If the Brickyard 400 isn’t on life support, it’s not at the top of many race fans’ bucket lists anymore either.
For decades, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted only one race a year, but it was the granddaddy of them all, the Indy 500. The NASCAR race at the Brickyard was born of a disastrous schism that would do damage to American open-wheel racing, basically wiping the IndyCar-type series out for the better part of a generation.
The bloody financial fight involved Tony George on one side. He was the hereditary owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which of course hosted the biggest (by a considerable margin) event on the open-wheel racing calendar. On the opposite side of the fence were the CART team owners, many of them multi-millionaires themselves. (See Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi et al). George felt that the sport could not exist without the Indy 500. The CART cowboys felt even the Indy 500 would be greatly diminished if not eliminated without the big name drivers and teams competing there.
The farcical split might have been best exemplified by the 1996 U.S. 500 run at Michigan on Memorial Day weekend. The powers that be at CART decided they’d host a race that weekend to go up against the Indy 500 (and the World 600 down at Charlotte later in the day.) As had been traditional at Indy, the U.S. 500 started with rows of drivers three wide. The only problem was that on the pace laps, there was a huge wreck that decimated the field including many of the big-name drivers. (George had basically forced CART’s hand when he announced 25 of the 33 available starting spots at Indy were reserved for IRL competitors, leaving just eight spots for any CART teams that wished to participate.)
Even before 10 cars got wiped out on the pace laps (and all those drivers were allowed to go to backup cars for the race’s restart, including eventual winner Jimmy Vasser in a move practically unprecedented in auto racing up until the 2001 Winston All-Star race at Charlotte), the U.S. 500 had already become a problem child. CART wanted the race run head-to-head against the Indy 500, forcing fans to watch one or the other. They also wanted the race on one of the four major broadcast networks but in the end had to settle for ESPN. (Having races broadcast on cable TV was then considered embarrassing, which is rather ironic now that most NASCAR races are on cable.)
ESPN, concerned about ratings, insisted the U.S. 500 start two hours after the Indy 500. There were also concerns whether any one venue could sell enough tickets to two major events as CART had another race scheduled at Michigan that July. (Again, worries about crippling ticket sales by hosting two events at the same venue annually seem ironic only in retrospect.)
Both Tony George and the powers that be at CART prepared for a prolonged bloody battle for what amounted to the soul of open-wheel racing in America. Both were to find out the easiest way to make a small fortune in auto racing is to start with a large one. While NASCAR was already a rising star on the auto racing scene, by 1996 it was the open-wheel split that allowed Winston Cup to become the undisputed top dog in American auto racing.
The Brickyard 400 was Tony George’s naked attempt to bolster his war chest as he and the CART owners attempted to outlast one another. And it seemed a highly effective one at first. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is said to seat 250,000 fans with the capability of hosting up to 400,000 ticketholders by adding infield sales. The first Brickyard 400 drew 350,000 paying customers in 1994. That estimate may be just a bit optimistic, as most were back in the day but it’s near certain the first Brickyard 400 hosted more fans than every Cup race this season to date combined, including the Daytona 500.
Things couldn’t have turned out much better that day on one level. Jeff Gordon, a Hoosier (actually born and raised in California but his family moved to Indiana to allow his race career to continue growing at a quicker pace) won the event. Brett Bodine, Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt the Original rounded out the top five. Gordon earned $613,000 for that win. By contrast, Sterling Marlin had only pocketed $258,000 for winning that year’s Daytona 500.
While Gordon’s victory was popular with many fans the race itself was somewhat controversial. It’s hard for newer fans to imagine the irritation, bordering on outrage, that many if not most open-wheel racing enthusiasts felt when their sacred track at Indy was opened up to the taxi-cab driving redneck barbarians. Prior to the schism, such a change would have been unthinkable. Nowadays, they may hold a hobby stock enduro figure-eight race at the Brickyard for all I know.
