The Rise And Fall Of NASCAR At Indy

This weekend is the latest running of NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 (officially the Crown Royal Presents the John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard powered by at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Almost 20 years ago (the actual first race run was in early August 1994), NASCAR debuted at the hallowed ground of open-wheel auto racing. Things haven’t been the same since. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.

The initial Brickyard 400 was a sell out. For NASCAR, it helped expand stock car racing from its traditional Southeastern U.S. stronghold. NASCAR would later expand into markets such as Chicago (actually Joliet, Ill.) and Southern California. It was part of a plan by the stock car series to become a national sport.

At Indy, however, NASCAR has seen better days. The sellouts ended some time ago. In recent years, Brickyard 400 attendance has plunged. According to The Sporting News in 2013, it may have been as low as 80,000 to 90,000 at a track that has more than 200,000 seats.

The track, a 2.5-mile oval, isn’t ideal for NASCAR. Indy has 9 degree banking at its turns according to the track’s website. By contrast, other tracks where NASCAR races that are much steeper in the turns. For example, Daytona International Speedway, where the Daytona 500 is run, has banking of 31 degrees while Charlotte Motor Speedway has banking of 24 degrees.

As a result, Indy doesn’t provide the same kind of passing seen at other NASCAR events.

For the first several years of the Brickyard, that almost didn’t matter. The novelty of NASCAR at Indy filled the seats. Also, for automakers such as General Motors and Ford that participate in the series as well as major sponsors, Indianapolis provided places to hold race-related events. The Indianapolis speedway is only a few miles from downtown. Some racetracks are much further from metro areas. So at Indianapolis were convenient facilities for sponsors to utilize ahead of the race. Thus, the Brickyard may not have been a great race, but it was a big event.

Thus, in the early years, sports reporters at local Indianapolis television stations annually would ask drivers if the Brickyard was the biggest race on the schedule yet. The drivers, most of whom are trained to not be controversial in interviews, would sing the praises of the historic Indianapolis track.

That changed as the 2000s began. NASCAR decided to have a “Chase for the Championship,” designed to be the equivalent of a playoff to determine the year’s champion. The Brickyard wasn’t part of the chase, which was a blow for the race’s prestige. Another blow was the 2008 Brickyard, where tire problems forced NASCAR to have frequent yellow flags to slow the field down. The Brickyard hasn’t been quite the same since.

For a time, people actually asked out loud whether the Brickyard 400 might outdraw the much older Indianapolis 500. Such questions aren’t asked any more. Now, even with the stands half-full, the Brickyard race draws a good number of fans. Still, it’s not what it used to be. At this point, prospects are dim it ever will be.

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