Is The Brickyard 400 Blasphemous?
I am not a fan of the Brickyard 400, which will run for the nineteenth time this weekend. I never have been and probably never will be. There. I said it. Some will say that if this way of thinking doesn’t qualify me as a member of the Legions of the Miserable, it at least will earn me a permanent spot on the board of the old curmudgeons who lament the demise of the roadster at IMS. Personally, I don’t think I fall into either of those categories; but that doesn’t mean I have to embrace this “new” tradition, does it?
Put me in the camp with Tony Stewart who was upset with the first sight of stock cars going around the famed oval in a thinly veiled so-called tire test at IMS in 1992. His initial reaction was “it’s the home of the Indy 500 and that’s all it should be”. Of course, Stewart eventually migrated to NASCAR, winning three championships and two Brickyard 400’s himself – so one can excuse him from changing his tune. He now fully embraces the Sprint Cup race at IMS as well as the two new events that will take place for the first time at 16th & Georgetown – the Nationwide Series as well as the Grand Am sports car series that will run on the IMS road course on the same weekend.
Having no affiliation with NASCAR and being, at best, a casual fan of stock car racing – I have not changed my tune. It has now been twenty years since that first Goodyear tire test, and I’ve (probably) gotten over my initial reaction that having anything other than an IndyCar on this historic track was blasphemous – but I’d be lying if I said I’m comfortable with the sight of a stock car lumbering into Turn One at IMS. I’m not.
Keep in mind, I started going to races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a time when roadsters and Novi’s were still in the field. Names like Don Branson, Len Sutton and Johnny Boyd were on the starting grid of my first race at the Speedway. Al Unser and Gordon Johncock were rookies. I grew up in a time when racing fans were divided into two camps – Foyt or Andretti. You had to choose one, because you couldn’t be fans of both. Open-wheel racing was looked upon with awe, and the Indianapolis 500 was king.
Although there have been eighteen Brickyard 400’s; that only accounts for a third of my life. Since I attended my first race at IMS in 1965, there were thirty Indianapolis 500’s run before they ran the first Brickyard 400. Before 1994, there was only one event per year at that hallowed ground. The famed oval came to life once a year each May, then went dormant again until the following May. That was part of its allure, its charm and magic. That’s what made the Indianapolis 500 so special.
If you grew up going to the Indianapolis 500 each year as I did, only to reach the age of (almost) thirty-six and see another series running on the track you had grown to love – it was a tough pill to swallow, especially to someone like me who lives by the mantra “change is bad”.
When the Brickyard 400 was first run in August of 1994, my father was dying of pancreatic cancer. He was the one who introduced me to open-wheel racing and passed his love of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on to me and my brothers. That passion he instilled in me for that place is why I chose to get married there this past May. Although he was ill and not having a good day that August afternoon – he managed to come out and watch the first half of the race with me. As the rows of two came down to take the green flag, he uttered that it was a sacrilege that those cars were racing there. I still remember the look on his face as he said those words to this very day. He passed away less than four months later.
It would be incorrect, however, to think that my father’s words that day influenced my thinking. I already knew I didn’t like it. From the first pictures I saw of those nine cars on the front straightaway at the tire test in 1992, I felt as if something was wrong about it. It was sort of the uncomfortable feeling you get when you see your ex-girlfriend for the first time out with some other guy. You find it unsettling, yet you can’t look away.
Perhaps that explains why, after all these years of those feelings – I’ve never missed a telecast of the Brickyard 400. I’ve never attended one, but I’ve watched every race. I guess it’s just a chance to get a glimpse of my favorite venue, aside from the fact that I feel it’s being violated by these interlopers – most of whom know nothing about the history of the track they are driving on and probably even fewer care. To most of them, this is just another track – no different than Kansas Speedway or Homestead.
The fact that Jeff Gordon is already a four-time winner bothers me also. There were sixty-one Indianapolis 500’s before that event had its first four-time winner. For the Brickyard 400; it only took eleven runnings before Jeff Gordon won his fourth in 2004. At least he has Hoosier ties and is one of the few, along with Stewart, that actually understands the importance of this place.
When Formula One started racing at IMS in 2000, the presence of the Brickyard 400 made the F1 race easier to swallow. I actually attended the F1 qualifying there in 2002, mostly out of curiosity. The sights and sounds of the cars were very impressive, but the crowd was so different that it didn’t even feel as if I was at the same track I had gone to so many times before. And seeing the Formula One cars run “backwards” was something I never got used to that day.
When F1 left following the 2007 season, they were replaced by MotoGP. The logic was that motorcycles had run at the Speedway in 1909 and that this would be a perfect fit for the Centennial Era celebration. At that point, my attitude was “whatever”. The exclusivity seal that had been enjoyed by the Indianapolis 500 for eighty-three years had already been broken by NASCAR, IROC and then Formula One. At this point, I figured it was important for the Speedway to live up to its “Racing Capital of the World” moniker.
For 2012, the Nationwide series and Grand Am series will join the Sprint Cup cars at IMS in a Super Weekend at the Brickyard. Quite honestly, this was conceived to prop up sagging attendance for the Brickyard 400. I’ll admit, I briefly considered going, but didn’t really want to cough up the cash that it would take to go. Personally, I hope this weekend’s event is a success – not because I’m a fan of the Brickyard 400, but because I’m a fan of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Anytime IMS can turn a profit, that’s more money they can put into the facility to make the Indianapolis 500 an even better event.
So while I’ll continue my streak of having never attended a Brickyard 400, I’ll be watching this weekend and hoping that the TV shots will show less aluminum seating and more bodies in those seats. All the while, I’ll continue to hear the words from my dying father throughout the race.