This weekend, NASCAR heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, arguably the most venerated racing venue in America, for a 400-mile race. The event features a high purse and is exciting for the drivers; it’s raced on the same track where the Indianapolis 500 takes place each May. The Indy 500 is the quintessential American race, 100 years strong in tradition and one so many young drivers aspire to win, no matter what form of racing they grow up to participate in.
But please don’t call the Brickyard 400 a racing tradition.
After 20 years, it’s a well-established NASCAR race. But a tradition in the same sense of the word as the Daytona 500 or the Southern 500 when run on its rightful weekend? No. Those races are the kind stock car racing has been built on, along with the twice-yearly trek to Martinsville Speedway and the formidable Coca-Cola 600. And a racing tradition? That’s Daytona and Monaco and Indy in May.
NASCAR at Indy is hardly a blip on that radar.
No, this particular race is no more traditional than any other that’s been on the schedule for 20 years or so. It’s firmly planted on the schedule, which is good for the drivers, but too bad for the fans, who would be treated to a better race somewhere like Iowa or a road course.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Sports, in general, thrive on tradition. Fans like it, and teams use it as a selling point. What fans almost universally despise is their sport selling out its tradition for gimmicks and glamor. For the most part, the major sports have kept their traditions firmly intact. Little has changed in, say, baseball in over a century. There’s been expansion, of course, and a lengthened season, but bigger adjustments have been few and far between. The designated hitter was adopted in the 1970s, then expansion added another round and a wild card to the playoffs in the 1990s. The most recent big change has been the introduction of instant replay in making some calls. And yeah, a lot of fans didn’t like some or all of those changes.
But the game itself is largely unaltered in the last 100 years or so. Fans from a different era would recognize it. In general, the governing body doesn’t just throw something at the game every time a group of fans complains about something. They understand that the game itself is the attraction. They understand that not every game will be won on a walk-off home run or a perfect game by a pitcher. Sometimes, a team is going to have a 12-0 lead after six innings and changing the rules isn’t going to do anything constructive. The league doesn’t force teams to move into new venues — a couple of the ballparks have hosted the game for over a century, and while they might lack modern amenities, just try to suggest pulling down Fenway Park or Wrigley Field in favor of a modern stadium. At the end of the day, it’s about the love of the game and its rich history that keeps fans coming back.
NASCAR isn’t a stick-and-ball sport (though it seems like they’re trying to be, more and more every year), but it does have something in common with them: its foundation is a rich and well-woven tapestry of history and tradition. So why doesn’t the sanctioning body want to recognize that?
Instead, the Daytona office seems bent on throwing much of the sport’s tradition out the window. Yes, they have made some effort to keep history relevant by moving the Southern 500 back to its Labor Day weekend date (though as a night race, which generally produces an inferior product on track). They’re also on dirt, running the Truck Series at Eldora (and it’s time to consider that for the XFINITY crowd as well; it’s been an excellent race, every time out). But those are token gestures as the actual game has changed to the point where many of the early fans and competitors would barely recognize it. The concept is still the same, but the racing has changed drastically, and so have the key players. It’s the trend these days to change as much as possible, throwing something at the wall and hoping it sticks.
But do fans need or even want all of that? In most cases, it seems like they do not. I’m not talking about bringing back the strictly stock specs; too many safety innovations would be lost. But 20 years ago, the cars were required to fit the same templates as the street versions. That would be a step in the right direction. Putting the emphasis on individual races instead of a poorly determined championship would be another one.
Stock car racing should be, at its core, simple: a bunch of drivers trying to go faster than everyone else. When they do that, when the drivers and teams really care about doing that, the racing will improve. Unfortunately, right now there’s too much money tied up in season-long points and not enough in individual races.
Fans need to play a role as well; saying you want traditional races and tracks on the schedule isn’t enough. If people truly want to keep places like Martinsville and Darlington going, they need to make them the best-attended and highest-rated races of the year. If there are more butts in the seats and more people watching the cookie-cutter races, those are the ones they will get.
The best part of any sport is its history and tradition: the people and the places, the things fans did as kids that they’re now showing their kids and grandkids. Has NASCAR lost that? Not yet. But there’s no real enthusiasm in the front offices to truly preserve it, either.