News & Media


Inside NASCAR: Indy breaks with tradition to rebuild Brickyard

July 27, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Inside NASCAR: Indy breaks with tradition to rebuild Brickyard
Speedway hopes to rekindle NASCAR spark with advent of 'super weekend' in '12

For a brief moment in time, stock cars ruled a city that had built its legacy upon open-wheel racing. Fueled by a perfect confluence of events -- the rise of a NASCAR series that was expanding its national footprint, and a schism that would eventually leave IndyCar competition in tatters -- Cup cars were greeted at Indianapolis Motor Speedway like conquering heroes. When 35 transporters descended on the revered old race track on the night before that first test session in 1993, hundreds of people lined the street to watch them pass by. The truck drivers honked their horns in celebration.

The next day, there were thousands in the grandstands to watch stock cars take their first official laps at the Brickyard. One year later, on Aug. 6, 1994, a sellout crowd in excess of 250,000 spectators packed the speedway to see the inaugural NASCAR event on a track that for the past eight decades had been possessed solely by another discipline. It was such a grand spectacle that A.J. Foyt came out of retirement to compete in it. NASCAR had not come to Indianapolis just to race there -- it had come to plant its flag, which it did with authority when transplanted Indianan Jeff Gordon scored a victory that proved the ideal storybook finish.

" We're going to triple our hours of track activity here. ... It's going to be a fun weekend, really. We have high expectations."

--JEFF BELSKUS


"There were a lot of open-wheel purists that certainly didn't want to see that happen. But of course, NASCAR, with the momentum of the fans and the exponential growth it was going through at the time, it certainly had a lot of support behind it, too," recalled John Andretti, a former Indianapolis resident who drove in that first Brickyard 400. "I think there was a lot of curiosity at the time, what would it be like even seeing a stock car go around Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And of course, Jeff Gordon was young and played the part of the Indiana guy. Even though he wasn't from Indiana, he was one of Indiana's own. All that helped it gain that momentum."

And it carried that momentum well into the next decade, packing crowds of more than 200,000 into the big track at the intersection of 16th and Georgetown, propelled by a series whose popularity continued to reach new heights. America's biggest racing circuit and America's most famous speedway seemed a perfect partnership full of unlimited possibilities, and a string of big crowds and championship-caliber champions -- no restrictor plates or fluky winners on this 2.5-mile oval -- prompted serious conversation over whether the Brickyard would one day supplant even the mighty Daytona 500 in stature.

It all seems so naïve now, those heady early days of promise, as track officials try to restore some electricity to an event that still ranks among the most important on the NASCAR schedule, still sits on the short list of those a driver most wants to win, but has suffered at the ticket office nonetheless. Everyone has a theory as to the reasons behind the withering crowds seen at the Brickyard in recent years -- lingering effects of the recession, NASCAR saturation, reunification of open-wheel racing, hard feelings remaining from a 2008 event plagued by tire meltdowns. Regardless, it's a race in need of a jolt, and speedway officials believe they have one in the concept of a "super weekend" that will add three new support races at a track that has seen only one car race for most of its existence.

For staid old Indianapolis, a place where change comes slowly if at all, it's something of a departure from the past. Consider that between 1916 and 1994, the Indianapolis 500 was the only race held at the speedway every year, and until 2000 there were only three -- the 500, the Brickyard 400 (added in 1994) and the International Race of Champions (held on Brickyard weekend from 1998-2003). The speedway was the grand dame of all motorsports facilities, the only one to host IndyCar, NASCAR's Cup division and Formula One when the latter ran there from 2000-07. Beginning next season, the same track will host four different series in a single weekend, with NASCAR's Nationwide tour moving over from the Lucas Oil Raceway short track to join the Cup Series, and a pair of Grand-Am divisions racing on the infield road course.

