Prestigious. Historic. Spectacle.
All three words suit the greatest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500, run annually at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The flat 2.5-mile track has proven time and time again that it suits America’s top open-wheel series. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves’ battle during the last laps of this year’s event further cemented an already unbelievable 103-year racing past.
That’s what Indianapolis Motor Speedway means for open-wheel racing.
It means something entirely different to NASCAR: Disappointment. Boredom. Nap time.
Those words nicely sum up NASCAR’s 20 years at Indy. There hasn’t been a last-lap pass like there was in this year’s Indy 500, a photo finish or really any semblance of a battle for the win in the closing laps. The flat layout that suits open-wheel cars so well hasn’t had the same effect with slower, heavier, aero-dependent stock cars.
Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt provided the track and the sport a boost by claiming the first two titles in 1994 and ’95. Those victories were important because it allowed both Indianapolis and NASCAR to bill the Brickyard 400 as a race only the best of the best win. So even though the racing was always subpar, the prestige of racing at Indianapolis was just heightened by the quality of drivers who visited Victory Lane.
That wore off, though, and all we were left with was racing that seemingly got worse with each passing year, culminating in the 2008 tire debacle where drivers were forced to pit every 10 laps to avoid blowing a tire. The racing since could be labeled a debacle as well, and for those still trying to market the Brickyard as a race only for the best of the best, wins by Jamie McMurray (2010) and Paul Menard (2011) didn’t help matters.
Last year, Ryan Newman mercifully ended the event after only 2 hours, 36 minutes. You probably missed it, though because after the first hour, you were laying face down in your living room carpet. It was generally considered an awful event that at least produced a positive storyline; well, sort of. It was an Indiana native reveling in victory, celebrating within the stomping grounds of his heroes during a time he was getting shoved aside behind the scenes by his own team.
That awe from the drivers who have won the Brickyard is what we’ve clung to. The racing tends to be lackluster, but seeing Tony Stewart wide-eyed in amazement in the same spot A.J. Foyt won four Indy 500s is priceless. NASCAR and the media have milked that cow for the last 20 years and will continue to do so as long as the Brickyard is run. It’s smart, because there’s nothing else to fall back on. Twenty years have passed and what are your top memories of Indy? The 2008 disaster, Gordon’s win in the inaugural event or Jimmie Johnson’s victories?
NASCAR markets this race like it’s the second greatest thing since sliced bread — behind the Daytona 500 — but after 20 years, we’re left feeling empty because the on-track product has fallen way short of its IndyCar counterpart. No race on the NASCAR schedule builds up momentum and disappoints quite like Indy.
During NASCAR’s off weekend, much of the talk centered on the schedule. Many drivers and writers believe it should be shorter. Johnson actually suggested that 25 races would be good.
That’s a lot of races to cut, but I have a pretty good idea where we could start. While we’re at it, let remove the Nationwide Series from Indy, too. The series leaving Lucas Oil Raceway, or Indianapolis Raceway Park or whatever the short track they used to race on is called was a damn shame. We should send them back so Indianapolis fans have something to cheer about.
What would we really lose if we lost the Brickyard? Borrowed tradition? That’s about all we have. It would be like if IndyCar started racing at Daytona and tried to use Daytona 500 photo finishes, among stock cars as its leg to stand on.
NASCAR is still standing on the Indy 500s, and after 20 years isn’t ready to walk on its own yet. It’s had two decades to develop its own product, memorable finishes and even separate history. But the tradition it has developed above all else, instead is disappointment.
That’s hard to market.