This coming weekend will be the 16th running of the Brickyard 400, although some would say it is the 15th because last year was not a running. However, this year is going to be different because there has been a change in the leadership at IMS. Tony George, the man who brought NASCAR to the world’s most famous racetrack, has resigned as the CEO, while his right-hand man, Joey Chitwood, has also moved on to another opportunity. Whether that is a good or bad thing, we’ll all have to wait and see.
Going back to the track this weekend is going to be a homecoming that has been 13 years in the making. The last time I attended a race at the Brickyard was 1996, the year that George started the IRL. At the time I hated him for taking the sport that I grew up following and admiring and neutering it. The IRL was supposed to be a league to showcase American drivers on ovals, and while the concept was good the implementation was a struggle to say the least. As noble as the thought of bringing up American drivers to run on the traditional oval circuits sounded, it simply didn’t work out. No matter what the form of racing, it takes sponsorship to make the cars go ‘round, and foreign drivers were bringing the dollars to the party. Eventually, the series became mostly a foreign driver-based affair.
Fast forwarding to 2009, the open-wheel series are back together and the 500-mile race that is held at the track in May is once again becoming important, though it isn’t back on top. The NASCAR race has supplanted the 500 as the biggest event at the track in the last 10 years. While some fans complain that the racing is follow the leader and far from inspiring, it still draws a large audience and has the biggest crowd in attendance of any race on the schedule. The history and tradition that is held within the walls of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will overwhelm fans when they walk through the gate. That aura is unequalled anywhere in the racing world and that alone sets this race apart from all of the others.
Having grown up in Indianapolis, I lived for the month of May. I would go to the track whenever possible during the month just to get a glimpse of the drivers of the day. Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when I was falling in love with auto racing, the drivers that ran at the track were world famous. People who weren’t racing fans even knew the names of the competitors that were wheeling the race cars around the racetrack. Not only were the open wheel stars well known, but drivers from Formula 1 and NASCAR would make the trip to the Speedway to try and qualify for the race. Most anyone who was anyone in racing at some point in their career took a shot at making the 500, and over the years there was every type of car manufacturer represented at the track. That fertile foundation is where I put down my roots as a race fan and fell in love with seeing cars go around in circles very fast.
The amazing thing about going back this year is I get to do it as a journalist. I am going to be in the media center, garages and on the pit lane at the greatest racetrack in the world. I’m going to be on the other side of the fence from where I used to stand and hand my autograph book to my heroes. I’m going to walk through the garages where my favorite driver of all time, AJ Foyt, walked en route to four victories in the 500. I’m going to walk under that sign that says Gasoline Alley, and I’m going to stop and look up and remember all of the years that I sat in those stands and cheered my brains out for the racers who thrilled me for all of those formative years. I’ve done a lot of cool things in the last three-and-a-half years of writing for Frontstretch, but this weekend is going to be the coolest of them all.
The only thing that could make it any better would be to actually get to walk through the garage with AJ and hear one or two of his stories.