For the legendary oval in Speedway, Indiana, 2016 has felt somewhat like the final chapter of a lengthy novel.
The chapter began in May, when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted the much-anticipated 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500, a milestone that brought out upwards of 350,000 fans to the famed Brickyard and harkened to the days of old.
The day was special, with American rookie Alexander Rossi riding fumes to an improbable victory in front of the first sellout crowd in Indianapolis 500 Mile Race history. However, the feeling leaving the event was one of uncertainty, as everyone pondered what would come next for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
In many ways, that same uncertain feeling came rushing back following Sunday’s Crown Royal Presents the Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at the Brickyard.
The sensation of uneasiness started early in the day, as attendance for the once beloved race again appeared to take another downward turn. Running in unusually high temperatures and humidity – even for a Midwest summer day – Sunday’s race at the Brickyard was a difficult sell for the thousands of fans that used to flock to the 400-mile event.
The crowd was estimated to number somewhere around 50-55,ooo people by the SportsBusiness Journal, a record low if it proves true.
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) July 24, 2016
The tweet reads: “Attendance for today’s #Brickyard400 is in the 50-55K range, sources with knowledge of the tally tell @sbjsbd.”
Adding to the sense of finality were the swan songs of Hoosier drivers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
Having combined to win seven of the 23 races at IMS in their careers, Gordon and Stewart have elicited the largest cheers from anyone save for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., for many years at their home track.
Gordon was thought to have been done with his time at the Brickyard following a crash early in the 2015 edition of the race, but the four-time Sprint Cup Series champion returned for a final Indianapolis start in place of Earnhardt, who continues to sit out with concussion-like symptoms.
In many ways, the two Hoosier heroes failed to live up to the hype in struggling to finishes of 11th and 13th, but the cacophony that erupted from the crowd when the two drivers elected to run a parade lap side-by-side after the checkered flag reminded everyone that they – not dominant winner Kyle Busch – were the story of the day.
However, after a heartwarming embrace on pit lane both Gordon and Stewart are presumptively done with their careers at the 2.5-mile IMS. That leaves only Ryan Newman, the 2013 winner at IMS who may be done himself depending on how talks with Richard Childress Racing go, to lead the way for Indiana natives at the state’s most famous track.
That Gordon and Stewart will both be gone next year must be discomforting for the IMS front office. That their combined finales failed to provide any more than a slight loss in attendance? That’s downright nerve-wrecking.
Over the years, a race that once drew sellout crowds at IMS has turned into a laughingstock to many of the sport’s biggest fans. A track that was looked upon fondly, if not enviously by NASCAR supporters before stock cars competed on it has become a venue known for single-file parades and a 2008 tire debacle, leading many wishing it would be removed from the schedule.
NASCAR and the speedway have exhausted multiple options to try to breathe life into the struggling weekend. The series took the XFINITY Series race from nearby Lucas Oil Raceway and moved it to IMS, much to the chagrin of the paddock. Unfortunately the race has failed to entertain, prompting NASCAR to include it in the XFINITY Dash 4 Cash program and add heat races to try to reinvigorate the 250-mile race in its fifth year.
Other attempts to generate excitement, such as running an IMSA race or bringing in a musical artist such as Kid Rock on Saturday have also fallen flat, failing to garner the attention necessary for long-term success.
If May’s IndyCar festivities ended with a feeling of uncertainty, then the feeling surrounding the Brickyard in NASCAR’s annual July return was one of desperation.
Attendance is dropping, and with the track’s biggest stars beginning to fade away, finding a marquee name to bring fans back to Speedway, IN, becomes a larger challenge with each passing year.
Stewart and Gordon’s final race in Indianapolis brought with it the end of an era for the world’s most famous race track. Their story is closed, and with it comes a new chapter for NASCAR at the Indianapolis oval.
2017 will be a critical year for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in many ways. On the IndyCar side, the track will be forced to try to live up to the hype of the Indianapolis 500’s 100th running, a near-impossible task. On the NASCAR front, both IMS and the sanctioning body will have to search for a way to end their continual losses in attendance without the track’s two biggest stars.
For many years, IMS has been able to rest on their laurels and ride continuing storylines to success, but in 2017 that will no longer be the case. For the first time in many years, a new era has come to one of racing’s oldest venues. Whether the era will be one of renewed hope or continuing loss remains to be seen.
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