For a track that held just one race per year for nearly 80 years, a big-event venue that once frowned on the idea of support races being contested at hallowed Indianapolis, it's a different approach. But it may be warranted, given that last season's Brickyard 400 crowd estimate of 140,000 -- a massive turnout for almost any sport, to be certain, but one that gets lost in the cavernous Indianapolis speedway -- was the smallest in the event's history. Starting in 2012, the track will attempt to reverse that trend by quadrupling the number of events on track during its annual NASCAR weekend.

"We're looking to add content to the event for the weekend. We're going to triple our hours of track activity here. That will be good for the fans. It will be good for the sponsors," said Jeff Belskus, president and chairman of the speedway. "We're billing it as a 'super weekend' in motorsports. To come here and see all the different types of competition, whether it be on the road course or on the oval, it will be great for our fans, it will be good for the sponsors. It's going to be a fun weekend, really. We have high expectations. We hope a lot of people come out and can enjoy some good racing."

A frenzied crowd celebrates with Jeff Gordon, who spent his formative years in Pittsboro, Ind., after he won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. (Getty Images)

Now, as the Brickyard 400 prepares for its 18th edition, and perhaps its final one as a standalone event, the question looms above the speedway like the hulking sea-green pagoda tower: Will the "super weekend" approach be enough to bring back the fans?

Variety and value

Derek Daly raced for years in IndyCars and in Formula One, and has been a motorsports analyst in Indianapolis since 1985. He remembers that first Brickyard 400, how the fans embraced it, what it meant to the city to add another major racing event. But he also felt that with the exception of race day, NASCAR weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway seemed to lack a little bit of zing.

"In general, the Brickyard weekend up until race day has never had much interest for the local media, because not a lot happens," said Daly, who started six Indy 500s. "There's very little on-track action, so adding these extra races, I think, will be a huge boost to the weekend in general. People still went to [Lucas Oil Raceway] to watch the Nationwide race. It was sort of a bit of a staple. People enjoyed doing that. But I have to think overall, the stature of the Nationwide race, the stature of the weekend in general, will be greatly enhanced by moving those events to Indy. Certainly from a media standpoint, we are much more interested this year because we have the potential for so many storylines on our doorstep."

The Indianapolis 500 has its "month of May" that climaxes with the race, but beforehand there's also an Indy Lights support race and the added bump-day drama of seeing who may get knocked out of the starting field. Although the 500 has dealt with its own attendance issues in recent years, Andretti points out that there are some fans who come to Indy in the springtime with the intention of picking and choosing, and others who plan to take in every event on the track. Now, with more content in store for Brickyard week, he feels some spectators may take the same approach.

"The fan is obviously the consumer. They're the blood of our sport. When it all dwindles down, it all funnels into one thing, and that's what it is. So I think they're talking about value and perceived value," Andretti said.

"It just happened to present itself that we both had a high level of interest ... of re-energizing the Brickyard 400, making a modern statement."

--MIKE HELTON


"Not everybody can afford to go the Brickyard 400, but they might be able to afford to go the Nationwide race, or go to another race. Therefore, it gives a variety. Maybe some people don't go to races on Sundays, they have other family things going on. I think it provides for a greater element. We see it with the IndyCars when we go there for the month of May. We're there the whole time, and there are some people who take their whole vacation while we're there, and they're going to see every day on the track and everything that goes on. That's also going to happen with this. Some people are going to want to see every race that weekend. I think it gives [fans] a lot more options, a lot more variety."

The Grand-Am events will be slated for Friday of race week, with the Nationwide event scheduled for Saturday. There seems little question that those races will drive more people through the gates on those days, which have traditionally featured only Cup practice and qualifying. Bringing the Nationwide event over from Lucas Oil Raceway means an end to the logistical hassles faced by drivers competing in both races, and increases the likelihood that more Cup stars will be involved. "I guarantee you since it's going to be at the same venue, I'll probably be running it," Kyle Busch said. "So, you'll see some Cup guys doing it, rather than not so many traveling back and forth from the short track."

