The Brickyard 400 (now presented by no one) is being run this weekend. It’ll happen next year. But will that be the case in 2012 and beyond? And does anybody still care? Once envisioned as part of the pantheon of stock car racing events equal with the Daytona 500, Southern 500 and World 600, the Brickyard has become almost an afterthought, the “highlight” during a stretch of long, boring races that make up what I call the “Summer Slump.”
Do you think otherwise? A good ticket to the first few Brickyard 400s was all but unobtainable despite the massive inventory of butt perches the track offers. This year, sales would have to double overnight to reach merely pathetic status.
As I grow older, I sometimes struggle to recall who my audience is. There was a time my contemporaries and I used to make jokes about the JGE (Jeff Gordon era) fans who knew so little about the history of the sport and the drivers who came before Gordon. Nowadays, I’ve awakened to the fact fans that started following the sport in 1993-94, when Gordon debuted, have been around longer than a lot of you reading this. As older fans give up in disgust and fewer and fewer new fans replace them, I don’t want to talk down to my audience (although my guess is, on average, my readership is older than any other NASCAR writer because we speak the same language), but I need to help newer fans with a historical perspective they might lack. So old-timers, go get yourself a prune juice (and spice it up with a little Captain Morgan). I’ll be back on topic in a couple paragraphs.
The Indy 500 used to a be a very big deal. First run in 1911 (Bill France Sr. was two years old at the time), the event has been held continuously since then with a few times out for various World Wars. Over the years “The 500,” as it came to be known, became the one sports story that dominated the national media every month of May. When the race was televised, the ratings were huge. When it wasn’t on TV, radios on front porches from the Midwest to the Northeast, from the West Coast to the rural Southeast (where stock car racing was becoming an obsession), and even across the pond in Europe were tuned to the live broadcast of The 500. Legends were forged at Indy, and unfortunately, legends also passed away in the fiery foundries of Hell there all too often. Nowadays, a Cup driver who has a bad afternoon shrugs it off saying it’s just a race, not a matter of life and death. But it used to be. Son of a bitch, it used to be. When listening in those days, there were no more chilling words you could hear over your radio than “And there’s trouble off turn 4!” The next day in the paper, you’d see a black and white photo of a destroyed car or a huge fireball and wonder how anyone made it through that mess. It’s not for the faint-hearted (you’ve been warned), but here’s a terrifying look back at the 1964 Indy 500.
Something that made Indy unique among race venues was that it hosted just one race a year. They’d throw the gates open on Gasoline Alley in early May, giving 3-4 weeks for preparations leading up to the Memorial Day classic. But once the milk was drank and the wreath awarded, everybody would pack up their stuff, head on out, and Indy would lay dormant for another 11 months.
Thus, it was a very big deal when track management first proposed they were going to hold a stock car race at Indy. Hardcore open-wheel racing fans, and they were myriad in the day, wrote letters to the editor denouncing the idea, using terms like “blasphemy.” Open-wheel supporters were disdainful of the slower stock cars that were rapidly approaching, eventually overtaking that series’ popularity. They referred to stock cars as “taxicabs,” and the idea of opening the Brickyard to them was worse than the notion of sending your sister to a whorehouse.
For stock car racing, the chance to compete at Indy was an even bigger deal. Legend has it that back in NASCAR’s early years, Bill France Sr. once tried to enter the infield at Indy and was denied access. That’s when he decided to build the modern-day Daytona Speedway, a track faster and meaner than Indy. Earlier still, Harold Brasington had been so impressed by his trip to the 2.5-mile oval he decided to build a superspeedway of his own for NASCAR’s fledgling stock car series. It was a notion that gave birth to Darlington.
Meanwhile, the track’s president Tony George wasn’t being completely altruistic when he invited NASCAR to come and play. He was about to embark on an ultimately disastrous civil war in the open-wheel series with CART. Using the sport’s biggest venue and date as leverage, George hoped to wrest control of the sport away from them through a new series. It was going to be a financial smackdown, and the idea of stuffing his purse with 200,000 tickets sold to stock car enthusiasts was obviously appealing… traditional fans be damned. Where have I heard that tune hummed before?
So yeah, it was a pretty big deal that summer’s day in 1993 when a handful of stock cars took to the track at Indy for a test. The drivers invited were thrilled, then awed, and the test even made national news. It was an even bigger deal when it was announced later that year on August 6th, 1994 the NASCAR stock cars would compete in their first Brickyard 400 at Indy. Tickets sold like cold beer and black t-shirts at a biker’s picnic.
86 cars attempted to make the 43-car field at that first Brickyard 400. Even the Daytona 500 doesn’t draw that many competitors these days. Part of the reason racers were so thrilled to compete at Indy was in that era, the Brickyard 400 offered the biggest purse, bar none, in the sport. Bill France Jr. soon changed that. He couldn’t have the Brickyard pay better than the Daytona 500, so he told Indy to lower their purse so he wouldn’t have to raise his.
