Tuesday, July 21, 2009


1993 was a big deal for NASCAR. For the first time ever, stock cars took to the track at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Rather than be towed or pushed through the "paddock" as was the open-wheeled tradition, the drivers fired 'em up and drove 'em out of the "garage".

Richard Petty took a time-out from his retirement at the end of the 1992 season to turn a few practice laps. And Kyle Petty videotaped all the happenings of the practice in a pre-YouTube world.

While the test was officially labeled as just a dip-our-toes-in-the-water PR session, everyone knew what was coming - and it happened. In 1994, the inaugural Brickyard 400 was held on an August Saturday morning.

Journeyman Rick Mast plunked his #1 Skoal Ford on the pole, and brothers Geoff and Brett Bodine took turns near the front much of the day - hardly a trio of superstars. (I suppose one, however, could make the case for Geoff's eventually making the NASCAR HOF for his modified and Cup victories.)

Family friction eventually reared its ugly head when Geoff first nudged Brett and then Brett flat-out wrecked Geoff's Exide Ford in relation. Geoff's #7 Ford - recently purchased from the estate of the late Alan Kulwicki - was done for the day. Brett planned to go on to victory himself in Kenny Bernstein's #26 Quaker State Ford.

But a Bodine victory was not how the script was written. The much heralded sophomore California kid - later transplanted to Indiana by his parents - Jeff Gordon - paced the field for about half the race and won his 2nd career Cup race on his "home track" (cue banktruck's rolling eyes).

The inaugural race was a sell-out, the race was a big hit, the good guy won, tons of cars showed up to attempt to qualify, and NASCAR was now officially back home in Indiana. I tried pulling every string I could to get to that first one, but I ran out of time. Fortunately, I was able to attend the 2nd Brickyard in 1995 when Dale Earnhardt won the rain-delayed 400.

Over the subsequent editions of the 400, however, a major problem has emerged. While the novelty of the first 400 caught the fancy of new fans, corporate sponsors, the media, curious open wheel traditionalists, etc., the terrible quality of stock car racing at Indy began to show up in spades.

Gordon's 1st win there was huge. Earnhardt was genuine with that wry grin after winning his n 1995. Dale Jarrett and his crew established a neat tradition by kissing the bricks following his first win. And the true Indiana boy, Smoke, reveled in his first win at the track where his beloved 500 had eluded him.

Beyond that, the rest of the Brickyards have pretty much been yawners. I've been told its a "driver's track" because one has to wrestle the big stock cars through the turns while carrying a ton of speed and right side yaw. To me, however, all that means nothing if cars can't run with one another, pass, draft, root and gouge, etc. - the hallmarks of oval track stock car racing.

In the cold war of American auto racing at that time, NASCAR prevailed. A couple of years after the 1st Brickyard, open wheel racing split between CART and the IRL. Nothing has been the same for them since. NASCAR and the Frances proved to Tony George, the Hulman family, open wheel loyalists, and Madison Avenue that NASCAR was the place to get the best competition, the top driver personalities, and the best return on your marketing investment. For a while, many thought the Brickyard may well usurp the Indy 500 as the premier event at the speedway.

Rather than capitalize on that victory and continue to use the hallowed speedway to its advantage, NASCAR leaned heavily on it and simply presumed they would lead to a future annuity of success.

Every year, I read the Brickyard is the 2nd most important race on the circuit behind only the Daytona 500. What? It may pay the 2nd highest purse - I don't really keep up with that part of the sport. But its hardly the 2nd more important race from a fan's perspective - at least from this fan's perspective. I'd rank the summer Bristol night race as the second most important. I'd slot the Coke 600 as 3rd. Before Darlington's Labor Day tradition was unceremoniously dumped in favor of the barrenness of Fontana (in more ways than one), I would have slotted the Southern 500 ahead of Indy.

I'll watch little to none of this Sunday's edition of the Brickyawn. For me, its not a "protest" stay-away because of last year's tire debacle - although that would certainly give me cause to avoid it. I'll stay away because in all likelihood the race will simply be B-O-R-I-N-G.

If NASCAR and IMS wants this race to keep what little relevance it still has, they should work together to make it a race anticipated by fans, TV watchers, sponsors, and the media. Considering NASCAR's chief ally at the track - Tony George - was just fired by his family and that International Speedway Corporation just hired away IMS track president, Joie Chitwood, I'm not sure cooperation between NASCAR and IMS is very strong.

But if they can find a way to work together, I've got a couple of ideas for future Brickyawns:
  • Get the tire crisis solved. By all accounts, it seems Goodyear may have done so. The proof will be in the pudding this weekend.

  • Move the date to a meaningful weekend vs. some random date in either July or August.

  • Darlington will never see the return of the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. I don't like it, but I acknowledge it. California surrendering that coveted weekend was the right thing to do, but I don't think Atlanta's getting it will work much better. I suggest moving the Brickyard to that weekend. With Indy in the heartland of America and the track truly an historic American speedway, I'd be OK with two holiday weekends featuring two premier races at the track.

  • If the pressure is too great to keep a Labor Day race in the south, I suggest moving the Brickyard to the Fourth of July weekend - or even the Fourth itself. Daytona's summer race has lost a lot of its relevance just as the Brickyard has. Its no longer the Firecracker, run on the 4th of July, or run in the heat of the day. As a result, its just another plate track. So do as many have suggested for years - move it to the end of the year (or elsewhere in the chase), and give Americana Indy its date. This solution is far less practical because Indy's 500 and 400 dates would fall too close together.

  • Start pairing some open wheel races as the companion event to some Cup races. Doing so may introduce NASCAR's audience to some of the open wheel gang and vice versa. For many years now, trucks and Busch races have opened for IRL events, but IRL races have never opened for Cup races - where the real numbers are in terms of turnstile and ratings. Increased cross-pollination between the two series would likely strengthen the Brickyard's place on the Cup schedule and go a long way towards long-term future of the IRL to boot.
Even with any of these logistical or promotional gimmicks, I seriously doubt I'll personally be any more interested in any more Brickyawns. But then again, NASCAR stopped caring about my interests as a long-time fan many moons ago.


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