The grandstands at Sunday’s Brickyard 400 will generate as much attention as the on track action during NASCAR’s annual visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
That’s because since the Sprint Cup Series first competed at the historic Indianapolis track in 1994, attendance has virtually been cut in half.
As recently as 2005, 280,000 fans showed up for the Brickyard 400 but the numbers have been going downhill ever since. Estimates had about 140,000 on hand for the 2010 edition of the race however there is wide speculation this year’s crowd will be even drastically smaller.
The Charlotte Observer reported last week an internal NASCAR memo citing that “ticket sales are significantly behind from previous years," leaving many to believe an audience of 100,000 for Sunday’s 18th running of the 400 would be a major success.
So what happened to turn what some still consider the second most prestigious race in NASCAR with the second largest purse behind only the Daytona 500 into a must not see event?
The 2008 tire debacle is one of the major culprits, with thousands of fans vowing never to return to watch a stock car race at IMS after the fiasco that saw Goodyear tires literally blowing to pieces after only ten laps of racing.
Certainly the economy is a factor to consider as all tracks including Indianapolis continue to suffer from consumers simply not being able to afford spending entertainment dollars as freely as once before. Couple on the cost of tickets to still soaring fuel prices, inflated hotel rates and other travel expenses and any NASCAR weekend can easily be a thousand dollar or more outing.
I’d toss Kentucky Speedway into the Brickyard woes equation as well. The Sparta, Kentucky facility is about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Indianapolis. Rather than making the trek to Indy, thousands of fans from that area simply will choose to stay closer to home and took in Kentucky’s inaugural Cup race.
Plus the debacle that transpired at Kentucky’s Sprint Cup debut may also play a role in keeping people away from Indy. I’ve heard from a number of fans who say the horrific tales of parking woes and traffic nightmares that ruined the Kentucky race earlier this month have scared them away from attending any NASCAR race on the calendar.
Then there’s the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself and the NASCAR product the track produces. While the Brickyard 400 will always be a spectacle, the racing usually leaves a lot to be desired.
Stock cars were not meant to race at the flat, 2.5-mile track, which was created for the more nimble open wheel machines. More often than not the Brickyard 400 turns into a follow-the-leader game of pit strategy and fuel mileage rather than the kind of side-by-side racing most fans embrace.
That’s not to say the race hasn’t created its share of drama, memorable moments and storylines over the years, but if it’s door handle to door handle competition you’re looking for a trip to watch the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series at nearby Lucas Oil Raceway should be on your itinerary. More on that in a minute.
Finally there are the sightlines at the mammoth facility. Because of its sheer size and flat layout, there’s no way to view the entire track from the grandstands. That’s a turnoff for many who would rather be in the comfort of their living room and enjoy the high definition television presentation with surround sound than sit in the stands to watch only part of the action.
But even with all of those issues, NASCAR belongs at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The prestige of racing at one of if not the most famous race tracks in the world is something that helps elevate the prestige of the Sprint Cup Series. As one of auto racing’s most prominent entities, NASCAR should compete at the hallowed ground of Indianapolis.
It seems both track management and the sanctioning body agree and while recognizing the many challenges, remain committed to the Brickyard 400.
"I think to blame it all on the economy is not appropriate, but the economy is certainly part of it," said IMS president Jeff Belskus. "I don't know if we had become complacent with things, that may be the word, but we have to ramp up our efforts."
Next season’s plan to include a Rolex Grand Am Sports Race race on the schedule in addition of the Nationwide Series event moving from Lucas Oil Raceway to IMS is intended to enhance the value of the weekend for fans. Autograph sessions, reduced ticket prices and other entertainment activities are also part of the strategy to pump up NASCAR’s mid-summer trip to Indianapolis and hopefully bring back some of the luster that has been lost in recent years.
Whether that will be enough to generate interest remains to be seen
The Brickyard 400 remains a premier event on the racing calendar. But it’s in need of a tune-up and one that can’t come a moment too soon.
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