One of the biggest surprises of the first Brickyard was the pole winner, Rick Mast, in the No. 1 Skoal car. During the pole winner’s interview, a helpful southern scribe (who knew the answer) asked Mast if it was true that he’d traded his 4-H, show-winning cow for his first racecar. Mast had. The Midwestern journalistic corps, most of them at their first stock car event, weren’t sure they weren’t having their leg pulled to make them look silly. What sort of racecar was worth the price of a cow when a steering wheel for an F1 Ferrari that season was worth 45 large?
Over the years, the Brickyard 400 has produced many memorable, if few exciting finishes. Gordon won the first race in memorable fashion back in 1994. The emerging sophomore became practically a household name because of the big win in what was termed his “home state” (Gordon actually hails from California, but when has the media ever let facts ruin a good story?). How many of you recall Brett Bodine finished second that day? Dale Earnhardt’s win in the second Brickyard 400 was memorable (even if most areas of the country didn’t see it live due to a rain delay) because he chose to term himself “the first man to win the Brickyard 400″ – clearly calling out Mr. Gordon while putting him on notice Earnhardt considered the man a legitimate contender.
Ricky Rudd’s 1997 Brickyard triumph was memorable because he was an owner/driver, and the $571,000 he won that day probably kept his race team alive until Robert Yates tapped Rudd to drive the Texaco car in 2000. Bill Elliott’s 2002 Brickyard win was memorable because it was Elliott’s second straight race victory driving a Dodge, a shocking turnaround for someone who’d won just one event in the previous seven years. Tony Stewart’s first Brickyard 400 win in 2005 stands out because Stewart had been so star-crossed racing the Indy 500 at a track he clearly revered.
But what’s the difference between “memorable” and “exciting?” Plenty. You probably recall that Kurt Busch lost to Ricky Craven by a scant few inches at Darlington in the spring of 2003. That was an exciting race. Many of you remember Earnhardt’s infamous bump-and-run victory at the Bristol night race in 1999, one that left Terry Labonte fuming. That was an exciting race. In contrast, a memorable race is one where you remember who won, not because of how he did it but because of its historical context.
Yeah, there’s been a lot of memorable Brickyard 400s – just not many exciting ones. That’s the nature of the beast, and specifically the equipment the NASCAR knights use to try to slay it. Indy is too flat for stock car racing. You’ve got what amounts to four 90-degree corners, two short chutes and two big straightaways. To be honest, Indy is no longer ideally suited to the open-wheel cars either, considering the track was designed back when 60 mph was really sailing on a race course. But the open-wheel cars have such wide tires and so much downforce, they could probably race on a track composed of greased linoleum. Annually, Goodyear has to try to develop a tire that will allow for a good stock car race at Indy, the engineering equivalent to trying to develop a urethane wheel that would allow elephants to roller skate at high speeds. It’s just not going to happen, and it’s going to make everyone involved look foolish. I’m surprised the 2008 debacle at Indy didn’t end NASCAR’s forays there already.
Some Midwestern writers, perhaps still stinging from having the barbarians being allowed to sack their holy land, are now predicting the demise of the Brickyard. George was given the boot by his family members this year, and the open-wheel series is beginning to show signs of a pulse again, with some IndyCar races once again more exciting than their taxicab counterparts. NASCAR still rules the roost… but does the roost include Indy?
Perhaps those writers are right. The Brickyard was an experiment nobly undertaken, but a failure at last as evidenced by attendance and recent ratings. It’s become a footnote to the season and Indy, the most famous racetrack on earth, is too good for that.
My first job out of college involved a lot of travel. During that period, I was able to hook up one weekend with an old college buddy who had converted to Mormonism and moved to Salt Lake City to work in the church’s PR department. We had a couple nice dinners, I met his future wife, and he took me on a tour of the Great Mormon Temple. I was impressed by the size of the place, its architecture and its history, as well as my friend’s newfound zealotry to his faith. But I didn’t pray in that temple. Why not? That’s simple: I’m a devout Catholic, and as such I don’t pray in other people’s churches.
It’s the same way with Indy. If you’ve never been there, it’s worth taking the trip. It’s awe-inspiring to tour the place, to walk through the museum and to recollect the triumphs and tragedies that have taken place there. But ultimately, Indy belongs to the open-wheel fans, and it will belong to them even if somehow NASCAR races there for the next 100 years. Indy is their sacred ground; Darlington is ours. (And you’ll note the Izod whatever-the-rest-of-the-name-is series isn’t clamoring for a date at Darlington, as if they need to sack our church to legitimize themselves).
So here’s my solution to this mess: dump the Brickyard 400, and move every other summer race back a week to fill the gap. While we’re at it, let’s return to racing 500 miles at Darlington on the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend. Indy was grand, and it’s too bad it didn’t work out; but as our buddy Phil Lesh once wrote, “Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there….”