1) Some say the luster for Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been lost in recent years. Where would you rank the race in terms of prestige within NASCAR? Is it still a crown jewel event?
Phil Allaway, Editor: It’s an important race to NASCAR but nowhere near the most competitive (if anything, it might be in the bottom five for competitiveness). The attendance drop has been drastic and likely the result of Indy repaving the track every seven to nine years regardless of whether it needs it – along with the diamond grinding that led to the travesty in 2008. They never recovered, especially when no wrongdoing was admitted after that race. They do need to get more butt cheeks in the seats at Indianapolis to regain their rightful status. Having the Xfinity Series there doesn’t help at all.
Aaron Bearden, Editor: It depends on who you ask. Fans are visibly torn between those that think of the Brickyard as one of the biggest races and those that think of it as a joke. Drivers and teams, on the other hand, still consider the race to be a crown jewel event. The purse is high, the track is prestigious, and a win at Indianapolis can change a driver’s life. Let’s just hope the racing product matches the prestige this season.
Amy Henderson, Editor: Indianapolis is still a “crown jewel” event, if you want to call it that, because of the purse it pays to race teams. As an actual race, it has rarely, if ever, lived up to the hype. The track simply isn’t a good one for racing stock cars, and the races are generally among the worst of the season. Just because it’s a historic IndyCar track doesn’t make it a good NASCAR track. Imagine the disaster if the tables were turned and IndyCar decided to run Daytona because it’s iconic. Yeah, it’s pretty much like that, but not so much scary as just a flop.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Indianapolis is still a crown jewel event on the Cup schedule but more for the legendary prestige of the track and not so much for the quality of competition. Passing has been limited, parade-style racing the norm, and events there border on the tedious. Sure, winning the Brickyard 400 means kissing the bricks and getting your photo taken on a historic piece of speedway. But the race’s allure has faded in the glare of more revered events like the Daytona 500.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: Racing stock cars at Indy has always been a matter of praying in somebody else’s church. Yeah, there was some cultural significance in the first one, as the track that was only open in May for the open-wheelers was adding a second event thanks to Tony George’s financial mismanagement and desperate need for funds. Then there’s the story (probably apocryphal) claiming Bill France showed up at Indy one year only to be turned away as some country bumpkin who organized taxi cab racing at state fairs. Yes, NASCAR got to run its flag up the mast and declare itself the leader in United States auto racing. But Indy is uniquely unsuited to the bigger, lower-power, less-tire stock cars, and I’ve never thought much of the race. Frankly, Pocono is a more interesting track with three different corners.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: It is still a crown jewel event, for sure; after all, what has displaced it? The Daytona 500 will always be the marquee event for our series, along with the Southern 500 at Darlington, which is returning to its rightful place on Labor Day weekend this year, and the Coca-Cola 600 as the longest race on the schedule. The big issue with Indy is that the last big turnout that was had there was in 2007. Blame the Car of Tomorrow or the IED tire fiasco of 2008, coupled with ticket prices that border on the absurd; $159 for a ticket? To quote comedian Gary Gulman, “In this economy?!” It’s a tough pill to swallow to shell out over $100 for a ticket, especially when you can see only one turn and 330,000 empty seats. As the cars streak down the front straight, you see about as much empty grandstand as you do asphalt. To be fair, the issue isn’t only NASCAR. Indy 500 crowds aren’t nearly what they once were, and while 15 or 20 years ago the Month of May festivities at the Brickyard were followed with all of the awe and reverence of Lent, it isn’t that way anymore. In today’s racing landscape, you stumble upon 500 qualifying by accident. Hopefully, NASCAR’s new aero package will help regain some lost luster this weekend. Sadly, without a tire change, we might be in for more of the same strung out orbiting at Indianapolis.
2) Sunday will mark the third rule package in three weeks for NASCAR teams, but the sanctioning body has yet to provide funding to help them make those changes. Is that the right call or should some sort of revenue be given to the Race Team Alliance to help compensate for in-season rule changes? How much?
Allaway: This idea came out of nowhere. The idea of NASCAR actually opening its purse strings for darn near anything along these lines seems incredibly unlikely to me. It’s not like NASCAR hasn’t used different packages at different tracks before. If NASCAR actually compensated the RTA for the recent rule changes, it would probably require a paradigm shift in how NASCAR operates monetarily. We’re talking quite a bit more than throwing in tow money for teams that fail to qualify for races. In other words, don’t bet on it.
Bearden: If NASCAR is willing to throw around changes that teams weren’t prepared for entering the season, then it should also be willing to help teams afford the equipment necessary for those changes. As for how much, I think it depends on how expensive the equipment is. Ultimately, over the long-term NASCAR just needs to help the smaller teams and prospective owners both enter and stay in the sport.