There was some concern about the event on the full-fendered side of fandom as well. I honestly felt that stock cars running at Indy was like worshipping at somebody else’s church. The corners were too square and the banking too low at Indy to stage an exciting race with the bigger, heavier, more under-tired stockers.
Regardless of either party’s concerns about the appropriateness of the event the Brickyard 400 was added to the annual calendar. (In another one of those subtle ironies, NASCAR demanded Indianapolis lower their prize money rather than having the ISC raise theirs at tracks like Daytona.) The track was packed again in 1995 to watch Dale Earnhardt Sr. become “the first man” to win the event, a good-humored slight aimed at Gordon and his youthful appearance.
Of course, most NASCAR fans didn’t get to see Dale win that day. Due to rain delays ABC cut away from the Brickyard before its conclusions, triggering such a hullaballoo it caught everyone off guard. A reporter at the local ABC affiliate news told me she and all the other on-air talent were pressed into service answering phones, apologizing and explaining it was a network decision, not theirs. She told me she couldn’t believe how angry if not outright threatening many of the callers were.
All appeared to be going just swimmingly until the 2008 Brickyard 400 presented by some corporation that likely would just as soon forget they had involvement in the disaster. Some say it was the perfect storm. Goodyear bought a new tire to the track. NASCAR bought along their new Car of Horror (technically Car of Tomorrow) and Indianapolis had resurfaced the track in a manner that didn’t agree with either the new cars or tires. In what remains a highly embarrassing black eye for the sport, the caution had to be waved every ten laps because the Goodyear tires simply wouldn’t last any longer than that. The race dragged on three and a half hours, slowed by 11 yellow flags. NASCAR apologized to the fans for the unholy mess but neither NASCAR nor the track issued refunds to ticketholders.*
240,000 fans attended that horrible excuse of a race but after 2008, the crowd size for the Brickyard made like Tom Petty and began Free-Falling. By 2013, the last year NASCAR or the track provided crowd estimates, attendance was down to just 70,000 fans. In 2014, Jeff Gordon won, almost twenty years after his inaugural Brickyard win, but pocketed nearly $200,000 less for it. In 2015, the last year NASCAR shared purse money figures, Kyle Busch got $424,000 for his Brickyard victory.
Given the track’s mammoth size and seating capacity, it’s hard to estimate crowd size at Indy without access to gate receipt records. Even a fairly large crowd is going to look tiny given the massive sections full of unsold seats. But by my official guess, the crowd at last year’s Brickyard 400 was somewhere between hilarious and sobering. Truthfully, had they offered shuttle service to the track from the downtown bus terminal for the homeless looking for a place to nap if they didn’t mind the noise that afternoon, I can’t believe there’d have been a smaller crowd. And the track management team and NASCAR seem to finally be admitting as much.
One hindrance to attendance is thought to have been the sometimes brutally hot weather during July in Indianapolis. (Having driven across Indiana to Chicago one July in an un-air conditioned Boss 302 with the exhaust headers all but beating against the floorpan, I’ll give them that point. It’s the most empathy I’ve ever felt for a microwavable dinner.) Thus it is hoped that this year, moving the date to September will allow for cooler weather and an increase in ticket sales.
This year’s Brickyard is scheduled for September 9th. Last year, the high in Indy for that date was a comfortable and dry 74 degrees. That means they’ll probably have tornadoes and triple digit temperatures this year according to Al Gore.
In addition to the hopefully better weather, the date change also means the Brickyard will be the final race of NASCAR’s regular season schedule. You know, before what used to be called the Chase but is now called something else begins. It is hoped that as such an element of surprise will be added watching drivers just above and below the cut line battling for those postseason slots.
Until this year, the end of the regular season has been held at Richmond. And it’s not very often the postseason lineup has actually shifted much, perhaps most notably back when Jeremy Mayfield made the cut in 2004. Yes, it’s been a long time.
