The year was 1994; I was only 13, but the whirlwind of the Brickyard 400 remains as vivid in my mind as if it happened yesterday. From the moment the cars first hit the track for practice, drama was in the air for fans and drivers alike, with everyone putting their best effort into becoming the first name on Indianapolis’s newest racing trophy. An eye-popping 86 cars made official qualifying attempts through two rounds, transforming even the drama of making the field into national news; for, unlike now, NASCAR’s qualifying rules of old gave just a handful of teams guaranteed entry into the race through their small but effective provisional system.
That put all drivers on an even playing field, opening the door for open-wheel legends like AJ Foyt and Danny Sullivan to crack the starting lineup and hope to translate their skill behind a stock car on racing’s biggest stage. It was knockout qualifying at its best, nail-biting stuff that left a handful of the series’ full-time drivers sitting on the sidelines alongside Indy stars like Gary Bettenhausen who were unable to get up to speed quickly enough to make the field.
As Saturday approached, the anticipation became overwhelming as the enormity of the moment became clear. With the drop of the green, as run-of-the-mill driver turned surprise polesitter Rick Mast led the field into turn 1, NASCAR threw away its regional roots and officially became a national powerhouse. While not a side-by-side thrill ride throughout all 400 miles (the racing at Indy was plagued by aerodynamic issues even back then), the moments that stand out for me are still compelling even now:
- Geoff Bodine taking the lead only to be spun out by his brother, Brett Bodine, the height of a family feud that wound up playing out on in an emotional interview on national television.
- The final 40 laps turning into a Who’s Who of NASCAR legends, with young Jeff Gordon and Ernie Irvan pursued by Dale Earnhardt Sr., Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott and Darrell Waltrip – four men with 12 Cup titles between them.
- An epic battle between Gordon and Irvan in the closing stages, with Irvan’s blown tire giving way with less than five laps left to hand the win to the hometown boy from Indiana. A changing of the guard was close at hand, witnessed in front of hundreds of thousands of cheering fans who refused to leave until long after the checkered flag fell.
Fast forward to 2008. Now 27, I’m in my third year of walking down Gasoline Alley and nothing – repeat, nothing – compares. The aura surrounding the race for those involved is still every bit the same as it was 15 years ago, the understanding you’re a part of something larger than your typical Sunday show at any other race. Yet when the green flag drops, it all deflates as quickly as the Goodyear tires when all 43 cars get up to speed. Technical terms get thrown fans’ way just as quickly as they’re changing the TV channel, with faulty rubber leading to a litany of competition cautions and statements from Goodyear that ring hollow. Excuses without a solution, they leave little consolation for drivers forced to race at 75-80% of full speed in 10-lap intervals that reduced the 2.5-mile oval to little more than a series of single-file heat races. In the end, Jimmie Johnson took home the trophy, but as I watched him kiss the bricks from afar thousands were busy kissing stock car racing goodbye for good. Leaving the speedway, all anyone hitting the exits really cared about was screaming their displeasure and getting their thoughts in order for a nasty letter to the track requesting a refund for that farce.
What a contrast in momentum, a low point in a 12-month period that has come packaged with some of the sport’s darkest hours. Ever since, NASCAR’s majors have suffered from a troubling lack of drama, with the Daytona 500 packaged with just nine lead changes before the final result came courtesy of a downpour instead of a duel. Ditto with the Coca-Cola 600 just three months later, where fuel strategy and Mother Nature’s smile pulled an unlikely winner with a damaged car from a certain 15th place finish – or worse – to a victory lane where no one was watching.
In the aftermath of Tom Watson’s stirring near-victory at the British Open, a golfing major in which those who never even picked up a golf ball in their life were suddenly paying attention, that lack of interest worries me heading into the sport’s second-biggest race of the year. Despite Goodyear’s tire testing to make up for their debacle, the uncertainty is leaving most hoping that Indy is a race where all 43 cars can simply survive, negativity staying out of the headlines while teams continue focusing on their new “dramatic mission” of the season: a 10-race Chase for the Championship this fall. Instead of 86 cars attempting to qualify, we’re lucky if 50 will make the trip, with not just a struggling economy but 35 guaranteed spots for full-timers making it ludicrous for anyone to come here with a startup team on a one-race deal.
Ladies and gentlemen, the drama we once had surrounding the sport’s biggest races has been taken from us. But not one to take defeat sitting down, I refuse to sit idly by and watch it happen without at least offering suggestions for change, offering hope in an era where pessimism has taken center stage. So, I present to you the following list to help bring back the 400-miler we saw in ’94 – not the one that’s been slowly but surely watered down to the level we experienced in 2008:
Bring Back A Newer, Better Version of the “Winston Million.” For those new to the sport, those two words are part of what brought the sport newfound fame and fortune in the mid-1980s. The brainchild of the former series title sponsor, the “Winston Million” program offered a $1 million bonus to any driver who could win three of the sport’s four “crown jewel” races: the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 at Talladega (spring), the Coca-Cola 600 (Charlotte) and the Southern 500 (Darlington) on Labor Day weekend. Suddenly, the races all fans knew carried an extra level of importance were legitimized as such by the men who made it all possible.
As you might expect, that was a lot of money in those days, and it left several teams gunning to take home the prize. It didn’t take long; the first year of the program, a quiet redhead from Georgia named Elliott happened to win two of those first three “jewels,” setting up a Darlington weekend in which the national media attention was unprecedented for the sport outside the Daytona 500. Making the national cover of Sports Illustrated, Elliott held off Cale Yarborough in the closing laps to take the Southern 500, a $1 million bonus, and imprint himself as the sport’s next big superstar – while casual eyes became longtime fans in the process.
