Running on Empty: The Brickyard 400’s Problems

Lackluster races and sagging attendance have dogged the race in recent years. In this exclusive analysis, an outspoken auto-racing authority chronicles the feats and follies that led the Speedway’s NASCAR experiment to this sorry state.

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Editor’s Note, Feb. 11, 2013: Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials and Mark Miles, the new CEO of IMS parent company Hulman & Co., are mulling over multimillion-dollar improvements to the facility, including lights to allow for night races. The upgrade would bring to fruition one of Robin Miller’s predictions in this piece, originally appearing in the July 2012 issue of IM.

The thought alone must have had Tony Hulman rolling in his grave: By the late 1990s, NASCAR’s Winston Cup, a Southern-fried stock-car series, reigned supreme at Indianapolis, Hulman’s world-famous mecca of open-wheel racing. The signs were everywhere. Big crowds, some estimated to be in the tens of thousands, routinely descended on the RCA Dome for Ford’s Fan Appreciation Day just to get a picture, maybe only a glimpse, of their favorite NASCAR drivers; the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was lucky to draw as many for a Pole Day in May. A westside car dealership held its annual autograph-signing with Tony Stewart in 1999, his first year as a Cup driver, and the turnout was more than double what it had been when he raced Indy cars. Come midsummer, when, by rights, the revered Speedway should have been as quiet as a church on Saturday, NASCAR merchandise vendors parked trailer-to-trailer on West 16th Street, campers swarmed the Coke lot on 30th, and ticket-waving scalpers lined up along Georgetown Road.

There was no denying it. NASCAR was riding a surge of popularity across the country. And the Brickyard 400, the NASCAR event inaugurated at IMS on August 6, 1994—a stock-car race—owned the Speedway. Gone were Indy-car greats like Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr., and the Andrettis. The new stars of the Old Moonshine Circuit—Jeff Gordon and the Dales, Jarrett and Earnhardt—now commanded center stage at the most historic racetrack in the world. Instead of the thrilling whine of turbocharged engines, the low rumble of brutish V8 Fords and Chevys most delighted Indianapolis race fans. The Brickyard, as it came to be known, dwarfed the Indy 500 in star power, ticket demand, national media coverage, and, most remarkably, prestige.

Who would have thought?

“I was very much against having stock cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when they first tested there, because I didn’t think anything but the Indy 500 belonged at the Speedway,” admits Stewart, an Indiana-born driver and self-described IMS purist who raced in several Indy 500s. But Stewart’s defection to NASCAR in 1999 was emblematic of the changing guard, and many more of open-
wheel racing’s biggest stars would follow, from Sam Hornish Jr. to Dario Franchitti to, most recently, former IndyCar sensation Danica Patrick. “Of course, as time went on, you realized you have this great facility and are able to bring in other major forms of racing,” says Stewart. “It was a pretty cool idea. And the Brickyard 400 became a huge deal.’’

Well, it was a huge deal.

The steady run of big turnouts over much of NASCAR’s nearly 20-year tenure at the Speedway is now history. Although IMS doesn’t release attendance figures, after several years of declining fan interest, last year’s Brickyard, by most counts, filled only about half of IMS’s approximately 250,000 permanent seats and was widely believed to be the event’s worst-attended race ever.

“They may have a good race over there,” says Lucas Oil Raceway GM Wes Collier. “But I guarantee it won’t be better than it would have been at our racetrack.”

Clearly, the Brickyard is in a slump. IMS and NASCAR officials, loath to put a reliable cash cow out to pasture, have tweaked the program for Cup racing’s return to Indy this month. But considering the dramatically low turnout last year, the tweaks look like just that. On July 27, the Friday before Sunday’s main event, IMS will convert its oval to a road course to host the Grand-Am Rolex series, a sports-car circuit that enjoys modest-at-best fan support at other venues. NASCAR’s local Nationwide Series race, formerly a popular, well-attended Saturday-night attraction at Lucas Oil Raceway in Brownsburg, will move to Saturday afternoon at IMS. And the Speedway has even sold the race’s naming rights to a new sponsor, Crown Royal.

Altogether, the changes are supposed to bring some excitement back to the Brickyard. And not surprisingly, Jeff Belskus, IMS
president and CEO, seems confident that the stock cars aren’t going anywhere. “NASCAR loves coming to Indianapolis,” he says. “It’s one of their favorite destinations on the schedule. And we love having them here. It’s a good event for us.”

