From my vantage point – the sofa – roughly 300 fans turned out to watch the Brickyard 400 at venerable Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 21 … and half of them left when Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will retire from NASCAR competition at the end of the 2017 season, was forced out of the race thanks to a blown radiator.
Most of those fans probably didn’t come for the actual race anyhow, which over time has earned a reputation as one of NASCAR’s most snooze-worthy events. Rather, they made the trip to demonstrate their respect, appreciation, support and yes, love, for Junior. He wasn’t going to win the Brickyard 500, but that’s not why fans were there.
They were there to say goodbye.
The decline of the Brickyard 400 is a sad story. It certainly began its stock car racing tenure with a bang. The track’s inaugural race in 1994 hosted the largest crowd in NASCAR history. A 23-year-old whippersnapper became an overnight sensation by winning the race in only his second season of Cup Series competition, then went on to become one of the most successful and celebrated drivers in the sport’s history.
His name? Jeff Gordon.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. took the checkered flag at Indy the following year, and the winners’ list since then has included superstars like Tony Stewart, Bill Elliott, Kyle Busch, and Jimmie Johnson. On paper, The Brickyard 400 should be an iconic event, mentioned in the same breath with places like Daytona, Darlington and Charlotte.
In reality, however, that hasn’t happened. I was kidding about the number, but one shudders to think what the attendance would have looked like had Earnhardt NOT been competing.
Most of us would probably agree that Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the best-known racetrack in the world. It can even claim some of the glory for one of NASCAR’s most famous and best-loved facilities. It was a trip to Indy, after all, that inspired Harold Brasington Sr. to transform a peanut field in his home town of Darlington, SC into the quirky and absolutely unique 1.366-mile stretch of rough road now lauded as NASCAR’s toughest track.
To give credit where it is due, the Brickyard has played host to some truly breathtaking races over the years. Sadly, though, none of them have involved stock cars.
If we’re being honest and fair, the Brickyard 400 does have some significant factors fighting against it. Ironically, one of those detriments is also one of its assets: its sheer size. The track has a seating capacity of 235,000 people (400,000 including the infield), so when you think about it, even when the place is half full, the crowd still looks sparse.
IMS is doing all the things that other tracks do in order to entice fans to lay down their hard-earned money for an in-person race experience. Concerts. A hauler parade. Reaching out to a younger fan base by using fan favorite Chase Elliott to promote the race rather than an established superstar such as, well, you-know-who.
With a little more than nine degrees of banking in the turns, the track just can’t compete with the high banks at places like Daytona, Bristol and Talladega. The lightweight cars of the Indy Car Series put on a spectacular show at the Indianapolis 500, resembling sleek, exotic racehorses, barely seeming to touch the racing surface as they blister around the long, flat track on their way to heart-stopping finishes. It works for them.
Then, just a few weeks later, the stock cars show up, looking rather like a team of lumbering mules compared to their sleeker racing cousins. Without the banking that provides so much excitement at other venues, the Brickyard often serves up more blah-ma than drama. It’s cool in theory, but in reality, not so much.
There’s no passing. There’s no drafting. There’s no horde of excited fans sporting their gaudy driver logo-wear, cheering and booing and just generally doing what NASCAR fans do so well.
And now, there’s no Junior.
NASCAR rarely admits making a mistake, and attendance has been declining almost everywhere, but in this case, they might want to give it some serious thought. Perhaps the initial rationale back in the ‘90s was that the sanctioning body might gain a little prestige by adding Indianapolis Motor Speedway to its racing schedule — but sadly, that hasn’t really materialized. Quite the opposite; instead of being elevated, the race has become somewhat of an embarrassment.
That’s no way to treat a legend.
Cathy Elliott wrotes a weekly NASCAR column. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.