Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: The Track That Stole NASCAR’s Innocence

This week, Sprint will kick off a bonus program at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in which the winners of the next five races will be pitted against one another at Atlanta, where if one of them should take the checkered flag, $3 million will be distributed among the driver, his favorite charity and a fan. It’s a nice gesture, but for a top driver to win twice in six weeks isn’t exactly stretching the realm of fantasy.

It’s not like the Winston Million, which required a driver to win at three of four specific races: the Daytona 500 (the most prestigious race on the schedule), the Coca-Cola 600 (the longest race), the Winston 500 (the fastest race when the program began; held at Talladega before the restrictor plate changed the game) and the Southern 500 (the oldest continuously run race).

In 12 years, the Million was won exactly twice: by Bill Elliott in 1985, the first year the bonus was offered (giving Elliott the nickname Million-Dollar Bill) and by Jeff Gordon in 1997, the last year Winston had that program. The money went unclaimed for the 10 seasons in between.

After the difficulty of the Winston Million, this new bonus program rings a little hollow. Not just because it is, at least on paper, easier to win, but because it highlights a much more lamentable change in NASCAR: the shift to the Brickyard 400 as the race to win outside the Daytona 500.

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It wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time, the Southern 500 held that place on the schedule: the race everyone wanted on their resume, right up there with Daytona and a step or two ahead of the Coca-Cola 600. Then Indy came on the scene and all that changed. The first Cup race at the track was also the first time since 1919 that the track had hosted a race that was not the Indianapolis 500, a race which carries perhaps the most coveted trophy in all of auto racing.

The Brickyard 400 trophy may not be the Borg-Warner, but it’s still the one everyone wants on his shelf these days. Somehow, the fall of the Southern 500 and the ride of the Brickyard 400 manage to encapsulate all that is wrong with today’s NASCAR in one package.

The Brickyard 400 was perhaps a good idea at the time. The chance to run on what is perhaps America’s most revered racetrack, coupled with one of the highest purses on the circuit made sense. Despite testing at Indy, nobody really knew how the track raced, so the unbridled optimism was understandable. History, fame and money all at once was an irresistible lure for a NASCAR that was in the midst of radical changes and expansion.

It seemed the perfect coup for the sanctioning body at the time. The first race was storybook perfect for the new NASCAR: Jeff Gordon had spent his teenage years in Indiana. The second-year driver was showing flashes of the brilliance that would dominate the series in the late 1990s and his Indy win was good for the sport.

Nobody realized then that a change had begun, and it wasn’t only the beginning of the changing of the guard from the era of Earnhardt and Waltrip, Elliott and Wallace to the Gordon era and beyond. It was also the start of the selling out of NASCAR, where money and manufactured racing would replace the old-school racing that had brought the sport to the brink of the 21st century.

The difference between the Brickyard 400 and its predecessor on the prestige ladder is fairly simple: the lure of Indy has more to do with driving on a famous track built for another car and winning a boatload of money. The Southern 500, perhaps the Brickyard 400’s antithesis, was important simply because to win at Darlington really meant something. It was earned the old-fashioned way, by beating a track that was seductively difficult to drive and hell on tires to boot; by beating a field of drivers who took you on more with brain and body power than sheer horsepower.

Winning under the blistering sun of a South Carolina Labor Day special was a mark of skill and determination. Winning at Indy is a cheaper version of that; it takes talent and a measure of luck to win anywhere, but to kiss the bricks requires a huge measure of horsepower and handling, and a good car with a decent driver can win there, though a good car with a good driver usually does so, often in rivetingly boring fashion.

Sure there have been some decent finishes at Indianapolis over the years. There have also been decent finishes at tracks like Auto Club Speedway, Michigan and other forgettable cookie-cutter tracks. That doesn’t make them great racetracks for NASCAR racing. These have something in common with Indy: they were built for Indy cars, not stock cars. Or at least they were built to host races for both types of car, not strictly for stock cars.

Darlington was built solely for stock cars. NASCAR’s original superspeedway wasn’t concerned with drawing the open wheelers once a year. It was concerned only with providing a fast, treacherous place for the stock cars to run. Darlington was important to NASCAR because Darlington was NASCAR; grit and determination carved out of a Southern landscape in the days when drivers raced what Detroit produced.

Darlington Raceway, in short, is everything NASCAR once was: tough, unforgiving, exciting. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is everything it has become: glitz over substance, boring and above all, greedy. Sure there’s a great payout at Indy and everyone likes to go home with a good haul, but what does that money mean?

You showed up with a car decent enough to qualify, or you showed up with a car that has more time on a seven-post shaker, in the wind tunnel, and on every kind of dynamometer known to man. Sure, in the end the driver drove it, but the race is against other drivers in specialty machines who also want the big payout and the photo op at the end of the day.

Winning at Darlington meant you showed up with a fast enough car to qualify, and if you finish it means you raced the Lady in Black, as the track is often called for her treacherous ways, first, the competition second. It still takes money and talent, but to win at Darlington takes mental and physical toughness and controlled aggression, patience and single-mindedness.

Exciting finishes at Darlington abound. Gordon’s five Southern 500 wins are largely more memorable than his four Brickyard 400 victories. Gordon’s side-by-side battles with Jeff Burton on the last lap in 1997 and again in the closing laps in 1998 should rank among the best of any era. Ricky Craven’s win in the spring race in 2003 by .002 over Kurt Busch still stands as the closest victory margin in NASCAR history. In short, you remember the races at Darlington.

In contrast, the race many fans associate with Indianapolis? The 2008 tire debacle, which Jimmie Johnson won mainly because he came off pit road in good position after each of the numerous cautions and didn’t suffer a catastrophic tire failure. The ironic part of that race is, it produced the second-closest finish ever in the Brickyard 400.

The closest finish came in 1997 when Ricky Rudd beat Bobby Labonte to the wire by .183 seconds. But such exciting finishes are a rarity at Indianapolis. In 17 races, the margin of victory has been less than half a second only four times and over one second five times. There has never really been an underdog winner in the Brickyard 400 and perhaps sadder is the idea that Indy has never produced the stories, the legends that Darlington has spawned since 1950.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the track that stole NASCAR Nation’s innocence. When the Cup circuit took its fist turn to the big track in 1994, it carried the hope of everyone on its shoulders. Finally, NASCAR was being recognized as an equal to the open-wheel ranks. But over the years the racing at Indy has dashed those idealistic hopes as the racing has been subpar, even embarrassing as it was in 2008.

Worse, it stole from the collective minds of the sanctioning body, the team owners and drivers and the fans the idea that a race’s prestige should be determined by the race itself, its history and the difficulty of winning it, replacing it with the notion that purse money and someone else’s history can bring the same level of importance. Sadly, in today’s NASCAR, that’s the modus operandi. The races themselves take a backseat to marketing and gimmicks.

Once upon a time, the race every driver wanted to win over almost any other was symbolic of everything the sport was: exciting, unpredictable, excruciatingly difficult. Today, the race that occupies that place on the wish list is merely symbolic of everything that is wrong with the sport: boring, predictable, mild. Darlington was NASCAR’s youth and treachery. Indy? The symbol of how far the mighty can fall.

“Contact Amy Henderson”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14352/

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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