This weekend, the NASCAR Cup Series moves to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course for the first time in the series history. The road course replaces the traditional Brickyard 400 run on the oval that was on the Cup schedule from 1994-2020.
It makes a lot of people feel a little empty, perhaps leaving the historic rectangular oval of Indianapolis permanently. The Xfinity Series made its first endeavor on the road course in 2020, but something about the Cup Series competing on anything but the oval is more unsettling.
The 2021 Cup schedule features seven different road courses as NASCAR believes that fans prefer road course racing. Although Indy’s traditional layout may have produced some lackluster racing in recent years, some fans and even some drivers feel that the sport has lost a crown jewel event due to its historic nature.
So did NASCAR make the right move in turning the Indianapolis race to a road course event? Mark Kristl and Vito Pugliese are on opposite sides of this debate.
NASCAR Needed to Make a Change
NASCAR needed to adapt the racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After years of complaints, torn-up race cars, poor Goodyear tires — see 2008 — NASCAR had a dilemma. Either continue to force racing on the oval upon everyone, even if the fanbase no longer supported it, or adapt to the newest excitement: road courses. NASCAR wisely opted to move the race from the oval to the road course.
The Brickyard 400 was never known as a race with many on-track passes. It was a race of endurance, racing 400 miles at the famed oval course. While racing 500 miles there is the highlight for the NTT IndyCar Series, running 80% of that was not the highlight for the NASCAR Cup Series. The Cup Series crown jewel is the Daytona 500 and sadly, other crown jewels are losing their luster.
NASCAR wanted Indy to be one of the premier events on its schedule, but the track doesn’t need NASCAR. Indy has IndyCar, especially now that Roger Penske owns both the track and series. NASCAR wanted the grandeur of the Indy 500 to be replicated for the Brickyard 400. Yet no matter how hard it tried, it could never succeed.
Yes, there were memorable moments, such as Jeff Gordon’s win in the inaugural NASCAR race, Paul Menard earning his lone Cup Series win there and an exhausted Kasey Kahne winning a chaotic race. But those are good moments in an otherwise forgettable annual trip to the famed track.
Admittedly, not every track produces long-lasting highlights. But other tracks have seen plenty of great racing with memorable performances. What do people most remember from Indy? Gordon winning the inaugural race and the 2008 tire debacle.
With the arrival of the Next Gen car delayed until next year, NASCAR had a good idea of how this year’s race on the oval would play out. One driver would likely lead more than half the laps in the race, tires would be a premium, there might be some cautions due to tire failures and on-track passing would be sparse. Other than two stage breaks and restarts, what elicits on-track passing?
Meanwhile, the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ first-ever race on the road course became an instant classic. Only three drivers finished with a DNF, 27 drivers finished on the lead lap so there were many battles for position throughout the field and Chase Briscoe fended off the competition to lead the last two laps en route to victory.
With the Xfinity Series race as an example of what racing at Indy could be, NASCAR opted to switch the Cup Series’ race to the road course. Road courses have become a favorite type of layout, and the Daytona International Speedway road course, Road America, Sonoma Raceway, and Watkins Glen International races all brought several storylines to the proceedings. None of those involved tires. When was the last time a storyline from a Cup Series race at the Brickyard did not include tires?
“I don’t view this track as Indianapolis, no,” Kyle Busch told Autoweek. “Indianapolis is the oval. That’s where the allure of Indianapolis comes from and being around since 1900. It’s been there forever, and there’s a lot of history there.”
Sure, the Indy 500 is not on the road course, but this race weekend will be historic. The day before the Cup Series, IndyCar will race on the road course, followed by the Xfinity Series. That is a marketable tradition for both sanctioning bodies. Like the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600, will anyone eventually try to win both the IndyCar and Cup race? How about someone bravely competing in all three races?
Moreover, the track configuration will differ, but the traditions can continue. Beyond the usual pre-race festivities of the national anthem, the command, etc., the winning driver, their family, and team can still kiss the yard of bricks in celebration. After all, NASCAR started that tradition with Dale Jarrett in 1996.
Despite all that, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin concurred with him.
“We lost a crown jewel,” he told Autoweek. “People hated the racing, but I don’t know, are they really going to get more people out to the road course than what they did for the Brickyard 400? I’m not sure. I don’t love it; I don’t love the move. It took away a crown jewel.”
