Growing up in Indianapolis was a big reason for my love of auto racing. I was at the track multiple times every year in the month of May and couldn’t wait to see the race every Memorial Day weekend when my heroes would put on a show that would be talked about for months afterwards.
I always wanted to see other forms of racing come to the track and that desire was satisfied in 1994 when NASCAR came to the Brickyard for the very first time. It was huge news and the entire region, if not the entire country, was abuzz about something besides Indy cars running around the famed racing circuit. This weekend, though, it was hard to fathom what had become of that excitement some 17 years later.
In ’94 when the cars took to the track for the first time in practice there were more than 100,000 people in the stands. Back then there were two rounds of qualifying, so the cars practiced and then qualified on Thursday. The drivers, to a man, were dumbfounded by the amount of interest. People in the NASCAR family, from drivers to owners to officials, observed that there were more people there to watch the first practice than attended races on most of the weekends on the schedule. There was also a lot of interest in racing in the event. There were 85 drivers who tried to qualify for the first Brickyard, which is an unbelievable number considering today’s races usually boast 46 or 47 teams at the most attempting to race.
Once the race rolled around, Indianapolis showed its passion for racing and its love of the Motor Speedway. There were 340,000 people in attendance for the first race. It was unbelievable to see the humanity in attendance. Indianapolis was in its heyday between the 500 and the 400. They had somewhere in the neighborhood of 750,000 people attend two races at the facility. This season there will probably not be than many people in attendance for the top 10 races on the Cup schedule.
Walking out of the media center just 50 minutes before the drop of the green flag was one of the most disappointing racing moments of my life. It ranks right up there with watching the Indianapolis 500 qualifying after the IRL/CART split for a few years. There used to be well over 100,000 people in attendance on pole day for the 500 and, in several of the years following the split, there were pole days when it looked as if there were more ushers than fans in the stands. In multiple sections of the stands at the Speedway this weekend, it was very similar. There were portions of the stands where more seats were empty than occupied.
Fortunately, by the time the green flag waved, there were a lot more people in the seats, but the track was very far from a sellout. In fact, there appeared to be more empty seats in total than occupied ones. There are quite a few theories about why the attendance was so bad, but most of them don’t hold much water.
Weather was just one of those excuses. Friday and Saturday were very warm days in Indianapolis with heat indices reaching into triple digits. However, when Sunday rolled around the high temp was predicted to be in the mid-80s, and there was a nice breeze that kept things very comfortable for most of the fans.
There has also been the ongoing excuse of the economy. There is no question that the downturn in the economy has greatly impacted race fans everywhere and the fans in Indy are definitely not exempt from that. But again, the Speedway offered a general admission ticket for $40 that allowed fans to enter the grounds and sit in any unoccupied seat, which seemed to be a relatively easy task to accomplish on Sunday.
Even during the height of the hatred for Tony George after the IRL/CART split, the 500 remained a well-attended event. I spent quite some time reviewing old video of the races following the split and, contrary to my personal recollection, the stands were very full for all of the races in the years after the split. I’m not sure where my vision of massive expanses of empty grandstands came from, but looking at the videos of those events, there were far more filled seats than empties.
When all is said and done, the problems that are plaguing the sport everywhere seem to have overtaken Indianapolis as well. The community has supported the 500 forever, even through the bad times, but it appears to have turned its back on the 400 in droves. And that has to be a bad omen for the future of NASCAR — and the future of the event in Indianapolis.
The Speedway’s leadership is in a period of change and the new powers shaping the future of the facility seem to be far more concerned with the bottom line than the history and tradition of the track and its events. If NASCAR is not able to turn things around and get the stands back to near full capacity, I worry that the day may come, and likely sooner than later, when the folks at IMS tell NASCAR thanks, but no thanks. It would be a crushing blow to NASCAR as well as a terrible indictment on the sport in general to have the most historic racetrack in the world decide that NASCAR is simply not interesting enough to fill up the stands.
Being a Hoosier and a former resident of Indianapolis, I was very saddened to look out over the front straight at Indy and see thousands of empty seats. There were at least seven corporate suites on the outside of the front straight that were empty the entire weekend. But Indy isn’t the only track struggling to fill the stands. Throughout the weekend we heard commercials from Bristol Motor Speedway about tickets being available for the night race coming up next month. The July race at Daytona has not used the back straight stands the last two seasons and the crowd still has not completely filled the main grandstands.
Las Vegas and New Hampshire have had some great attendance, and Charlotte seemed to be better attended this year than it has in the last couple. But the bottom line is that most of the tracks on the circuit are showing downward trends in attendance. Indianapolis was always an anomaly that was packed no matter what happened at other tracks. Then last year there were quite a few empty seats, and this year was a disaster in terms of attendance.
It is hard to say what can make it better, but NASCAR needs to figure something out quickly or they are headed to a total implosion of the sport. One big thing that will help the sport across the board is a complete overhaul of how the money is distributed. Right now, there is minimal incentive for drivers to go for the win and, while points are certainly a big part of it, money is a big factor as well. Jamie McMurray took home almost $439,000 for the win. Kevin Harvick was just over $352,000 for second while Greg Biffle brought home $300,000 for third. There were 11 drivers who landed over $200,000 this weekend.
If you want to see drivers put it on the line and go for the win, you need to make the incentive much greater for winning. Overhauling the points system to give 100 points more for first than second and giving the winner 80% of the prize money for the event would go a long way, too. The main reason the drivers go so hard during the All-Star Race is that they get a million dollars for winning. Kurt Busch made $800,000 more than Martin Truex Jr., who finished second, in this year’s All-Star Race. That kind of variance will inspire drivers to race for the win much harder than they currently do.
A rebound for NASCAR is going to be a long process, and increasing attendance is going to be a combination of a number of factors that all need to be worked on — and quickly. If NASCAR is willing to step up and make those changes, the fans are likely to respond and come back out to support the series.
Right now, if the people of Indianapolis don’t respond and start filling the seats back up, there will be no one to blame but themselves, assuming Brian France’s promises of big changes include plans that will make winning much more important.
If he doesn’t, then there will be no one to blame but him.
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