Fair enough. But the Brickyard 400 used to be a great event. So what the heck happened?

Tony Hulman, the legendary former IMS owner who revived the Indy 500 in the 1940s, always resisted the idea of holding any other races at his Speedway. “Indy is like the circus,” he would say. “We come to town once a year.” And there was ample opportunity to deviate from the script. Bill France Sr., NASCAR’s founder, and John Cooper, a former NASCAR employee who served as IMS president in the early ’80s, both made advances. But Hulman flat-out rejected the idea of running stock cars on the hallowed ground of open-wheel racing.

Then, in 1989, Tony George, Hulman’s grandson, took the reins, right about the time NASCAR, once considered a mere regional attraction in the South, was gaining national momentum. Major companies and television networks were lining up with sponsorship deals and broadcast contracts. George set in motion a chain of events that would, a few years later, overturn Hulman’s once-sacrosanct “Indy 500–only” policy. His failed attempt in 1991 to buy the Championship Auto Racing Teams series—CART, then the preeminent open-wheel circuit in the United States, which included the 500 on its season schedule—left some bad blood between him and the car owners. In retaliation, George founded the ill-fated Indy Racing League, spurring the infamous “Split” in open-wheel racing.

George’s feud with CART gave NASCAR an opening. The late Dave Cassidy, George’s godfather, who worked at IMS for five decades before his death in 2001, once revealed to this writer that George vowed to show CART who was boss—and he thought running stock cars at the Speedway would do the trick.

While the old-schoolers of Indy deemed the move blasphemy, it would be one of the few good business decisions George ever made. The Indy 500 had always been one of the toughest tickets in sports; the Brickyard quickly sold out its debut and joined the same rarefied club. When transplanted Hoosier Jeff Gordon won the inaugural race, it only added to the allure.

Right on the heels of the Brickyard’s blockbuster launch, open-wheel racing took another turn for the worse. George guaranteed 25 of the 33 starting Indy 500 spots to IRL regulars prior to the ’96 race, and CART countered by staging a competing 500-miler in Michigan on the same Sunday before Memorial Day, meaning the drivers Indy race fans knew and idolized would be miles away when the flag dropped at IMS. Unrecognizable no-names like Slick Racin Gardner, Brad Murphey, Paul Durant, and Fermin Velez were cast in what some were derisively calling the IRL 500. Almost overnight, “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’’ had become more spectacle than race.

How much the landscape had changed became evident by August 1996, during the first Brickyard held after the fracas between CART and IRL. Danny “Chocolate” Myers, a crewman who dumped gas in Dale Earnhardt’s car during pit stops, was besieged by autograph hounds standing outside Gasoline Alley. That year’s Indy 500 champ, Buddy Lazier, on hand for the race, walked past and never got so much as a second look.

By the late ’90s, the Split had reduced the month of May to a long weekend. The Speedway was a ghost town for practice and qualifying, and stock cars traveling 50 miles per hour slower than Indy cars drew better crowds for time trials. Sure, IMS, with its long narrow stretches and flat corners, wasn’t really conducive to the door-to-door style of racing that NASCAR fans love. But it didn’t seem to matter. The Cup was playing to huge crowds at other oval tracks with large seating capacities in Michigan, Texas, Richmond, Las Vegas, and Bristol. In the TV ratings, NASCAR steered into second behind the National Football League and consistently beat baseball and basketball. It appeared the sport was on its way to becoming America’s next pastime. And the Brickyard 400 at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one of its marquee events.

A Sports Illustrated headline from 1997 summed up the turnabout. “What Ever Happened to Indy?” it mused. “Eclipsed by NASCAR and beset by a foolish battle of high-octane egos, the Indianapolis 500 has lost its place as America’s premier auto race.”

“It was amazing,” says Stewart. “Everyone seemed like they were suddenly a stock-car fan.’’

Starting in 2008, however, a national recession tapped the brakes on NASCAR’s speedy rise in popularity, and innovations in the series now known as Sprint Cup—like the “Car of Tomorrow,” a cheaper, safer, one-size-fits-all chassis, and “The Chase for the Cup,” a kind of auto-racing playoff system—drew mixed fan reactions. “Drivers started racing for points instead of wins,’’ says Wayne Estes, vice president of events at Bristol Motor Speedway, a close-to-the-action track in Tennessee that has long been one of NASCAR’s most fanatically attended venues. But that’s not the only reason spectators filled just about half of the course’s 160,000 seats for its Cup race this past April. “We had 55 consecutive sellouts before things began turning,” says Estes. “A lot of our crowd comes from Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, but with gas at four dollars a gallon, they’re simply not coming right now.”