But will more fans in the seats on Friday and Saturday bring the electricity back to the main event on Sunday afternoon? NASCAR believes so. "It just happened to present itself that we both had a high level of interest, both NASCAR, Jeff and his folks here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, of re-energizing the Brickyard 400, making a modern statement, if you will, in both of our facilities, both of our series," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "This gave us the opportunity to do it."

Indiana native Ryan Newman agreed. "From a fan standpoint, obviously, it's going to put fans in the grandstands at the speedway," the South Bend and Purdue University product said. "Maybe they will build more hype and get more hype going. It's a tough situation with the tire deal there a couple of years ago, and if this helps us rebound from that, and get more fans in the stands and recapture some of the things we lost, then it's a smart thing to do."

And yet, there are some who will argue that adding too many races dilutes the fan base at Indianapolis, devaluing the facility's marquee events at the expense of support events that feature less expensive tickets. Regardless, this is still a track with hundreds of thousands of seats to fill, as Belskus will readily admit. And the speedway is pulling out all the stops to fill them in 2011, giving free admission to veterans of the two Iraq wars, offering reduced qualifying day tickets to fans who got stuck in traffic in Kentucky, and boosting the pre-race concert lineup, among other things.

But next year's "super weekend" is the potential game-changer, and Andretti sees such a bold step as proof that the track is serious about reversing the fortunes of the Brickyard 400.

The tire debacle of 2008 had teams on the run, and NASCAR and track officials scurrying to appease dissatisfied fans. (Autostock)

"Just the fact that they're taking steps and measures means attempts are being made to make a change and say, OK, what are we going to do different?" he said. "For some people, just something different makes them want to do it -- I don't want to miss the first Nationwide race at the track, I don't want to miss the whole weekend at the track. I think the bigger question is the same thing the whole Brickyard and every racing facility looks at: Can they sustain it ... for more than just one or two years?"

Maintaining momentum

For any track, sustaining momentum takes effort, and Indianapolis is no exception. For a while, just the allure of NASCAR competing at such a cathedral of motorsports was enough to keep the people coming. Soon enough, though, the nitpicks emerged. Some NASCAR fans, accustomed to being able to see all the way around a race track, didn't like the grandstands that squeezed in from either side of the frontstretch. Others began to complain about the style of racing on a straightforward but notoriously challenging layout where passing is difficult.

An then there was the debacle that was the 2008 event, when the tire supplied by Goodyear couldn't handle the surface, and the race became a parade of competition cautions prompted by a track that didn't rubber in as expected and a tire that wore away too quickly. The howls of protest could be heard all the way to Monument Circle, and attendance -- according to estimates supplied in NASCAR box scores -- plummeted from 240,000 in 2008 to 180,000 the next year. Although the tire issues were rectified for the next season's event, the speedway is still trying to win back the trust of those who swore they'd never return.

Former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler said any major problem at a race track will affect a facility at the gate for the next three to five years, although fans seem more forgiving of natural inconveniences like rain than those that are man-made. But anything can be overcome.

"There is no novelty or curiosity left for the Brickyard, so it has to purely stand on the merits of the product and the diehards that come to see it."

--DEREK DALY


_______________________

"The energy is there. But when you're trying to fill 250,000 seats, it takes a lot to do that these days."

--JOHN ANDRETTI

"Bottom line, as long as fans know you are trying very hard to correct the problem and you properly inform them of what you are doing, they are quite forgiving," Wheeler said. "Several years ago at Charlotte before the 600, we had 10 inches of rain in two days and lost half our parking. It was a terrible mess. Our PR guy then was Jerry Gappens, and he said about three weeks after the race to send each paying customer a rain coat and tell them we were sorry and were spending a half-million dollars to better drain the grounds, and it really worked. It did not impact sales the following year, and I am certain our humbleness in reaching out to the fan was the reason."

The 2008 tire issue, though, was no mere rainstorm. But Daly, who correctly points out that several other NASCAR tracks have also suffered at the gate recently, thinks the issues at Indianapolis go deeper than that. Even early on, he wondered if the Brickyard 400 could maintain its initial strength.