The plan may actually backfire in that some drivers will doubtlessly be driving very conservatively just trying to cement their place in the playoffs rather than running wide open. With passing at a premium at Indy anyway, this September’s race has all the makings of a real snoozer. One thing we do know is no matter how badly things turn out the Brickyard will be run again next year with NASCAR having already released the 2019 Cup schedule. I am told the definition of insanity is repeating the same behaviors that haven’t produced success previously over and over again expecting a different outcome.
But a further Ozark got tossed in the Brickyard cesspool last week which is why I’m writing about an event that won’t take place for another four months. NASCAR had asked the NFL if they could possibly not schedule the Indianapolis Colts’ home opener for the same weekend as the Brickyard. As it turns out, the NFL went ahead and did just that, and there’s great concern that might torpedo ticket sales for the Brickyard. (They were not able to schedule the Colts home opener for the following week because the stadium had already been scheduled to host a Taylor Swift concert. I think we can all agree the less said about that, the better.)
Everything I know about football can be written on the head of a pin with a Sharpie. (Well except that the Philadelphia Eagles are reigning Super Bowl champions, just as a reminder to those of you in Dallas or New England.) But I did a little research and found the Colts (4-12 in 2017) will be playing the Cleveland Browns that Sunday afternoon. The Cleveland Browns went 0-16 last year and, in fact, have won just one game total in the last two years. I think it is safe to say that the Cleveland Browns are one sorry-ass football team. Yeah, it’s the home-opener in Indy and all but who wants to see a really bad team take on the worst team in professional sports? Isn’t that sort of like stealing from the blind newsboy?
A few things strike me here. (Fortunately, not one of the editors). I seem to recall, a decade ago, Brian France boasted that within ten years, if not sooner, NASCAR was going to be bigger than the NFL. I’m not sure in what context he made the statement or if he found the message at the bottom of a bottle of brown liquor but I do recall our local sportscaster at Channel 6 found the notion so amusing he laughed out loud at the statement.
Secondly, if a really bad football game is going to steal the thunder from what will likely be a really bad race, why not go ahead and move the Brickyard 400 back to Saturday like the first bunch of 400s were run from 1994 to 2000? (I’m not sure why. Perhaps native Indianans take their cows to church on Sunday?)
I don’t know all the answers though I have at least enough left on the ball to realize what most of the questions are. But it seems to me that if you’re Goose Singstein and the F-Lane Band and you go from selling out baseball and soccer stadiums to drawing half-full VFW halls on weeknights it’s time to do something different. Go out on a third Farewell Tour, release a Greatest Hits album with three previously unreleased tunes, break up the band, and head to rehab. If you’re already sweating whether a R-We Fastwagon / Chi-town Parking Authority concert crosstown is going to cut into your ticket sales maybe it’s time you hit the Atlantic City Casino circuit for a cut of the bar proceeds to pay all that alimony you owe.
The Brickyard 400 was an interesting experiment but it failed to produce the desired results and probably should have been axed from the schedule after the 2008 debacle rather than left to rot on the vine for another decade.
I mean seriously, the Cleveland Browns? My, how the mighty have fallen.
* I can’t even recall the last time I included an asterisk in a column but since I just located it on my QWERTY, here it goes. Tire woes also caused an unholy mess at the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix of 2005. Six cars, those with Ferrari, Minardi and Jordan, ran Bridgestone tires. The rest of the field was under contract to Michelin.
Prior to the race, it was discovered the Michelin tires were failing rather spectacularly, especially in high speed corner 13. Unable to reach a compromise, the entire field took to the track Sunday for formation laps. Prior to the start of the race all the cars running on Michelins, the vast majority of the field, drove down pit road and retired from the race. Six cars competed in that day’s Grand Prix.
Michelin was so embarrassed by the debacle that they offered a refund for any ticketholder to the race who requested one. Of course, with many of those fans coming from Europe, Asia and South America they were still out lodging and travel expenses. But at least Michelin offered a refund, something Goodyear decidedly did not do in 2008.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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