a change is all racers want to win the race but they look at their place in the standings and want to make The Chase as much as winning the race," Chitwood said. "That doesn't lend itself to the most compelling product because racing safe is different than racing to win.
"Should we go back? I don't know. You can argue those things all day long, but I do get a different sense as far as winning this event."
2. MIDWEST TRACKS
When the Brickyard was held for the first time in 1994, Michigan International Speedway was the only track located in the Midwest. Now, Indianapolis is surrounded by Chicagoland Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Michigan with Kentucky Speedway just a short drive southeast of Indianapolis. So if a race fan in the Midwest wants to attend a NASCAR race, there are plenty of options instead of going to the Speedway.
3. NO BIG OPEN TEST AT THE BRICKYARD IN THE LAST TWO YEARS
This is very important for promoting an upcoming event. The last two years, Indianapolis has been the site of a tire test, not an open test.
"If there is one thing we would love to have back is that open test," Chitwood said. "It gave the teams an opportunity to work on their setups and have a more competitive event. They only send one car per manufacturer. It's not like seeing 30 cars out there on a two-day test. I would love to see that open test session come back."
4. NASCAR DOESN'T TREAT THIS RACE ANY DIFFERENTLY FROM A PROMOTIONAL ASPECT
During the second year of the Nextel sponsorship, there was talk between the sponsor and NASCAR regarding "The Majors." The program would put extra promotional efforts for Daytona, Indy and the Bristol night race. But when the Sprint All-Star Race and the 400 at Daytona were not considered "Majors," the program wasn't implemented.
5. DRIVERS WHO DON'T RUN NASCAR HAVE STOPPED TRYING THE BRICKYARD
A.J. Foyt, Danny Sullivan, Geoff Brabham and even H.B. Bailey attempted to run the Brickyard 400. But with the state of the economy and the out of sight engineering emphasis in NASCAR, that is no longer feasible.
6. LET'S FACE IT; THE RACE IS DULL
There is better racing on Interstate 465. The only thing compelling about this race is the venue, not the action.
The track isn't suited for stock cars because the fans can't see the whole track. It's flat and the field spreads out. The Indianapolis 500 has a combination of speed, danger, fearlessness and tradition that makes it one of the most unique and exhilarating events in sports.
That's not to diminish the fact that the drivers who win the AllState 400 are among the most accomplished in NASCAR and usually contend for and win the title that year. A driver has to earn a victory at Indianapolis. There are no flukes. Even Ricky Rudd's victory in 1997 went to a driver who was named to NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers list in 1998.
The same can't be said for the Daytona 500, where the nature of restrictor-plate racing can make Michael Waltrip a two-time winner or where unheralded Derrike Cope can pull off the upset, like he did in 1990 when Dale Earnhardt had a flat tire in the third turn on the final lap.
So in that regard, Sunday's race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is more than "just another race."