2012 Brickyard 400: The Unfixable Problem at the Ole Brickyard
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While Indy is one of the top television markets for NASCAR, the attendance has been decreasing steadily at the Brickyard and most NASCAR tracks.
On Sunday July 29, NASCAR's second biggest race was held on the storied grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It was my 14th Brickyard 400—or, as it was known this year, the Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard—and in those 14 years I have sat all over the track.
Turn 1 and 2, the short chutes at both the north and south ends of the track and the main straightaway have all given me a place to rest my legs.
But on Sunday, much of those seats were vacant.
On the video monitors, the stock cars zipped along, with a checkerboard of bodies and silver benches as their back drop. And the silver vastly outweighed the people.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway does not release attendance numbers for any of their races.
The estimates vary, but all agree that it is well below half of the 250,000-plus seats.
NASCAR estimated that 125,000 attended the 2012 Brickyard, while Indianapolis radio personality JMV said his sources believed the total was 70,000. I have to admit that it looked much closer to latter.
Let's split the difference and say 97,000 were at the Brickyard.
That would mean Jimmie Johnson won his fourth 400—an admirable accomplishment—in front of 39 percent capacity.
For most events 97,000 is a beyond-fantastic turnout, but for Indianapolis it is deplorable.
This is just a continuation of a trend for NASCAR and Indianapolis.
The question now facing the brass from both NASCAR and IMS, is what can be done about it?
In the early years of the Brickyard, the attendance rivaled and sometimes exceeded the Indianapolis 500.
But when it started to slide, both IMS and NASCAR tried to remedy it.
They moved the date from Saturday to Sunday, at an earlier starting time, and in July instead of August to avoid the scorching Indy weather.
Still attendance dropped.
IMS repaved the asphalt and increased the incline on its flat turns to make it more compatible with the heavier stock cars to hopefully make the races more exciting.
Still attendance dropped.
Recently, they tried to build a more attractive weekend by bringing the Sports Cars Series and the Nationwide Series to share the Brickyard weekend with Cup cars.
However, the crowds for both the endurance and Nationwide races would have been dwarfed by the crowds that the 500's Pole Day receives.
What more can be done? What more is left to be done?
The suggestions range from the radical—add lights and run the race at night—to the never-ever-going-to-in-a-million-years-happen—put a dome over the entire facility.
The problem with the lights is vast.
While installing lights would lead to an initial bump in attendance, would the increase be sustainable after the first year or two? No.
Then there is a problem of what day to run the race. Do you run it on Sunday—with work the next day—or on Saturday, when NASCAR is on?
It gets even more complicated with the weekend being shared with the Nationwide and Rolex Sports Car Series.
It takes more than half-a-day to change the the track from its road configuration to its oval one.
So with the sports cars practicing Thursday and running Friday, it would be virtually impossible to cram four practice sessions—two each for the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series—in addition to two qualifying sessions and two races into a Saturday hoopla.
Do you tell the sports cars to take a hike, send the Nationwide cars back to the Raceway Park in Clermont, or both?
Let alone the problem that IMS is in a residential area, so if a race lasts until 10 or 11 at night, that effects the community around the track; and it would cost the Speedway millions upon millions of dollars to illuminate both the track and the extensive grounds.
Clearly, the suggested solutions to the Brickyard's attendance problems are not easy.
But what if the problems facing the Brickyard can't be fixed?
Maybe that's the biggest problem.
It is fitting that the Brickyard is NASCAR's second biggest event, because it's also the second biggest event at its own track.
The Brickyard 400 is outweighed in almost every conceivable way by the Indy 500—especially in the Indianapolis area, where most of the paying customers come from.
And while the track is ill-suited for NASCAR, it is perfect for the IndyCars. They sure have put it on display over the last decade, with the last two races maybe the most competitive Indy 500's ever.
In 2011 there was lead changes and passing throughout the field for the entire race—positions were changing every lap.
The race culminated with JR Hildebrand smacking the last turn wall after running a flawless race, gift wrapping the win to Dan Wheldon, who himself had to pass two cars in two laps to even be in a position to take advantage of Hildebrand's gaffe.
Then in this year's 500 it was a story of three acts.
The first was a duel between Ryan Briscoe and James Hinchcliffe.
The second was a dominating performance by Marco Andretti, which made the end of the Andretti curse seem inevitable.
In the final act, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon exchanged the lead every other lap.
Then Andretti hit the wall and Takuma Sato ran down both Dixon and Franchitti.
It reached the climax with a failed, desperate Turn 1 pass on the last lap for the win by Sato who went into the wall and Franchitti winning his third 500.
The race featured more passing than any 500 before it and a finish that was in doubt until the last lap. It confirmed the Indianapolis 500 as "the Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
And then there is the Brickyard.
While the Indy 500 is gets better and more exciting, the Brickyard remains the same, only less people are showing up.
You may say that comparing the races is like comparing apples to oranges and you wouldn't be wrong.
But for the fans that attend both races, the contrast between the two could not be more stark.
The races aren't remotely comparable.
The Indianapolis 500 has seen a progressive increase that shows no sign of dropping any time soon.
But that is not the case with the Brickyard.
They share the track with the Indianapolis 500, and it is becoming more evident that the 400 is much less exciting than the 500.
As long as that is the case, the biggest problem facing the Brickyard is incurable.
And that means its long-term sustainability could be in doubt.
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