Here in Indianapolis, there’s a lot of talk about how to fix the Brickyard 400.
Maybe the questions shouldn’t be about how to fix a tarnished event, but whether it can be fixed at all.
The 6-1/2 hour show that the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series put on Sunday certainly wasn’t the answer.
Engines fired at around 2:30 p.m. and weren’t finally shut down until 9:00, with impending darkness ruling out the possibility of yet another crash-interrupted attempt at a green flag finish.
With his Cup career seemingly on the ropes, Kasey Kahne winning the race made for an interesting storyline. But neither NASCAR nor many of its drivers distinguished themselves throughout the long afternoon.
After Kyle Busch and Martin Truex eliminated themselves in a silly accident, the race devolved into a series of crashes, red flags and more crashes.
The most impressive aspect of the day was the track drying effort after a rainstorm that probably wouldn’t have affected a race that started at noon, like the inaugural Brickyard 400 did. With nineteen Air Titans on hand, the delay lasted just just 1 hour and 47 minutes – a new track record of sorts.
As the finish of the race crept into prime time (from an NBC TV window that was scheduled to end at 6:30), Megyn Kelly must have been apoplectic to see her regularly scheduled program pushed back an hour from its scheduled slot by a crash-filled car race seemingly being run in front of empty grandstands.
In the late 1990s, when stock car racing was still new and novel at IMS and the Indianapolis 500 was starting to show the effects of the Indy car civil war between CART and the Indy Racing League, I said the Brickyard 400 had become “the Speedway’s premier race.”
And while Indy car purists don’t want to admit it, that was true. For a decade after its inception in 1994, into the 21st Century, the Brickyard was an annual sellout, while the 500 began to suffer a noticeable decline in attendance. The addition of a Formula 1 race on a newly-built IMS road course was another added wrinkle.
But things have changed. F1 came and went, and the sellout NASCAR crowds at Indy were already starting to thin when an embarrassing Goodyear tire debacle occurred in 2008. That, combined with a resurgence in interest in the Indianapolis 500 when Indy car racing came back together, burst the Brickyard attendance balloon.
Things worsened for the Brickyard over the last decade, to the point where attendance for the 24th running of the race on Sunday was maybe 40,000, if we are generous in our estimate.
Meanwhile, with Indy car racing reunified as the Verizon IndyCar Series, and propelled along by the eight-year “Centennial Era” campaign, the Indianapolis 500 slowly rallied over the last ten years. The additional buzz surrounding the 100th running of America’s most famous auto race gave the ‘500’ sellout status for the first time since the CART/IRL split in 1996, and while the crowd was down slightly in 2017, the track achieved its goal of maintaining the upward attendance trend evident since 2008.
The Brickyard, despite being contested at arguably the best-known oval circuit in the world, has become just another race on the NASCAR schedule. The drivers can hype it up and say how much it means to race at Indy, but the 400, as an event, has lost its luster with fans.
International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motor Sports Inc., publicly owned companies that host 31 of the 36 NASCAR Cup Series races, report that attendance is down some 55 percent since peaking in 2005. But with a 230,000-seat stadium maybe 20 percent full, the Brickyard 400 has become the poster child for NASCAR’s declining attendance.
The drop in attendance at Indianapolis is much greater than other tracks, and a much more graphic indication of stock car racing’s current struggles, which include significant declines in television ratings and sponsorship revenue similar to that of the spectator count.
With 24 editions of the Brickyard in the books, the novelty of NASCAR racing at Indy has truly worn off. It was neat at first, but once you’ve sat through a couple hot, boring stock car races at IMS, there’s really no compelling reason to go back and do it again.
Especially when they don’t start until nearly 3 p.m. and drag on for more than six hours.
The Speedway is an awesome place to behold, especially when it is filled to capacity like it was in the first half of the Brickyard’s history, or for the last couple Indy 500s. But truth be told, with its poor sight lines and lack of modern amenities, it’s not the greatest place to actually watch a car race.
And while improvements are constantly being made to the infrastructure at IMS, the grand old track is still light years behind venues like Daytona and Texas when it comes to the amenities fans expect these days for a comfortable spectating experience.
Thanks to NASCAR’s lucrative television contract with FOX and NBC, the Brickyard 400 is still a profitable race for IMS. But it can’t be denied that those vast expanses of bare aluminum grandstands are a black eye to the famous venue’s image.
“The Brickyard 400 is the third largest attended sporting event in the state of Indiana every year,” IMS President Doug Boles told me last year. “So while it’s not the Indianapolis 500, it still is a massive event and there still are a lot of people here. Economically it makes sense for us, it makes sense for this community and it makes sense for NASCAR.
“Would we love to have more people?” Boles asked. “Absolutely, and we continue to try to do that every day. But is there any way you can say it’s not a success? Absolutely not.”
Assuming the Brickyard draws 75,000 over the weekend, that still puts the event comfortably in the top ten in terms of attendance among all NASCAR events.
But that ‘glass-half-full’ spin ignores the fact that the Brickyard used to be the sport’s undisputed Number One draw and that the weekend is a shadow of its former self. And looking forward, there is no logical answer in sight in terms of how to rekindle it.
IMS added a two-day music festival to the Brickyard weekend this year, attempting to build on the success of the “Snakepit” concerts held during the Indianapolis 500. The stage for the evening shows was in the Turn 4 infield but required a separate ticket ($55-200), with a musical bill headlined by The Chainsmokers and Major Lazer clearly aimed at a millenial audience.
Speedway officials are pleased that a schedule shake-up for 2018 will move the Brickyard to Sunday, September 9, making it the all-important last chance race for entry to the NASCAR playoffs. The 400 is known as much as anything for uncomfortably hot, humid conditions, and the later date in the future will likely help in that regard. But it’s not going to put another 30,000 people in the stands – especially given the fact that the race will be going up against the opening weekend of the NFL Football season.
The Speedway actually requested a Saturday afternoon race (like the first seven editions of the Brickyard) but Boles said it was denied by NASCAR. Installing lights at IMS would likely cost upwards of $25 million and has been ruled out for the short term.
NASCAR is contracted with all of its current tracks in a five-year deal announced in 2016, so the Brickyard 400 is guaranteed at least three more years of life.
Ultimately, I believe the only thing that can draw positive attention back to the track and the event is compelling car racing. Crashfests like what happened on Sunday aren’t helpful in that regard.
The Xfinity Series race on Saturday featured close competition and a lot of passing, but the artificial means by which it was achieved left some drivers grumbling.
Doug Boles is realistic about the task at hand, telling the Indianapolis Star this week that the event needs “a complete reset.”
“Now to think we’re going to sell out the Brickyard 400 really is a fiction,” he remarked to Motorsports Insider Jim Ayello. “I don’t think any of us really believe that’s what we’re trying to do.
“What we are trying to do is to make sure we have a healthy Brickyard 400 that can go into the future. We’ve tried things off and on for the past several years to stem the tide of the declining attendance, and we’ve struggled to make that happen.”