Race Weekend Central

Side by Side: Is the Daytona 500 Now Bigger than the Indy 500?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side by Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: With the struggles of open-wheel racing over the last 15 years, the Indy 500 has struggled to maintain its national appeal. Considering NASCAR’s explosive growth over the same time period, is it fair to say at this point the Daytona 500 is the biggest race in North America?

Daytona 500 Now the Top American Race

A few years back, Bob Margolis was correct in noting that comparing the Indianapolis 500 to the Daytona 500 was like comparing “the difference between vanilla and chocolate.”

However, Margolis was quite incorrect in asserting that the Daytona 500 was “not even close” to the Brickyard’s hallmark event.

Much of this can be attributed to Margolis’s shallow and superficially made case for the superiority of the Indy 500.

It’s all about the car at Daytona… not at Indy. Come on, really? It’s not about the car at Indy? The Indy Racing League and the Sprint Cup Series are both alike in that every given race weekend, there are a number of cars that can win and a larger number that can’t. Just like Kirk Shelmerdine isn’t going to run down Jimmie Johnson at Daytona, Alex Tagliani isn’t going to be challenging Ryan Briscoe this coming Sunday.

Daytona is a “grandiose marketing exercise,” Indy is a unique spectacle. The Daytona 500 features tons of advertising. So does the Indianapolis 500.

The Daytona 500 is all about Dale Earnhardt Jr.… one driver… Indy is about 33 Sure, just like any NASCAR broadcast, Earnhardt Jr. gets a good share of the limelight at Daytona. Sounds like any IRL broadcast and Danica Patrick. Except, while Jr. actually has won the Daytona 500, Danica hasn’t won the Indy 500.

Spare me. Now, there is no need to downplay either of these races. Both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 are tremendous spectacles and among the greatest races in the world. Both races have produced moments that forever altered the face of American motorsports (from Louis Meyer’s drinking buttermilk in victory lane after his third Indy 500 title to the 1979 brawl between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers).

See also
Racing at the Beach: Daytona Legends Take Center Stage, 1976-1980

Both races have played host to a who’s who of great champions, from AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti in the open-wheel ranks to Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty in stock cars. And both are the crown jewels not only of their respective sanctioning bodies, but of their racing disciplines in general.

That said, the face of motorsports has changed in North America. NASCAR, not open-wheel racing, is the top of the pyramid. The Rick Mears and Foyts of this generation are not going to be racing in Indianapolis this weekend, they’re going to be in Charlotte.

Just look at the landscape of racing in 2009. Where are the vast majority of American motorsports’ stars competing? In NASCAR, in the Daytona 500. Where are the focuses of American auto manufacturers? In NASCAR, in the Daytona 500.

And on the racetrack, where is the better race going to be? In NASCAR, in the Daytona 500. Say what you will about restrictor-plate racing, it’s thrilling for the fans to watch and allows for far more cars to compete for the victory than in the Indy 500, where a good third of the field is composed of part-time entries with drivers having to shake the dust off for a month just to get into shape to run the demanding Indy racetrack. That says a lot about the importance of the Indianapolis 500 right there… there aren’t enough full-time race teams out there to fill the field.

Now, a ton of Indianapolis 500 advocates out there will be quick to dismiss Danica-mania and instead harp on the pomp and circumstance that truly does make the Indianapolis 500 “the greatest spectacle in racing.” Granted, the Daytona 500 doesn’t have the driver parade, a last-row party or “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

Notice I didn’t mention bump day, as this tradition’s drama this year was largely the product of two NASCAR backmarkers in John Andretti and Stanton Barrett… not all that significant in the grand scheme of North American racing. But those who claim this makes the Indy 500 the more important and significant of North America’s two biggest races are those that will never take into consideration that the American motorsports scene is a dynamic one.

And it’s one that has made the Daytona 500 the biggest race on this continent. The title “Great American Race” is truly a misnomer, for the Daytona 500 has become a truly international event. Alongside names such as Earnhardt, Gordon and Tony Stewart, Dario Franchitti, Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve have also made the February trek to Florida to race on the high banks of DIS. And more importantly, the Daytona 500’s stature as the conclusion to Speedweeks truly has made the race the centerpiece of what is the globe’s opening day for the motorsports season.

NASCAR has gone from regional to international as the face of American motorsports. And on the track, it constantly produces a competitive and unpredictable race that is, grandiose marketing terminology or not, “not a race you watch, but you experience.” The Indianapolis 500 may be the “greatest spectacle in racing,” but Bobby Allison was spot-on when he called the Daytona 500 “the Great Race.”

