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Has Indianapolis lost its luster with NASCAR fans?
by Matt Taliaferro
The announcement in 1993 set the world of motorsports on its ear. And the inaugural race in 1994 captured the attention of millions. The fendered stock cars of NASCAR — at the time the “next big thing” on the North American sporting landscape — were racing at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
With its roots cemented in the early years of the 20th century, Indianapolis, with its Gasoline Alley and still-surviving yard of bricks at the start/finish line, has long been a bastion of open-wheel racing; easily the most notable speedway in the world.
So when then-NASCAR CEO Bill France Jr. and former IMS president Tony George revealed to the world that NASCAR would occupy an annual date at the Brickyard, expectations and enthusiasm soared. And when Jeff Gordon, then a NASCAR newcomer, and racing legend Dale Earnhardt scored the first two wins at the speedway, the capacity crowds — thought to be in the neighborhood of 300,000, although IMS does not release attendance figures — felt it had witnessed history. It had seen something. And in all fairness, it had.
However, 18 years later, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NASCAR find themselves at a crossroads. Gone are the bulging crowds, although NASCAR’s attendance figures — while typically inflated — estimated a gathering of 140,000 last season, still a nice pull. That number is nearly half of the estimate from just a few seasons prior, though.
So what happened to the perfect pairing of America’s most historical speedway and most popular racing series? Where is the hype and “can’t miss” nature of one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events?
The simple answer is that there is no simple answer, but a number of factors that have witnessed a decline in interest, attendance and ratings of the Brickyard 400.
The most obvious observation is that stock car racing at Indy — even back in its mid-’90s heyday — isn’t that exciting. Open-wheel IndyCar rockets jet around the flat 2.5-mile speedway in excess of 225 miles per hour, thanks to an abundance of front downforce that keeps the cars glued to the track. Stock cars, in turn, are incapable of producing such aero-dependent handling capabilities.
The result is 400 miles of drawn-out, largely single-file racing — hardly your steamy Saturday night in Bristol or crisp autumn afternoon at Talladega.
The 2008 Brickyard 400, a race that can only be described as a monumental debacle — when Goodyear tires turned to dust instead of wearing into the track evenly — didn’t do the event any favors, either. Whether this remains a reason why fans stay away, it marked the point when attendance — already in a noticeable slide — hit a point of no return.
And then there are the fans themselves, many saving pennies in a recession that seems will never end. If a family is to attend only one race per season, it needs to get its money’s worth. And again, NASCAR’s short tracks and plate venues offer the most bang for the ever-precious buck.
Sightlines at Indianapolis do not help the cause, either. NASCAR patrons are used to seeing nearly all of a race track, and at Indy, the famed pagoda and infield granstands make that impossible. Sitting on the living room couch watching a hi-def television allows for the storylines and any on-track excitement to play out via the 76 cameras employed by ESPN in unencumbered fashion.
Still, to drivers and teams alike, winning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a career-defining achievement.
“Being at the Brickyard with NASCAR is an unbelievable experience,” veteran driver Jeff Burton says. “The things that are in front of me (in my career) that really mean a lot are winning a championship, winning a Daytona 500 and certainly the Brickyard is on that list as well.”
Of course, there are those outside of the competitors who can appreciate NASCAR's visits. The Brickyard is a demanding race, an event where driver and team must bring their A-game. The length, strategy and finesse involved often make the race an enjoyable mental exercise for the more informed viewers.
But again, that angle often presents itself just as well (if not better) from the comfort of the living room. Lost there is the “experience” of the day — the sights and smells of a NASCAR race and overall aura of the Birckyard itself. However, toss in any number of online resources for the at-home fan and suddenly, those on the couch are more plugged in to what's really playing out.
NASCAR and the speedway hope to make “being there” just as important to the fans once agin, though. The largest driver autograph session of the season has been organized at IMS on the day before the race. The catch? Only ticket holders for the 400 can attend. And next year, the Nationwide Series and the France family-owned GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series will compete at Indy on the same weekend as the Cup race.
Whether bringing in more stock car races is a good thing for the mystique of the speedway or whether it will help with attendance are debatable.
What’s not up for debate is that a once-cherished event has become — in the eyes of the all-important fan — just another race. And that needs to change.
Agree? Disagree? Let Matt know below. You can follow him on Twitter @MattTaliaferro