(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Beside the Rising Tide: Ball of Confusion

In many ways more consequential than the sport of auto racing, the world is currently a bit topsy-turvy. Yes, meteorologically speaking we have reached summer, but the living is far from easy. The COVID-19 virus has everyone on edge. One school of thought has it that the virus will magically disappear one day soon. Another claims that the pandemic is worsening and that eventually most Americans will catch it, though the mortality rate, especially in younger, presumably healthier individuals, is a vast unknown. There is unrest in the streets of many cities and statues of men once thought to be patriotic heroes are being torn from their pedestals, often by angry mobs of people. Cries for social justice and equality echo through the streets but often go unheard giving the din of conflicting opinion, as the fabric of society that knits us together as Americans seems to be coming apart at the seams. Four months from now, “we the people” will head to the polls to settle what is shaping up to be the most contentious presidential election in history, so there is a lot of  doubt that all of us are going to be joining hands down by the river and singing “Kumbaya, My Lord” anytime soon. But I don’t write political commentary and you didn’t come here to read about viruses or social unrest anyway.

We’re living in strange days indeed. “Most peculiar, Mama,” as John Lennon might have added. Over the weekend, we celebrated this great nation’s birthday on the Fourth of July. And since 1959 for stock car racing fans, that has meant the Firecracker 400 at Daytona Beach. Well, except for 1998 when the Florida wildfires forced NASCAR to push back the second Daytona race until mid-October, the next open date on their bloated slate of races. Of course, NASCAR made the call to postpone the event even as fans, who had been told the race would go on as scheduled, were arriving in their RVs and rental cars because of the lengths of minimum stays hotels  used to insist on. My guess is that even as the flames of the wildfires grew closer, those hoteliers were trying to charge admission to view the “All-Night NASCAR Bonfire Blowout.”

It seems a charming anachronism now, but until 1988 the Firecracker 400 was run on the actual fourth day of July no matter what day of the week the holiday occurred. Back in those quainter, kinder, pre-internet days, NASCAR started the 400 as early as 10 a.m., though usually closer to noon in later years. As the sport of stock car racing in that era was notably lacking in mad dogs and Englishmen, the thought was to keep the drivers, teams and fans out of the worst of the mid-day sun, which coupled with the notorious summertime Florida humidity could make things a bit uncomfortable for warm-blooded mammals. Naturally, it was a bit warm in Indianapolis this week too as the corn struggled mightily to grow to the height of an elephant’s eye in time for the holiday. And as far as fan comfort, “the Speedway” had a novel solution: They weren’t letting any fans in. Oddly enough, the crowd size at Indy matched that of all the other Fourths of July at the track.

Just as NASCAR is supposed to be running at Daytona on or around the Fourth of July, Indianapolis grabs the sport’s headlines on Memorial Day weekend. The Indy 500 was the anchor of what was termed “The Greatest Day of the Year in Racing.” In addition, the weekend highlighted what used to be called the World 600 at Charlotte and Grand Prix of Monaco, though to be fair the folks over in Monaco weren’t intent on celebrating a holiday that was born as “Confederate Soldiers Memorial Day” a half world away in the United States.

In case you haven’t heard, the Monaco Grand Prix will no longer be run on the last Sunday in May starting next year. Will the World 600 still be run on Memorial Day weekend next year? The answer is cloudy, try again later. Hell, right now NASCAR can’t even say with any confidence the taxi cabs will be racing at Watkins Glen next month. Currently, the Governor of New York has taken a rather dim view of folks from “Down South” visiting his state unless they agree to remain in quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. He’d also like you to wear a mask in the shower and two masks if you look out the window from your bunker.

So what went on in the racing world this Memorial Day? Oddly enough I forget. But I looked it up. That weekend NASCAR raced at Talladega.

And on the Fourth of July, NASCAR’s Cup series ran at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, continuing a tradition that dates all the way back to… well, it never happened before, and I am among the multitude that hope it never will again. On a brighter note, traffic before and after Sunday’s race was notably lighter than for previous Brickyard 400s. So what happened to the Firecracker 400 this year, some might ask? It’s been moved to Aug. 29. The following weekend, by chance the Labor Day weekend, the Cup cars will be competing in the Southern 500 just the way God and Junior Johnson intended them to do on the first Sunday of September — though to be fair, the politicians in South Carolina didn’t think much of racing on the Sabbath, so the race was run on Mondays. The weekend prior to this year’s Brickyard 400 will feature this year’s edition of the Indy 500. So this year you’ll have the Indy 500, the Firecracker 400 and the Southern 500 on three consecutive weekends. My guess is it goes without saying that has never happened before.

This of course all depends on the weather and the virus. If a mutation of the COVID-19 virus causes bodies of fans to have to be loaded by pitchforks into refrigerated trucks after the Indy 500, my guess is that auto racing will take another unplanned hiatus. Given the weather this year, any one or all three of those headline races could be postponed. Imagine IndyCar having to postpone the Indy 500 until Wednesday (due to lightning, rain or perhaps a renegade twister; this is the midwest after all). Somehow or another it didn’t rain this weekend in either Indianapolis or Austria, where the F1 series finally staged their first event of 2020. It quickly became apparent that some of their name drivers had forgotten how to drive during the long layoff.

Truth be told, the Brickyard 400 never really took root anywhere on the Cup schedule. Typically, the 400 has been run in late July or early August, though last year it ran on Sept. 8. (As an aside, last year’s Martinsville fall race was run on the day after Halloween, but as of yet, adults hadn’t been forced to wear masks to hit the grocery store. Remember the good old days… like 2019?)

