How to revive the Brickyard 400
Inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 was most anticipated NASCAR race in history
After 2001, the novelty of NASCAR at Indianapolis started to wear off for fans
Larger purse and bringing back the apron could help race return to prominence
INDIANAPOLIS -- For its first 45 years of existence, NASCAR dreamed of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track was the motor sports mecca of the world and the home of the world's most famous race -- the Indianapolis 500 -- which began in 1911.
In 1994, NASCAR got its wish. For the first time since 1918 an event other than the Indianapolis 500 would take place at the most historic racing venue on earth. The Inaugural Brickyard 400 became the most anticipated NASCAR race in history, and for those of us who were at the Speedway on Aug. 6, 1994, it was one of the most memorable days in NASCAR history.
It was a hotter ticket than the Daytona 500 and demand even exceeded that of the Indianapolis 500, which at that time was still a race that sold out close to a year in advance and drew crowds approaching 400,000 when the infield was wide open. The Brickyard 400 did not have an open infield, but close to 350,000 fans jammed the Speedway that glorious August day as Jeff Gordon scored his second and perhaps most famous victory of his career.
It was an important day for NASCAR, but around 2001 something happened. The novelty of NASCAR at Indianapolis began to wear off. Combined with the brutally hot weather that hits the capital city of Indiana this time of year, many fans decided to stay home. Also, with NASCAR's new television contract with NBC, the race was no longer blacked out in Indianapolis as of 2001, so many fans decided to watch it from the comfort of an air-conditioned home.
And frankly, the action on the racetrack was pretty boring. I even wrote that I'd seen better racing on I-465 -- the highway that encircles the Indianapolis Metropolitan area.
The Brickyard 400 began a steady decline in attendance, with gaping areas of empty seats, especially in Turns 2 and 3.
Then came the infamous tire debacle involving Goodyear in 2008, when the compound was so bad on the abrasive Speedway asphalt that the cords on the tires began to show after five or six laps, creating a dangerous situation. The 160-lap race the following day featured yellow caution flags waving every 10 laps or so to allow teams to come in and change the tires before they blew and hit the wall.
The fans were enraged and many of them never came back. Last year's Brickyard 400 was the lowest attendance in the history of the race and projections for Sunday's crowd are significantly off last year's ticket sales.
Despite that, the Brickyard 400 remains an important race on the NASCAR schedule. It's a historic venue and the drivers and teams that usually win this race are among the best in the sport, as it takes all the ingredients (driver, team, crew, car and strategy) to end up in the most famous Victory Lane in racing.
So while the Brickyard 400 may be down, it is far from out. There are a variety of ways to makes this race a bigger than life event again. Here are some that can help return the Brickyard 400 to prominence.
When the Inaugural Brickyard 400 was held in 1994 it boasted NASCAR's largest purse. Jeff Gordon collected more that day than Sterling Marlin when he won the Daytona 500 that year. In fact, then-Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George wanted to pay the Brickyard winner even more, but NASCAR officials resisted. They didn't want a NASCAR race at Indianapolis to overshadow the Daytona 500, which had been NASCAR's "Crown Jewel" since it began in 1959.
The big purse enticed drivers from all forms of racing to run in the Brickyard 400 that year. Four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt -- a seven-time NASCAR Cup race winner, including the 1972 Daytona 500 -- started in that race as did international racing star Geoff Brabham and 1985 Indianapolis 500 winner Danny Sullivan.
So, let's start paying the winner of the Brickyard 400 $1 million or $2 million to win.
Wally Dallenbach, Jr. was in the race that day, driving for team owner Richard Petty. Dallenbach competed in six Brickyard 400s, finishing 14th in 1999, and is now part of the Turner Sports Family calling NASCAR action for TNT. He is also an analyst for the IZOD IndyCar Series telecasts on VERSUS.
He strongly believes more money would mean more prestige.
"If you make it $1 million or $2 million to win, then all of a sudden it becomes important again to the drivers, teams and sponsors," Dallenbach said. "That gets everybody's attention. Then it becomes a special event again. Put up $100,000 to win the pole and $1 million or $2 million to win and all of a sudden there is a little more spark in that event again.
"I would spin my mother out on the last lap for $1 million. I don't care how much money these drivers make, when you start putting that kind of price tag up they race differently."
Originally, I thought of suggesting that if a driver won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 in the same season he should win a $5 million bonus. (The only drivers to win both races in the same season are Dale Jarrett in 1996, Jimmie Johnson in 2006 and Jamie McMurray last year.) But why stop at two races?
"Do the old Triple Crown where you have Daytona and the Brickyard and an off-the-wall track like a Bristol," Dallenbach said. "Make it part of something really cool again."
When there is that much money on the line, the pressure among the drivers and teams only increases. And racing fans love to see their favorite teams and drivers perform under pressure. It could be the type of program that would generate interest. After all, when Bill Elliott won the "Winston Million" in 1985 by winning the Daytona 500, Winston 500 (at Talladega) and Southern 500 at Darlington it was front page news on sports sections around the country.
Hey, it even got him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Why not make the Brickyard 400 part of something even bigger?
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