In a decade of skyrocketing growth for the sport of NASCAR, no single event in the 1990s topped its first visit to the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 1994 Brickyard 400.
However, 20 years later, amid sagging attendance and television ratings and a weekend diluted with Nationwide and nondescript sports car ancillary races, the Sprint Cup Series’ annual visit is a shell of its former self.
Make no mistake, the sparse nine degrees of banking in Indy’s four nearly-90 degree turns have never yielded great returns for fendered stock cars. In fact, the storylines have always overshadowed the actual on-track action.
Jeff Gordon’s coronation in the premier race, the larger-than-life Dale Earnhardt fittingly victorious in Indy’s winner’s circle, Tony Stewart finally capturing a win at his beloved home track — all made for great copy, but it was the narrative of “big-name driver winning at the epicenter of racing” — check that, “household name winning at the epicenter of racing” — that ruled the day. Only the best drivers from the premier level deserved a shot to lead the field across the yard of bricks, regardless of motorsports discipline. And only the one-percenters of that group should prevail at day’s end.
The sobering reality of NASCAR’s lost luster at the Brickyard was driven home last year when the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series made its inaugural trip to the quaint half-mile Eldora Speedway in tiny Rossburg, Ohio. Running the Wednesday prior to what is billed as the “Super Weekend at the Brickyard,” a high-banked dirt track — owned by Stewart himself — stole the racing headlines all week.
It was an odd yet telling twist that the most historic speedway in the world was upstaged by NASCAR’s “third series” running an event — complete with heat races, a last-chance qualifier and an “A-Main” feature — at a track that harkened race fans back to their roots. The Eldora event was a smashing success: competitive, unique, entertaining. Oh, and run in front of a packed house.
The Cup Series’ stop in Speedway, Ind., four days later was cloaked in pageantry, yet the on-track product was all-too-familiar, as the crowd of roughly 70,000 (down from a reported 280,000 five years prior) could attest. Aero-dependent racing at the monstrous facility was in stark contrast to the “racin’” enjoyed at Eldora.
Fans raved about the excursion on dirt for weeks. Yeah, Indy's cool, but did you see that Eldora race?!
Still, it is important for NASCAR’s top series to count Indianapolis as a regular tour stop. As stated earlier — and with apologies to Daytona and Monaco — the Brickyard is the world’s best-known speedway. Not having North America’s most popular motorsports series at a track centered in its heartland is just a poor marketing play by both the track and the series.
But a race once reserved for Hall-of-Fame caliber winners — Gordon, Earnhardt, Stewart, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott, Jimmie Johnson — has seen a new type of victor in recent years. Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman have won three of the last four Brickyard 400s. All deserving in that they played the game better than 42 others on their given day, but the wins lacked luster. They lacked headline-power. They lacked the storylines and larger-than-life personalities that once almost single-handedly carried NASCAR’s day at the “grand old speedway.”
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Yet, despite its often-mundane on-track product, NASCAR needs the Brickyard and the Brickyard needs NASCAR. Though what both need now more than ever is for a rousing, intriguing storyline — a household name along the lines of Danica, Gordon, Earnhardt or Stewart — to not only prosper, but win in the most dramatic way possible. Because no longer does the sparkling pre-race hype, the in-race confection or the simple and notable fact that NASCAR is racing at the Brickyard carry the day.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.