And unlike Bristol, a high-banked, half-mile speed bowl with lots of contact and a great vantage point from any seat, all Indianapolis really has to offer stock-car enthusiasts is tradition and cachet. “The average NASCAR fan likes to buy a seat where he or she can see the whole track,’’ says Mike Peduto, a local longtime ticket broker and owner of Circle City Tickets. “You can buy a Brickyard ticket high up at IMS and only see a little more than half of the track. And compared to an Indy car here, stock cars seem like they’re crawling. Let’s be honest, Indianapolis wasn’t built for stock cars.” Since IMS is relatively flat and narrow compared to most NASCAR tracks, it doesn’t breed fender-rubbing excitement, either.

“We’re not saying we can make the races more exciting,” says IMS president Jeff Belskus. “But we can provide nonstop track action.”

“People like to see racing, as long as it’s good racing, and the Brickyard has never been very good,’’ says A.J. Foyt, the first four-time Indy 500 winner, who also qualified for the inaugural Brickyard in 1994. “All in all, NASCAR doesn’t have good racing anymore. You watch the last 10 laps, and that’s about it.’’

Stewart, who won the Brickyard in 2005 and ’07, concedes that the race is probably more entertaining for the drivers than for paying customers. “It’s a driver’s track, and it’s very demanding, because you’ve got four long corners, and it’s so important to hit your marks,” he explains. “That’s probably tough for the fans to see, but it’s a lot of fun for us.’’ Other than Jeff Gordon’s late-race duel with Ernie Irvan in the first Brickyard, Earnhardt battling Rusty Wallace to the finish in ’95, and Stewart holding off Kevin Harvick in 2007, fans have never seen much in the way of slam-bang finishes or the “green-white-checker” restarts (meant to prevent anticlimactic endings under caution) that NASCAR loves to promote.

As if the lack of NASCAR racing excitement under normal Indy conditions wasn’t bad enough, IMS unluckily played host to one of the worst stock-car races in recent memory. In 2008, Goodyear used the wrong compound in the tires it supplied for the Brickyard, and the cars turned only a handful of laps before the tires’ cords showed dangerously from wear. The 160-lap race turned out to be a glorified pit-stop contest, as the yellow flag waved every 10 laps so drivers could pull in for new wheels.

Big gaps began to show in the grandstands the following year. The fact that the Brickyard 400 hadn’t been blacked out on local television since 2001 (while the Indy 500 always is) gave weary fans one more reason to watch the race at home.

With the changes they’re bringing to this month’s Brickyard lineup, race planners are hoping that last year’s half-full stands will have been the lowest point of NASCAR’s run at Indy. The weekend kicks off on July 27 with the Friday-night Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series race, a three-hour enduro featuring two classes of autos, the versatile “Daytona Prototype” and souped-up production-based sports cars from manufacturers like Porsche and Ferrari. Initial plans had Stewart and Danica Patrick, the only woman ever to lead the Indy 500, competing to raise interest. Nice idea. “It’s going to be a cool weekend,’’ says Stewart. “I thought about it and had a couple of offers, but that is such a busy week for me. So I probably won’t do it.” Patrick hasn’t signed on either. (Although another famous Patrick, Grey’s Anatomy star and Rolex-series driver Patrick Dempsey, is on the bill.)

If the addition of the Grand-Am race is underwhelming, Brickyard Experiment No. 2 seems downright risky. For 30 years, even before the Brickyard 400 came along, Indianapolis Raceway Park (now Lucas Oil Raceway) in Brownsburg has hosted NASCAR’s Nationwide feeder series in front of packed houses, making the Kroger 200, as it was known, one of the most successful short-track runs in all of stock-car racing. In fact, the Raceway had a three-night winner: a USAC Silver Crown race on Thursday, NASCAR’s truck series on Friday, and the Nationwide show on Saturday.

“It was something the fans loved,” says Raceway GM Wes Collier. “Short-track racing under the lights, in a small, intimate venue.” But when word came down from NASCAR that the Nationwide race would move to IMS, officials at the Raceway, which had only an annual contract, didn’t have the leverage to do anything about it. Considering how ho-hum most Cup races have been at IMS, by stealing the Raceway’s Saturday-night thunder, Brickyard planners not only risk spoiling the Nationwide race (in which Danica Patrick does plan to drive), but are doing it at the expense of another series-venue combo that was doing just fine.