That’s another way of saying the Brickyard 400 has always been a bit of a “Norphan” event. As we’ve discussed here previously, a good percentage of open-wheel racing fans (the ones Tony George hadn’t driven away yet) didn’t think too kindly of the rednecks invading their hallowed ground. Maybe they still hadn’t gotten over the Battle of Corydon? On the NASCAR side of the equation, there was great excitement the stockers would be running at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the granddaddy of them all. Perhaps in some quarters (including wherever I was laying my head back then), there was already a sense that the Brickyard 400 was going to be more sizzle than steak. But it paid real good. There was $3.2 million in prize money to be split among the drivers who competed in the inaugural Brickyard 400, back in an era when a million bucks was still a fair chunk of change. Fully 85 drivers and teams showed up at Indy that year trying to earn one of 43 spots in the starting lineup. The last three finishing positions in that year’s Brickyard paid over $21,000. That’s more than Todd Bodine won for finishing sixth at Martinsville that same year.

As you probably know, Jeff Gordon, a Hoosier transplant from California, won that first Brickyard 400 in 1994, and Dale Earnhardt became “the first man” to win the Brickyard in 1995. Both finishes were good storylines which I appreciated as a fledgling NASCAR writer in that era. But neither race provided much in the way of exciting competition. The big story after Earnhardt’s 1995 Brickyard win was that rain had delayed the start of the race, so ABC, the presenting network, chose to tape delay, showing the race until the following Saturday. They still speak in hushed tones about enraged race fans angry calls to their local ABC affiliates coast to coast.

In a later era when “dual-use” racetracks intended to host both NASCAR and open-wheel races were being built, there was often a compromise in the track’s design. The banking in the corners was lower than optimal for the bigger/heavier/comparatively under-tired Cup cars, because too much banking made those tracks too fast for the open-wheel cars. That wasn’t an issue when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was designed. The track first opened in 1909. The first Indy 500 was run in 1911. Back in that era, the idea racecars might someday flirt with the 100 mph mark seemed as preposterous as the idea one of those new-fangled horseless carriages might actually run 500 miles without a major mechanical meltdown.

NASCAR’s stock cars, as noted above, had far too narrow a tire width to accommodate what amounted to four 90-degree turns at the four corners of IMS. The Indy-style racecars also weighed about half of what a NASCAR stock car did. As such, there was no comparison between the braking ability of the two different sorts of racecars. That tended to produce less than compelling racing during Brickyard 400s, and that was even before the infamous tire debacle in 2008 soured a huge number of stock car racing fans on IMS forever.

Yet NASCAR and the presenting networks continued to hype the Brickyard 400 as a very big deal. Perhaps not quite as big a deal as the Daytona 500, but every bit the spectacle of the World 600 or Southern 500. (A crown jewel? Really?) Thanks for coming to the Brickyard. Can I get you come catsup for your sizzle? Because unfortunately, no steak is forthcoming.

Addendum: Saturday, the stock car racing community received some troubling news. Both Jimmie Johnson and his wife had tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, both Johnson and his wife are relatively young, and by all appearances very healthy people. That’s the sort that tend to recover relatively quickly and with little drama from the virus. My thoughts are with them both. But my thoughts and prayers are also with their two daughters, ages 6 and 9. I can’t imagine the upset and fear they are dealing with as they cope with the fact Mommy and Daddy are both sick and as such no longer able to interact with them like they might have on a more normal day in the Johnson household. Thankfully, until a couple weeks ago we’d all been told that younger children couldn’t even get COVID, so it’s extremely unlikely the kids will fall ill.

Johnson had to sit out the Brickyard and may have to miss a couple more races before getting medical clearance to return to racing. That snaps his “consecutive starts” tally at 662, a streak dating back to the 2002 Daytona 500. Given the nature of the sport, Johnson is lucky that during that almost three-decade-long run, not once has he been injured badly enough or even gotten sick enough to have to miss a race. That’s a decided improvement over the automobile racing days of yore, when on-track death or crippling injury were routine.

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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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6 comments

  1. Avatar

    Taxi cabs Barstool Phelps Bonfire. Nascar is getting interesting again.

  2. Avatar

    I forgot Ball of Confusion. Maybe NASCAR’s in for a big comeback.

  3. Avatar

    Jimmie Johnson’s consecutive start streak from 2002 to 2020 is almost TWO decades.

  4. Avatar

    Bummer. I did not realize that F1 had decided that they would no longer run the Monaco Grand Prix on that weekend. Must have missed of forgotten that little tidbit. I have always thought that was the biggest day for motorsports. Certainly the only day I would commit to watching that much TV (although the NFL 3 game Thanksgiving Day marathon comes in a close second). Oh well…. nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.

    As I always point out, Indy doesn’t have a monopoly on regularly producing boring races. I refuse to single that track out as “not worthy”. If nothing else it a unique track unlike any others. If they really decide to only give races to tracks that have a decent chance of producing a great spectator race, then I am all for getting rid of Indy.

    Newman and Johnson both started the same year (2002) and both had identical long streaks of consecutive starts and both came to an end this season as a result of health reasons. What a strange coincidence.

  5. Avatar

    Matt, I know not your primary focus, but I was hoping you were going to comment on the Xfinity race on the road course and if that would solve the lackluster Brickyard races. I personally found it to be better than the oval.
    I cannot still fathom why they swapped the Firecrack 400 for Indy. And yes, I still call it the Firecracker 400. Lot cooler name.

    • Avatar

      I think it’s obvious why they moved the Daytona race to the last race of the regular season. They are hoping the desperation for teams to make the chase, combined with pack racing, will produce a drama-filled race with lots of carnage and pissed off drivers.