It has been 19 years since NASCAR sent shockwaves through the motorsports world by announcing it would hold a stock car race on the hallowed asphalt of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Nearly two decades later, NASCAR still makes an annual late-summer trek to Indianapolis, but, year after year, there is a murmur that grows louder:
Is it really worth it anymore?
As reported by ESPN, fans and analysts alike have spent this week debating whether NASCAR's yearly 400-miler at Indy is relevant anymore, or whether it has become just another race on the schedule.
Some even breached a larger question: Is it time for NASCAR to abandon Indianapolis and its waning crowds?
An estimated 350,000 fans crammed their way into Indy for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in August 1994, some having purchased tickets up to a year prior.
They were treated to a fantastic finish that saw Ernie Irvan and Jeff Gordon duel for the victory, a duel that lasted until a flat right-front tire on Irvan's car gave Gordon his first of four Brickyard victories. The end result was the Brickyard instantly becoming one of NASCAR's top attractions.
But, in recent years, fans have begun to sour on the event, blaming lackluster racing that sees cars frequently become spread out around the sprawling 2.5-mile rectangle.
Then, of course, there is the unmitigated disaster that was 2008's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, the now-infamous race in which NASCAR was forced to throw cautions every 10-15 laps because of extreme tire wear that remains a black eye on the sport to this day.
Fans in the last couple of years have been quick to cite the so-called boring racing as a reason NASCAR should leave Indianapolis.
But they were still packing the Brickyard as little as five years ago, when 270,000 fans attended the 2007 running of the 400.
2008's "tire-gate" calamity drew 240,000 fans (via Jayski). It wasn't until 2009 that the attendance dipped below 200,000 (180,000, to be exact), followed by subsequent drops in the two years since (140,000 in 2010 and 138,000 in 2011).
So are fans and analysts really tired of the racing? Or have they still not shaken the horrible memory of the start-and-stop affair that was 2008?
For drivers, the luster remains the same. After all, regardless of what fans or analysts say, this is still Indy, one of the most famous racetracks on the planet.
"Indianapolis is Indianapolis,” Carl Edwards said, according to The Morris News Service (h/t Brainerd Dispatch). “To me, Daytona and Indy are huge. There’s no bigger race than those two. I haven’t won [at Indianapolis] yet. That would be a career accomplishment. The guys who haven’t won it dream of standing on those bricks.”
Indy is still a big race for NASCAR, too. Even last year, when the 400 only drew 138,000 fans — less than half the speedway's capacity — it was the seventh highest-attended race on the schedule.
ESPN's race broadcast brought in an additional 6.3 million viewers (via Jayski), making it ESPN's second-most watched NASCAR telecast of 2011 behind the season's final race at Homestead.
Both of those numbers mean plenty of dollars for NASCAR, and almost ensure that unless attendance and viewership dips drastically, Indianapolis is here to stay.
Maybe one day, if the fans really stop coming and stop tuning in, NASCAR will consider the idea that Indy has outstayed its welcome on the schedule.
That hasn't happened yet, though, and plenty of fans will show up and tune in Sunday to find out which driver will get the chance to kiss that famous yard of bricks, because the Brickyard isn't going anywhere.
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