Collier manages to be diplomatic when he talks about the change. But just barely. “Obviously the Indianapolis Motor Speedway does a lot for this city, and for the state, and for racing in general,” he says, “and they may have a good race over there this year. But I guarantee it won’t be better than it would have been at our racetrack.”

Improving the product doesn’t seem to be the goal at IMS, anyway. “We do all kinds of fan surveys, and what we hear most is that [the Brickyard] is boring and there’s a lack of track activity,’’ says Belskus. “Well, we’re not saying we can make the races more exciting, but we can provide nonstop track action and bring in a lot of things for our paying customers. [Adding] the Grand-Am race here is one of the biggest things in NASCAR in a few years, and the Nationwide race along with Cup qualifying will give Saturday value and content.’’

In other words, IMS isn’t giving you better racing at the Brickyard. Just more.

As an incentive to check out the new offerings, the Speedway is offering a “Super Ticket” for $80, good for four days of general admission, and will charge just $10 for Nationwide practice on Thursday and $30 for Friday’s Grand-Am race. Top price for the highest seats at IMS, in any of the four Vista decks, will be reduced from $150 to $50 for the Nationwide race.

Not everyone is sold. “I don’t think it’s going to help,” says Foyt. “I just don’t see people going to Indianapolis to watch sports cars or another stock-car race.”

He’s probably right. At press time, at least, the more-than-fair ticket prices for Super Weekend, as it’s billed, had yet to capture the public’s attention: Not a single grandstand, in any of the Brickyard’s weekend races, was sold out. “The Brickyard is so far down on our end, it’s like the Indy 500 was after the Split, IU basketball three years ago, or the Pacers were after the brawl,” says Peduto, the ticket broker. “We hardly buy any tickets in advance because there are only a handful of areas we can buy or sell for a premium price. Our action on the Brickyard is about like a good concert—we can’t turn that many seats because there are so many seats available. The Brickyard was good for several years, but it’s nothing anymore.”

The revisions debuting this month may or may not boost excitement enough to affect the demand. Regardless, they still won’t fix one of the Brickyard’s fundamental problems: slow, straight-line racing. The only upside? By adding two even-slower contests to the lineup, the Cup race will look faster by comparison.

Ironically, the size of IMS, which means big bucks when the seats are full, also magnifies the perception of failure when fan interest is down. If the Speedway gets bodies in only half of its 250,000-or-so permanent seats, it looks empty, even though 125K is still a hardy attendance figure by almost any measure. “We find ourselves in an odd position in that if we’re half-full or even a little less, it’s still one of NASCAR’s best-attended events,’’ says Belskus. NASCAR’s lucrative television contract, a cut of which lands in IMS coffers for hosting the Brickyard, does help ease the pain at the box office—regardless of how bad the empty seats look on TV. And the Brickyard’s fat purse—$9 million–plus in 2011—is traditionally second only to the Daytona 500 among NASCAR races, ensuring that, at least for the time being, interest will remain high in some quarters. “It is still a big, big deal for the drivers,’’ says Stewart, the defending Sprint Cup champion. “Winning Daytona is still No. 1, as it should be. But the Brickyard is second, and the teams still put a big emphasis on it.’’

Even so, with the Indy 500 making a nice comeback in recent years, and the Brickyard just half as big as it was a decade ago, it’s worth questioning whether fans in Indianapolis and the region have the fortitude to fill the biggest spectator arena in sports twice every year, especially when doing it the second time means braving Indiana’s sweltering summer without shade. (Which is why the latest speculation holds that if this summer’s lineup-tinkering doesn’t work, IMS officials might install lights and make the Brickyard a night race.) Or maybe the Brickyard has just settled into its natural place—not the star of Indy, but a nice encore to the May festivities and one of several highlights on the Sprint Cup schedule.

“Nobody likes to see empty seats,’’ says Belskus. “But I have trouble envisioning a scenario that doesn’t work for [NASCAR] or us.’’

But short of a miraculous turn of events, it isn’t easy to envision a scenario in which the Brickyard reclaims its former glory, either.  

 

Opening spread photo by Harold Lee Miller, with model Andy Card from Helen Wells Agency;
photos courtesy IMS (2011 photo by Jim Haines).

This article appeared on the July 2012 issue.

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