"In fairness, the first couple of years, it was very much a novelty. A curiously factor brought people out there," said Daly, who made 49 starts in F1, with a top finish of fourth. "It was very similar to Formula One when it came. Formula One brought 225,000 people the first year. The novelty and curiosity and eventually faded away, and only the diehards were left. There is no novelty or curiosity left for the Brickyard, so it has to purely stand on the merits of the product and the diehards that come to see it. That passive fan, maybe they're the seats that they don't fill anymore."

Andretti said the Brickyard 400 still brings plenty of energy to the city, even if that's not reflected in full grandstands. "I'm telling you when you bring the transporters in, and they have speed street the night before -- it's there," he said. "The energy is there. But when you're trying to fill 250,000 seats, it takes a lot to do that these days."

Of course, nothing stays the same forever. While the Indy 500 may appear to be enjoying something of a renaissance under the banner of a unified open-wheel series, Daly -- Indianapolis' longest-serving motorsports analyst -- says that event still isn't nearly what it was when he first arrived in town in 1983, primarily because it lacks the star American drivers who so appeal to fans and sponsors. "While NASCAR may be looking at its ratings not being as strong as they once were, it hasn't got nearly the issues the Indy 500 has," he said.

"The biggest single draw that we have at the Brickyard is when Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart run up front. It has a phenomenal, galvanizing effect on the crowd at Indy when Gordon or Tony Stewart run up front. It absolutely wraps the local and national pride around the event at a much higher level. That is actually a key piece that's missing at the Indy 500. There's no longer local or national pride in Indy, because there are no superstar drivers like a Tony Stewart or a Jeff Gordon at Indy. That's eroded in the last 20 years. ... Dario Franchitti is a brilliant driver, as is Scott Dixon. And people appreciate what they do. But they don't really cheer for what they do."

That's one building block the Brickyard 400 clearly has in its favor. Still, the Indy 500 has a hold on this town, something Andretti is reminded of every time a fan approaches him and mentions that he hasn't missed a 500 in 30 or 40 years. "That's never going to change," he said. Both events are significant to the city, and both events have their own fan bases, but it's drawing in those crossover and casual fans that can make the difference between a strong Brickyard showing and a disappointing turnout. In some ways, the battle the Brickyard 400 fights in its own market is similar to the one NASCAR wages nationwide -- to get more than just the faithful to pay attention.

John Andretti made 11 starts in the Brickyard 400, with a best finish of seventh in 1998 in the famed No. 43; it was the only top-10 for the former Petty Enterprises at the famed track. (Smyle Media)

Toward that end, the "super weekend" -- as busy a three-day stretch as the speedway has ever seen -- shines like the marquee of a Las Vegas casino. "Change is good," said Kevin Harvick, who drives on the Sprint Cup tour and owns cars on the Nationwide circuit. "I have been preaching that we needed to go to different race tracks for a long time, because you can see, the enthusiasm and the excitement and the publicity and everything that comes with a new venue. That lasts for several years. I hate to see [Lucas Oil Raceway] go, but things change. This is no different than any other business, you have to keep up with the times."

Departure from norm

There once was a time when Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted dozens of races, and was as busy as any racing facility in the nation with cars and motorcycles buzzing around the race track every holiday weekend. In the early 1900s, though, the track changed its strategy to focus on one race each year -- the Indianapolis 500. And so was born not only an event, but a speedway that fans and competitors began to refer to in almost religious terms, a venue so notable that it was reserved exclusively for some of the biggest racing events in the world. For decades, the idea of a support series race at Indianapolis seemed as unthinkable as a NASCAR driver from Colombia.