To those who enjoy the pomp and circumstance, enjoy the Indianapolis 500. I’ll be standing in an autograph line at Charlotte, trying to get just a brief glimpse at the Al Unsers and Foyts of today as they prepare to take the track in North Carolina, far away from Gasoline Alley. – Bryan Davis Keith

Indy 500 Still Stands Strong as Number One

While it is definitely true that the Daytona 500 has eclipsed the Indianapolis 500 in TV ratings and NASCAR, despite its recent slide, has many times the average viewership of the IndyCar Series, the Indianapolis 500 is still the bigger of the two major auto races. Remember, TV ratings are not the only factor for how “big” a race is. The race at Indianapolis, by over 100,000 fans, still attracts a bigger race-day crowd than the Daytona 500 does. Heck, the Brickyard 400 gets more turnout than the Daytona 500 does.

Prior to the infamous “split,” the Indianapolis 500 was undoubtedly the biggest race in the United States. The CART World Series (the Indy 500 was the third race of the season) was seen as a potential threat to even Formula 1 at the time, especially after 1992 World Champion Nigel Mansell defected to Newman-Haas for the 1993 season. While it’s true that the momentum faded away shortly afterwards, the prestige of the race and the aura that comes with it is still there.

Despite being hurt badly by Tony George forming the IRL, and thus splitting American open-wheel acing in the mid-1990s, the Indianapolis 500 is still perceived internationally as the most prestigious one-day race in the United States. Outside the United States, there is not all that much recognition for the Daytona 500. In many places, especially Europe, open-wheel racing is more popular than “tin top” racing, a term usually used to describe touring car racing.

That’s not to say NASCAR isn’t gathering strength overseas. The ASCAR “Days of Thunder” series that used to run ASA-spec cars at the 1.5-mile gumdrop shaped oval in Rockingham, England is one example. The Speedcar series, which races cars that would be eligible for the ProCup Series here in the States, that currently runs road courses in places like Bahrain and Qatar, is another example. But compared to IndyCar – who runs IRL races in Japan, Australia and is considering adding China to its schedule – there’s not only a recognition but a permanent presence in the market by its top-tier series.

The Daytona 500 also does not have the spectacle that the Indianapolis 500 does, or the history. There are a long series of traditions that are associated with the race. The multiple weekends for qualifying (and the resulting drama on bump day, as witnessed on Sunday afternoon) are just one of these traditions. Nobody is guaranteed a spot in the starting lineup, although some teams are far more likely to make it than others. It is basically guesswork at Daytona as to who gets into the field outside of the 35 guaranteed cars; it’s a confusing system, while at Indy it’s easy: the fastest 33 make the field.

Moving ahead, Carburetion Day is the traditional last day of practice the Thursday before the 500. This is marked by practice and a pit stop competition. Also, we cannot forget the traditional sipping of milk in victory lane by the winner. Emerson Fittipaldi’s refusal to sip the milk when he won his first 500 in 1989 in favor of OJ caused a bit of an uproar at the time. Outside of the races, there are no real set traditions at Daytona – and I think that is to Daytona’s detriment.

There also seems to be a better sense of community involvement surrounding the Indy 500 than Daytona. Indianapolis has always been seen as more than just a race the day before Memorial Day. For example, on the Saturday before the race, there is a large parade featuring the 33 starters, along with floats and marching bands and other typical sights found in parades. At Daytona, I’m not sure what goes on down there besides the actual action at the track. It’s like it’s just another race, albeit one with a ginormous purse ($18 million this year).

Then, there’s race day at Indy. Whereas at Daytona, there’s a useless concert featuring and the race doesn’t start until almost 3:30 p.m. these days. In comparison, the Indy 500 starts at approximately 1:00 p.m. (and it used to be roughly noon ET (11 a.m. Indy time), until the Daylight Savings rules were changed in Indiana and the track pushed the start time back an hour).

Yes, there might be a performance during the pre-race show, but besides that, everything is pretty regimented. There are marching bands, the singing of the National Anthem by a special guest (depending on the year), the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” (by Jim Nabors, if he is up to it health-wise) and then the command to start engines, given by the Chairman of IMS’s Board.

Personally, I’m a historical nut and like reading up on (and viewing) historical races, either on television, in books or online. I always like looking at older clips of races, and Indy 500s are no different. Recently, I’ve been watching old Indy 500s on YouTube (there are a couple of full races on there from the 1980s and 1990s, currently).

Those clips of the Indianapolis 500 provide you with many more meaningful moments within racing history than with the Daytona 500, although Daytona does have its share of classic moments (the 1976 finish, the infamous fight, Ned Jarrett calling his son to victory in 1993, etc.). These are big things, but it’s kinda hard to top Al Unser Jr. beating Scott Goodyear in 1992, Gordon Johncock over Rick Mears in 1982 or even Sam Hornish Jr. beating Marco Andretti in 2006.

Of course, having said all that, I was never in any situation where I had to choose between watching the Indianapolis 500 or NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day Weekend like so many race fans had to choose prior to 1993. I didn’t have a choice. This is because my cable system did not carry TBS until 1995. So, I watched the Indy 500 in order to get my racing fix. By the time TBS was added to my cable lineup, the 600 had been become a twilight race, meaning that I didn’t have to pick and choose.

But even now, there is no choice between the Indy 500 and NASCAR. It’s still number one in terms of overall prestige. – Phil Allaway

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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