Why We Want The Brickyard 400 To Succeed
No one should be surprised to hear me say that I am a racing fan. While IndyCar is my passion, I am still a fan of other forms of motorsport – including NASCAR. I’m no die-hard, but I’ll still watch the occasional NASCAR race. I have been to three NASCAR races in my life – two in Charlotte and one at Darlington. Surprisingly, I’ve never been to the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s not that I consider the race a sacrilege that invades the hallowed ground on an annual basis, as some people do. It’s just that I never felt an overwhelming urge to go.
This weekend will mark the twenty-third time that NASCAR’s top series has run at 16th and Georgetown. It seems like only yesterday that I sat with my ailing father in his den in early August of 1994 to watch the Inaugural Brickyard 400. We satisfied our curiosity to see what the slower, cumbersome stock cars would look like on the familiar 2.5 mile oval that was the sight of so many good times for my family three decades earlier. He would pass away less than four months later.
Six Indianapolis 500 veterans tried to make that race. AJ Foyt came out of retirement to run it. He qualified fortieth and finished thirtieth, carrying a very unfamiliar No.50. Danny Sullivan and John Andretti both qualified with similar finishing results. Davy Jones, Stan Fox and Gary Bettenhausen all failed to qualify.
Although the scoring pylon, the Master Control Tower and the track layout looked familiar; the event had a very odd feeling to it – at least on television. The cars looked gigantic on the narrow straightaway and it seemed strange seeing them start the race two-abreast. Although it was unfair to do so, it was impossible not to compare this new event to the Indianapolis 500 – the only event to ever run there since 1911.
As we all know, shortly after that, IndyCar racing and NASCAR took vastly different trajectories. I don’t want to get into a history of “The Split”, but just a few years later; the Brickyard became the premier event at IMS – much to the bewilderment of myself and other open-wheel fans.
But the tide has turned. For the last few years, the Indianapolis 500 has returned to its rightful place as the No.1 race, while the Brickyard 400 has fallen on hard times for a variety of reasons.
First of all, it’s hot – very hot in central Indiana in mid-summer. The multitude of uncovered aluminum bleachers don’t help. It also doesn’t help that traditional NASCAR fans don’t care for the track. They can’t camp in the infield as they are used to doing, but worst of all – they can only see a portion of the track at one time, even from the best of seats. NASCAR fans are used to seeing all of Daytona, Talladega and practically any other oval from their seats high in the grandstands. That is not possible at Indianapolis. Apparently, they are not happy having to rely on the video boards to see their favorite driver around the backstretch.
Historically, the racing in the Brickyard 400 has not been great. Some say that the heavier stock cars are just too big to race on the most famous track in the world. They are more suited to wide, high-banked ovals – not relatively flat ninety-degree turns.
However, the Goodyear tire debacle of 2008 is probably the single biggest reason for a sharp decline in attendance in recent years. Goodyear brought the wrong tire that shredded on the diamond-ground pavement of IMS. For safety, NASCAR scheduled mandatory “competition cautions” every ten to twelve laps to give teams an opportunity to at least check the tires, if not change them under caution. Attendance has fallen every year since then.
Some estimate that the attendance for last year’s race was less than 75,000. While that number sounds astronomical for every IndyCar race that does not run on Memorial Day weekend, it is shockingly low for the Brickyard – where NASCAR had been averaging crowds of around 250,000 prior to the tire debacle. And in a cavernous facility like IMS, 75,000 looks like a mere handful of spectators.
Some IndyCar fans who are also NASCAR haters, take joy in seeing the attendance numbers dwindle at the Brickyard. They shouldn’t.
If you are a fan of the Verizon IndyCar Series, you want the Brickyard 400 to succeed. Why? Because the profits generated by the Brickyard 400 help to keep IndyCar afloat, that’s why – plain and simple. From what I understand, profits from the Indianapolis 500 help sustain IMS, but the profits from the Brickyard help sustain IndyCar. I’m sure the balance sheet at Hulman and Company is just a tad bit more complicated than that, but that is the overall gist of the financial structure.
I don’t pretend to know how much money the Brickyard 400 brings in or how much profit IMS makes off of the race. But I do know this much – if the race were losing money for IMS, it would not remain on the schedule year after year. But if attendance keeps dwindling, it will eventually get to that point. Then, another main source of revenue will dry up for IndyCar.
After making the (correct, in my opinion) decision to refund ticket buyers to the defunct Boston Grand Prix, a race in Brazil that never ran in 2015 and the loss of major sponsors like IZOD and Apex-Brasil – IndyCar cannot see many more revenue sources dry up. These are not the old days when Tony George kept throwing his family’s money into the series to prop it up. Nowadays, IndyCar officials are held accountable for their expenditures. If the money isn’t there, they can no longer do it.
Doug Boles took over an ailing Brickyard 400 when he became IMS President in 2013. His tallest order is to keep turning a healthy profit for a NASCAR race that has fallen out of favor with the public. It may be too much to ask.
So, if you tune in this weekend and see a lot of empty seats at the Brickyard 400 this Sunday – don’t smirk, even if you are tempted to. It’s not NASCAR who will be feeling it in the pocketbook; rather it is the Verizon IndyCar Series that we all follow. NASCAR succeeding at Indianapolis is truly a case of all boats rising. Let’s wish them well.