Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Racing at Indy still a big deal, but selling NASCAR proves tough

SPEEDWAY, Ind. ? It was once the unfathomable or, better yet, a joke someone had told you. Empty seats at the Brickyard ? and lots of them?

The most popular racing series in the United States competing at the world's most famous race course was supposed to be a sure thing. The tickets? They'd sell themselves; the interest needed not be piqued. Fans, drivers and sponsors would love it. It was a sure thing, for NASCAR at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway couldn't fail.

For 15 years, those predictions were as likely as the waving of the checkered flag. They were spot on.

The 1994 race ? likely the most thrilling race in the event's 17 attempts ? saw the largest crowd to ever attend a NASCAR race (250,000+). That day, the Bodine brothers wrecked one another before a late battle between Ernie Irvan and Jeff Gordon eventually put Indiana-resident Gordon ahead for the final time. During the final lap, the IMS grandstands trembled as the masses roared for Gordon's victory ? just like they had for Unser, Mears and the rest of the Indianapolis 500 winners.

Those masses kept coming back, too, and in the very next year saw one of NASCAR's most legendary drivers Dale Earnhardt get a taste of Indianapolis glory in a race that finished as the Indiana sun hung low in the west.

Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte and Bill Elliott joined the list of winners in the next few years, cementing Indianapolis in NASCAR lore as a place much like it is in IndyCar's proud history ? a place where the best come to cement their legend.

For the locals, the 400 became much the same as 500 ? an event you just went to. The race, long with the second-largest purse in the Sprint Cup Series, also proved to be a travel destination for many NASCAR fans as they filled the sprawling Coke lot northwest of the 2.5-mile oval with motorhomes and tents as far as the eye could see.

Then, change started at IMS and in NASCAR.

Corporate money got hold of the race's name in 2005, changing it to the "Allstate 400 at the Brickyard."

NASCAR began introducing the Car of Tomorrow in 2007, and the extremely safe, yet intolerably indifferent race car made its Indianapolis debut in 2008. Oh, what a disaster that was.

A plethora of mistakes on all fronts left the tires Goodyear brought to Indianapolis wholly incompatible on the newly designed cars as they lapped the gritty track surface. To the horror of fans at the track and watching at home, NASCAR waved the caution flag every 10 laps to allow teams to change tires before they blew up.

In the wake of the debacle, the stance taken by NASCAR, IMS and Goodyear proved indifferent at best, and fans who felt they'd seen a faulty and flawed race were never really satisfied.

The announced attendance that day was 240,000. The next year, the number was 180,000 ? still a massive crowd, but a 25-percent drop nonetheless.

Compounding matters, the nation's economy had started its slide to a recession it has still yet to pull out of ? hammering the very base NASCAR and most of racing relies on to fill its seats as the series travel the country.

The downturn also affected sponsorship and marketing surrounding the race in Indianapolis.

Once loaded with dollars, NASCAR sponsors hosted event after event for fans in Indianapolis promoting their drivers, their brand and the race. Ford would rent out the old RCA Dome for a fan appreciation event featuring drivers and show cars, while Dodge did much the same at downtown Indianapolis' Monument Circle. Drivers would show up days ahead of the race for autograph sessions, while show cars were paraded at seemingly every grocery and convenience store in the city.

Some of the small parts remain, but there are no large-scale sponsor-driven events in Indianapolis anymore.
Last year, attendance for the Brickyard 400 dropped to 140,000. It's expected to be even lower on Sunday, opening up the very real possibility that there will be more empty seats ? IMS boasts 257,000 of them ? than full ones.

Is any one of these issues specifically to blame for what's bound to be a second-straight sparse-looking crowd? Certainly not, but there's undoubtedly a collective impact going on.

The track certainly won't be doing itself any favors next season when Crown Royal becomes the title sponsor of the mid-summer event. Courtesy of some oh-so-creative marketing folks, the race will feature the name of a hero in the military, fire or police service realm. The idea, while good for most any other race on the NASCAR schedule, seems to do disservice to a race that should deserve sacrament for where it's held.

Next year, the track will also add a pair of Grand Am events on Friday and a Nationwide Series race on Saturday in what has been dubbed the "Super Weekend."

While the extra races will add some value to the weekend, they won't do much to fix the biggest issue NASCAR faces at the Brickyard ? lackluster racing. Quite simply, Indianapolis' long straightaways and tight corners just aren't conducive to side-by-side racing and the word "parade" has been used more than once to describe the 400.

Can the Brickyard 400 regain some of the luster it's lost?

This track has proven resilient before, and the races it has hosted have done the same. Once (briefly) thought to play second fiddle to NASCAR at Indy, the Indianapolis 500 has seen a resurgence in ticket sales and popularity over the past few seasons.

Still, one has to wonder if all the extra stuff being thrown at the old gem at 16th and Georgetown might be precisely what is driving fans away. Does the world's most famous race course really need cheesy corporate sponsors for major races? Does it need events tacked on to the Brickyard to make it appealing? Or does the gimmickry just turn the 400 into another race on the NASCAR calendar?

There's never been a question about what those in the racing world have thought of Indianapolis' racing character. Consider most of them as vastly surprised at the downturn in attendance Indianapolis is experiencing. They still consider this race the second-biggest of their season.

But drivers aren't the ones who fill a quarter of a million seats on race day. Fans are. They come for the prestige, the excitement, the history of the place. They come for everything Indianapolis has been about for 100 years now.

However, in the last few years, NASCAR and IMS have lost that connection. The track is still the star. It's just no longer on the A-list when NASCAR shows up.

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