That began to change in 2000, when a pair of lower-level races were added in support of the Formula One weekend. In 2003, the Indy Lights race was added to the Indianapolis 500 schedule, and another followed on the F1 weekend in 2005. In 2008 came a MotoGP motorcycle event with two support races. All this at a track that for most of its existence was open for just one month a year, a place where the Indianapolis mystique was honed through nearly a century of exclusivity. Now in 2012 comes the arrival of the four-race "super weekend" in support of the Brickyard 400. To purists, all these extra races feel like a shock to the system, as if the track were a discerning college that had suddenly loosened its entry requirements.

"I guess if you equate it to a minor-league baseball team getting to play Yankee Stadium, it's going to be the same thing," Newman said. No wonder some in the more traditional branch of the track's fan base are uncomfortable with it.

"That old way of doing business at Indy no longer works. ... NASCAR, I think, is going to prove that."

--DEREK DALY


_______________________

"I'm a traditionalist, but I'm not somebody who's so steadfast in it that I don't observe that you need to change to evolve."

--JOHN ANDRETTI

"It's a breaking of a tradition, a long tradition of having the short track and then the big daddy on Sunday," Andretti said. "I think any kind of change is going to bring about people who look at it one way, and people who obviously feel the opposite about it."

No question those qualms existed 18 years ago when NASCAR first arrived, and they're certainly present now. For all its unaltered traditions, despite being owned by the Hulman family since 1945, Indianapolis has seen its share of change. That was certainly the case two years ago, when chairman Tony George resigned after a decade in charge of his family's speedway. Shortly thereafter, track president Joie Chitwood departed for Daytona International Speedway. Stepping into both roles was Belskus, who had been executive vice president and chief financial officer of the facility's parent company.

To some, it comes as no coincidence that an idea like the "super weekend" concept, so at odds with much of Indianapolis' past, follows a shakeup in the front office. "It centers around a new way of looking at how to do business at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," Daly believes. "It's bringing the thinking into the 21st century at Indianapolis. ... [The 'super weekend'] is definitely a new managing of the view on how to reach out and attract and engage and entertain a new fan, or a fan that lost interest in what goes on at the speedway."

The 2012 Brickyard 400 shakeup isn't the only change. In February, the speedway moved the Indy 500 start time -- a very sensitive subject to race purists -- back one hour to noon. The track is expected to unveil Crown Royal as the title sponsor for the NASCAR event beginning next season. And Daly wonders if the changes to Brickyard 400 weekend foreshadow bigger changes to come at Indianapolis.

"I think that type of move is showing you that old way of doing business at Indy no longer works," he said. "I think the move for NASCAR could well herald a new era for the Indy 500. I can't think it's too long before we see a sponsored Indy 500. I know we don't have [former Brickyard sponsor] Allstate anymore, but now we have Crown Royal, and I can't imagine that it will be too long before the model for NASCAR of naming the race will happen to the Indy 500. The old sacred decision-making that only says you only have one event during the month of May is well dead and buried. NASCAR, I think, is going to prove that."

As far as the Brickyard is concerned, the changes for 2012 make very clear that old rules no longer necessary apply. And yet, the somewhat incongruous setting of the "super weekend" has served to drive discussion about Indianapolis' revamped NASCAR slate more than a year before the alterations take place. Hold three support races at New Hampshire, and no one bats an eye. Plan the same for Indy, and a debate ensues -- one that only validates why this track means so much to so many people.

"There are so many things that happen at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It seems like every time you cut a blade of grass, you have to fill out a form asking, how low can I cut it? Because you just feel like everything has such history and significance and tradition, any kind of change is going to get the hair on somebody's neck to stand up," Andretti said.

"I'm a traditionalist, but I'm not somebody who's so steadfast in it that I don't observe that you need to change to evolve. We're not different than any other sport -- the rules change, the places change, the teams change .... I'm old school, but I also realize there's change, and with change a lot of good things happen, too. And obviously, this is something very significant. But you have to realize, if any other race track was doing this, this discussion wouldn't be happening. It would be just -- yep, OK, so? But it's Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and therefore it becomes a topic of conversation."