For years, others would try and fall just short, the drama making front-page headlines through summer and fall even though the bonus was never collected. Then, in what was ironically the last year of the program in 1997, Gordon joined Elliott in the Million Dollar Club after a thrilling shootout with Jeff Burton that makes you wonder if we’d even see these days in a world where points are at the premium they are now.
Since then, the sport has never had a program as headline-grabbing as that. So, why doesn’t Sprint bring it back? How about making a snazzy name like the Sprint Super Slam, giving $5 million to a driver who could win three of the sport’s four “majors”: The Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 (now held on Mother’s Day Weekend) and now, replacing Talladega, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. While they’re at it, let’s not be stingy with their wallet, either; how about $1 million for winning two of those four, guaranteeing up to three drivers hope of a solid payday heading to Indy. Along with the millions the program would likely generate in national exposure, the pursuit would certainly add some extra drama during the regular season, assuring some drivers would have more than points on their mind on a day where the goal should be to win – not to finish.
In looking at the list above, you might notice an interesting trend: none of those four events fall inside the Chase. So, why don’t we do a little program to go along with the playoffs, too? How about if the first driver to win two races within the 10-race playoff gets a million-dollar bonus as well? That goal gives teams, sponsors, and drivers who fell short of the championship a consolation prize to keep their interest, as well as keeping incentive alive for those Chase-eligible drivers who quickly fall out of the title hunt.
Yes, it’s true everyone is making more now than they did in 1985. But even in this day and age, money talks – especially when it comes to adding intrigue in a world where fans are all too quickly apt to go ADD on you.
Remove the Top-35 rule for the sport’s four biggest races. Remember when the open-wheel faithful got so up in arms over Tony George’s rule guaranteeing starting spots to 25 Indy 500 qualifiers, he was eventually forced to rescind it? In the meantime, NASCAR’s had a similar type of “locked-in” rule in place for the sport’s biggest events, yet refused to bow to the critics despite mounting opposition against it. In reality, how dramatic and fair is qualifying when the bulk of the starting field is already decided going in? Nowhere is this illustrated more than at Indy and Dayton’s 150-mile qualifying races, now reduced to little more than exhibitions while a handful of cars at the back of the pack battle against near-impossible odds to crack what’s left of the starting lineup.
With that in mind, let’s roll back the Top-35 rule and go back to an older, better provisional system for these “crown jewel” events. The rule that worked best – in place during the mid-1990s – is a system where the top 38 in speed make the field, leaving four provisionals (based on owner’s points) and an extra spot for a past Cup champion. That assured those on top of the points standings would have a place in the race, while allowing others to bring a little extra effort to a track where they should already be giving 110%. Yes, that change leaves a risk stars having a season like Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s would be booted out of the starting lineup; but those chances are minute compared to the opportunities it would offer some of the part-time teams (and those looking to dip their feet into the sport) to crack the field with equal practice time, pursuing their dream of racing immortality alongside those who may have already gotten there.
Change the point system for this race… slightly. As we’ve said, with the advent of the Chase it’s points, points, points taking center stage during a weekend where kissing the bricks should be priority one. The problem is, it’s hard to change a season-long system based on both tradition and consistency and make four races “make or break” as opposed to the other 22.
But at the same time, you can’t deny these races do carry a higher degree of tradition and importance within the NASCAR world. There’s a reason we’re not like any other major sport; the even weight of games in stick-and-ball sports is balanced with the importance of these “major” events we immortalize just like golf, tennis and others. But with every race given equal weight as of now according to playoff criteria, establishing a different system to make the Chase seems too complicated without a complete overhaul. So, here’s a fair and balanced way to add incentives for those too worried about the championship to try moving from third to first at the finish of these special races:
More bonus points once we get to the Chase itself.
It’s the perfect compromise: tinkering with a system that’s already messed with tradition enough we can’t change it back without getting rid of it altogether. But since that’s not an option going forward, why not keep fixing the program with just a few more tweaks? Now, instead of a 10-point bonus for winning one of the “crown jewel” races, why don’t we give 50 points instead? But let’s not stop there, either; how about 40 for second, 30 for third, 20 for fourth and 10 for fifth?
That simple incentive, easy enough for fans to understand, will suddenly push those drivers away from playing it safe. Suddenly, a sixth-place finish isn’t good enough for a potential Chaser when they can gobble up bonus points that’ll separate them from the pack if they make it in September. And for those who are already in the field, every position carries added weight as they look towards getting a leg up in the postseason in any way possible.
Alright, there you have it: three small but critical ways in which we can get our “crown jewels” leaning back towards the drama that once accompanied their spot on the schedule. We may not be able to fix the cars quite yet (although changes may be coming), and as for the tires, well… all you can do is hope Goodyear did their homework. But at the very least, a little bit of outside promotion and excitement built around these races would do much to restore the spectacle that once was racing at Daytona, at Charlotte at Indianapolis.
Because right now, they’re all too dangerously close to losing their luster.
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Don’t forget to listen to Race Talk Radio on Mondays, where Tom joins up with hosts Dennis Michelsen and Lori Munro for a segment as their “NASCAR Insider” on Doin’ Donuts! Click here to visit the website and listen to the show LIVE! Tom usually does his bit around 10:00 p.m. ET.