Henderson: I do think NASCAR should be helping some teams with the changes they need to make. The big guns can make the transition on their own fairly seamlessly, but the small ones don’t always have the resources to make changes so easily. I do think those organizations should be given some of the parts and pieces to make the changes. I’m not optimistic about this package; high downforce rarely makes the racing better and generally makes aero dependence worse. Do the math, add in that the race is at Indy, and I don’t have very high hopes for the event. Hopefully, NASCAR will prove me wrong.
Howell: I feel for the smaller Cup teams that are expected to make change after change every week on a limited budget. The RTA should receive some money that can be doled out to teams in order to maintain NASCAR’s noble experiment. Maybe go by a reverse proportion based on team budget amounts? The bigger the team’s budget, the less its piece of the development pie.
McLaughlin: Here’s the deal: A better rules package leads to better racing, which leads to better TV ratings. That leads to more tickets sold, which benefits the team owners because it makes it easier for them to attract and keep a high-dollar sponsor – the team’s lifeblood. Sometimes you’ve got to spend a few dimes to make a few dollars. As for the concept of NASCAR throwing in a few bucks to help out the smaller teams, I’m so confused. Wavy Gravy told me that all the bad brown acid got tossed away after Woodstock. You know what it costs the France family to keep the entire Daytona Beach police department paid off annually?
Pugliese: It seems odd that the teams are being asked to foot the bill to correct issues that the sanctioning body has inflicted upon them, what with its obsession around all of the cars looking the same and festooning them with goofy-looking aero add-on bits. I guess it’s not much different than the mid-to-late ’90s, when there would be a trimming of a spoiler or lowering of an air dam here and there to help keep one manufacturer from getting too far ahead. The biggest issue is still the tires. Until a softer compound that doesn’t chunk apart or burn up too quickly is introduced, plenty of these adjustments may be for naught.
3) NASCAR said it’ll look more closely at water bottles being thrown on the track, causing unnecessary debris cautions. But should they be causing a caution in the first place? What’s your standard of what should cause a debris caution and why?
Allaway: In order to cause a debris caution, a piece must either be on the actual racing surface (or immediate paved apron, meaning within six-or-so feet of the surface where someone would be running if they had an issue), or huge enough that its mere presence causes danger to competitors or spectators. Chris Fontaine‘s exhaust pipe Wednesday night was a complete no-doubter. As for plastic water bottles, I don’t think they’re a threat to cut tires. If anything, they’re a threat to be launched into the stands if hit. That means that it’s probably enough for a yellow, but really annoying at the same time to nearly everyone involved because of the likelihood of someone throwing it there to draw one. Rollbar padding is simply not enough.
Bearden: Man, this situation is tough. I would rather not see debris cautions fly for a water bottle that won’t hurt anybody. That said, if NASCAR is going to throw cautions for them, proper procedures need to be established to identify the culprit for the caution and penalize them for changing the outcome of the race.
Henderson: NASCAR has spotters stationed around the track looking for debris, but they don’t have the benefit of the cameras with zoom lenses and different angles that television has. One of the water bottles was more obvious than the other, and NASCAR made the right call based on a good-sized chunk of something on the track. The standard should be fairly simple: if there is an something on-track that cannot be immediately identified, the caution needs to come out. Cutting a tire at speed is dangerous and not a chance NASCAR should ever be taking with its drivers — they shouldn’t be risking that an object is harmless if they don’t know what “it” is. Props to NBC, though, for finding and showing the debris during those cautions, even if it turned out to be something silly.
Howell: My take on the issue is this: if the debris poses a legitimate threat to the cars and/or drivers, throw the yellow. A piece of brake caliper? Go yellow. A water bottle or spring rubber? Stay green. Water bottles tend to be cylindrical in shape and capable of rolling toward the infield. Right now, that kind of debris caution is little more than a handy excuse for NASCAR to reset the field.
McLaughlin: The problem with drink bottles is it’s tough to tell if they’re full or empty. An empty one doesn’t pose much danger but one that’s near full could hurt fans if it got punted into the grandstands or perhaps even take out the windshield of a racecar. That’s-a no good. So how about NASCAR rents one of those bomb squad robots and sends it out to pick up discarded trash while the race stays green? I mean, Juan Pablo Montoya isn’t driving NASCAR anymore, right? Given that NASCAR has thrown cautions for hot dog wrappers, my guess is they just pick out a convenient piece of trash when they feel a caution is needed to spice up a race.
