On Sunday, Ryan Newman won the 20th running of the Brickyard 400. It was a special moment for the Indiana native. Newman was emotional on the radio after he crossed the finish line.
"Thank you, guys. This is an amazing—an amazing weekend,” the South Bend, Ind., native told Lee Spencer of FOXSports.com after crossing the finish line at the Brickyard 400 for his first Indianapolis Motor Speedway win. “This is a dream come true for me."
For a driver, especially one with open-wheel racing roots like Newman, Indianapolis will always be a special place. A victory at Indianapolis is a crowning achievement for any race car driver, no matter the discipline.
But as attendance and television ratings show, NASCAR fans don't feel the same way.
When NASCAR visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time, the race was a big deal. The grandstands were full with 350,000 screaming fans, Indianapolis 500 champions A.J. Foyt and Danny Sullivan both jumped into stock cars to make the race, and fans tuned in to see a major moment in racing history.
Twenty races later and the luster of the PPG Trophy has worn off.
Attendance has been down significantly in recent years. NASCAR no longer releases official attendance numbers, but Bob Pockrass of the Sporting News estimated that no more than 90,000 were in attendance on Sunday. That's a respectable number for the series, but not compared to the 350,000 that packed the speedway in 1994, or the 240,000 fans who were there in 2008, according to racing-reference.info.
Television numbers have dropped as well. Jayski.com reports the race drew a 3.6 rating, up from last year's 3.3, but well behind the 4.0 it earned in 2011. With an average TV audience of about 5.4 million viewers, the race was only the 15th most-watched broadcast during the season, trailing all 13 races on FOX and the July Daytona race broadcast on TNT.
As Thomas Bowles of Fronstretch.com put it, "it's a trophy drivers want to capture but fans no longer want to see."
It's not surprising that the fans have lost interest after all these years. The idea of stock cars racing on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was an exciting prospect 20 years ago, but the races have largely been high-speed parades. Sunday's race had 20 lead changes, but the vast majority of those came during pit stops.
In attempt to drum up fan interest, the Speedway added a Grand-Am sports car race and the NASCAR Nationwide Series to the schedule last year to create a "Super Weekend."
There's nothing super about it.
Instead of getting fans excited about watching the main event, it served to further dilute the race's meaning. The three races combined drew only about half the crowd of this year's Indianapolis 500.
"The Brickyard 400 has morphed into an exhibition event, an excuse to watch NASCAR's top class of cars running around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with no rhyme or reason," said Peter M. De Lorenzo of Autoextremist.com.
Lorenzo may be right, but there's even less rhyme or reason for the Nationwide Series to be running at the Speedway.
Long before stock cars took to the Brickyard, the Nationwide Series was racing annually down the street at Indianapolis Raceway Park. The race had tradition, having been on the schedule since the series was created in 1982.
Moving the Nationwide Series race to the Speedway gave the race less prestige than it once had, and now the "Super Weekend" has three mediocre events instead of one.
I am not ready to say that the Brickyard 400 should be taken off the schedule entirely. As long as the Speedway and NASCAR are making money, the race should continue, because that's what matters most.
But NASCAR has to stop pretending that the race is one of its crown jewels, because it's not.
Newman's win doesn't mean anything more than a boost in his Chase for the Championship hopes and a 17th career victory.
Newman will forever be known for his 2008 Daytona 500 victory, not this year's Indianapolis triumph. NASCAR drivers will never be measured by how many Brickyard 400 wins they achieve.
Daytona will always be the sport's crown jewel. The Brickyard 400 is just another race.