For those fans who clamor for a return to the oval, keep in mind, NASCAR removed oval tracks Chicagoland Speedway and Kentucky Speedway from the schedule, both within driving distance of Indy. Neither track boasts the history of Indianapolis, but the last few Chicagoland races generated exciting finishes, and Cole Custer aced the restart last year at Kentucky to win. Good racing on an oval does not prevent its removal from the schedule.
This race weekend should be an all-around benefit. Teams will benefit from this switch. It will be fewer torn-up race cars, potentially a cheaper tire bill and the leader should not crash from the lead due to a blown tire. For the fans, this will be aesthetically different. It is an opportunity for a fresh start at Indianapolis, a chance for NASCAR to make memories about the actual racing itself, not yearly problems with tires. – Mark Kristl
When You See Fans, Turn Left
When a NASCAR Cup Series driver looks back and reflects on their career accomplishments, what would they cherish most? A championship? Daytona 500? Southern 500? Maybe even a Coca-Cola 600 triumph? The latter three Triple Crown caliber races meant the most until the modern era. The Brickyard 400 became a fourth such crown jewel race in 1994. With the recent championship formats that seem to shift and evolve every other season, those races carry added weight and significance.
Guess what stops being a crown jewel race this weekend? The one at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
For those of us that were around during the early 1990s — NASCAR’s modern golden era — the hype and excitement that surrounded the initial Goodyear test session at Indy two years before the actual race was something that will never be equaled again. The site of 43 cars (40 today) barreling through the tunnel of fans into turn 1 is one that rivaled the three-wide start of the Indianapolis 500.
In recent years, that tunnel of fans turned into football fields of empty seats, not unlike any other track on the circuit. Michigan International Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway removed entire turns of seating, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway covered up seats with banners, and even Daytona’s 2016 makeover resulted in a net loss of about 40,000 seats.
The excuses and defense of the decision are many, but turn into a circular and contradictory argument.
“You can only see the corner you’re sitting in at Indy, the sight lines are bad.”
Uh … ever been to a road course? You can literally see “a” turn. Now, make it flat with no elevation changes to boot.
“The fans don’t show up anymore!”
Actually, they do. In 2019, over 60,000 showed up, they all just sit in turns 1 and 2. That’s about what most tracks not named Talladega and Daytona max out at. Everyone just sits in turn 1 and the short chutes, because then you can see the most part of the track, the pits, and if we’re being honest, where most of the incidents occur.
“But road courses are the new short tracks! We need variety!”
We just ran Watkins Glen and the Bristol Motor Speedway night race is a month away. There’s something to be said for tradition, too.
The Next Gen car is by all accounts set up more for road course racing than a traditional oval track: a sequential gearbox, rear trans-axle, larger diameter wheels and an appearance that leans more toward Australian Supercar than anything Dale Earnhardt or Cale Yarborough drove.
So, does this mean that if it races poorly on ovals, we’re going to make everything a road course or a dirt track? We’re starting to head down the same slippery slope with a knee-jerk, flavor-of-the-month solution whenever something has a positive result that we did 20 years ago. Think back to the 1990s: it was 1.5-mile tracks and lights for night races as the answer to everything. Fast forward to 2021, now it’s road courses and dirt as the next big things. That’s not to say I’m anti-road course; quite the contrary.
What I feel is a mistake is taking an iconic, crown jewel race and transforming it into a featureless road course that could be replicated in the parking lot of any abandoned K-Mart.
There’s nothing particularly interesting or picturesque about the road course. I mean, yeah, it’s in the middle of a golf course, but it’s flat and has little history aside from a Formula One race that had a rather embarrassing end following the 2005 event that experienced a rash of tire failures, with 14 of 20 cars bowing out the day before the race. Of course, we can make new history, but a win on the Indy road course is not going to hold the same weight as winning the Brickyard.
Does this mean we’ll never race the traditional four-corner track again?
No, and speedway owner Roger Penske has said as much. If this doesn’t work out, they’ll likely go back to running the oval. With a totally new car coming next year, my only concern is that if it doesn’t produce decent racing on some of our other high-speed ovals early on, we might get stuck with the Brickyard in the road course configuration for the foreseeable future — and potentially other tracks that can jam some rights and lefts in the infield.
I’ll remain optimistic with the prospects of an unfamiliar car next year creating some disparity between teams, meaning we can return to the familiar image and sound of a full field barreling into turn 1 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Just start it by 1 p.m. ET. – Vito Pugliese
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