Pugliese: I will believe it when I see it. If the viewer at home can clearly see a green Gatorade bottle with an orange top on it is, in fact, a bottle of water and not something off the No. 10 car carrying the same color combo, how can NASCAR not? I remember a few years ago they took Robby Gordon to task for stripping his roll cage of padding mid-race and chucking it out the window to bring out a yellow. Besides, sometimes when you’re done drinking, you just toss a bottle out the window. I remember back in the ’90s, the inside of the backstretch at Darlington would look like a landfill with empty cups, bottles, starters, you name it. With all of the in-car cameras, radio transmissions, and HD cameras lining the speedway, they can see who is tossing what out of the window at anytime during or after the race. Besides, sometimes things get a little strung out with 15 to go, and there’s something rolling around the apron in turn 1….
4) What driver or team impressed you the most at Eldora last night? Do you still feel the race has the same buzz around it than when it was first introduced on the NASCAR schedule a few years ago?
Allaway: The easy answer would be Bobby Pierce. Finishing second with a clear chance to win on debut for what is normally a lower-midfield team at best in MB Motorsports is incredible. However, it’s more along the lines of Sergio Pena‘s debut in the Toyota All-Star Showdown at then-Toyota Speedway at Irwindale. Starting up front typically helps your case. As a result, I’m going with Daniel Hemric, a guy whose dirt experience begins and ends with Wednesday. Despite his lack of experience, he raced up the order and finished a strong fifth.
The race still has buzz. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the series’ signature event (from an exposure standpoint; money-wise, it’s one of the lowest-paying races in the series). Yeah, it’s not selling out six months ahead of the race anymore, but it is very popular.
Bearden: Pierce impressed me the most. I knew Christopher Bell would be fast going into Wednesday’s race, even picking him as my favorite to win. Bell is a veteran on dirt despite his young age, nearly winning the Chili Bowl Nationals earlier this year. Pierce, on the other hand, was a relative unknown. The 18-year-old has a fair bit of experience running late models, but the events haven’t necessarily been against the same level of competition as World of Outlaws. For him to come in with inferior equipment and make drivers like Austin and Ty Dillon look like chumps was impressive.
Henderson: I was incredibly impressed with Pierce. He essentially had no spoiler for the last several laps and was still making moves to try and win. You have to wonder what he could have done if the rear end of his truck had the air in the right place. Pierce was just super impressive all race long.
Howell: Without a doubt, the top two finishers were wildly impressive. We know Bell is the real deal, but seeing Pierce finish second as an 18-year-old in his first ever NCWTS event – that was nothing short of incredible. Toss in some bent sheetmetal, add even more bent emotions from seasoned veterans and Eldora was a rousing success. I think this event just gets better and better each year. The fans love it, as do most of the drivers, and it’s a “must see” during the summer grind. Now, if only we could get cars back on the dirt. ARCA could do it; why not NASCAR?
McLaughlin: Bell and Pierce put on a whale of a show – particularly Pierce still up there gunning for a win with the bed-lid of his truck knocked all catywampus. Overall, the racing was fun to watch and exciting, a much-needed diversion during summer vacation season and a decided midweek treat. The “inaugural” anything is always going to cause a hullabaloo but the Mud Summer Classic has earned its stripes. If it’s not always the best race of the year, it’s still the most unique. As NASCAR degenerates into a weekly parade of cookie-cutter mile-and-a-half McTracks caught in the grips of manufactured Chase hysteria, it’s nice to have at least one event to look forward to during the summer season. Like the t-shirt reads, “Dirt is For Racing… Asphalt is for getting there.”
Pugliese: Bell and Pierce, of course, were the most impressive. It highlighted the disparity between those who race on dirt for a living and those who do it as a novelty. It reminded me of the ’90s, when road-course specialists would strap in what was usually a backmarker car and suddenly were a top-10 threat. The race is still a great feature for the middle of summer, and it works at Eldora. Do we need to add Cup cars? Absolutely not. It works because they’re pickup trucks, and most of those doing it aren’t that great at it, as evidenced by the margin of victory for first and second over the rest of the field. It might help to run the Xfinity cars here. At 10,000-plus in attendance, it’d probably eclipse the crowds they draw at most of the intermediate tracks. And before we go crowning these two as the future of the sport, let’s pump the brakes a bit. A race on dirt is one thing; running 500 miles at Darlington is quite another. Pierce was breathing a little hard during his interview, despite having multiple breaks courtesy of the No. 08 Trump truck, and Bell lost it and wadded it up at Kentucky last week all by himself. Let’s get these guys a few more races under their belts and a little experience on asphalt at speeds above 90 mph in the corners before we start expecting them to carry the series over the next decade.