MONTE DUTTON: THE BRICKYARD’S RISE AND FALL
In 1994, when NASCAR first held a major race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was considered the greatest thing since sliced bread (with apologies to Joey Logano, who vitamin-enriched his several years later).
Now it’s moldy, old bread. Its approval rating is right up there with TrumpCare.
I wrote about every Cup race at Indy except one through 2012. I don’t think last year’s race, won by Kyle Busch, was much different from the first, won by Jeff Gordon. Like so much else in NASCAR, the race went out of style. It went from a big deal to a ho-hum. The first Brickyard 400 had the highest attendance of any stock car race in history. Last year’s race had about 20 percent as many. The world’s most famous race track had over 200,000 empty seats.
Any listing of how the mighty have fallen has to include this 24-year transition from bright sunshine into pitiless dark.
The race moved from Saturday to Sunday, and from August to July, and the Xfinity Series was herded over from crowded Lucas Oil Raceway Park to the vast and vacant Brickyard. Next year the race moves to September, desperately seeking something, anything that will stop the bleeding.
Indy as a NASCAR venue was already in decline, but the great failure occurred on July 27, 2008, when a new track surface, the Car of Tomorrow and Goodyear tires that could have been made out of Double Bubble conspired to produce one of the worst races in NASCAR history.
I don’t know how many fans were there – oh, maybe 200,000 – but, if so, 150,000 left the track that day feeling as if they ought to get their money back, and they didn’t even get a discount certificate at Steak ‘n’ Shake, and a lot of them looked at each other and said, “It’ll be freezing in July before I make this mistake again.”
Nine races later, and the July climate has warmed, if anything. The 2008 race remains vibrant in my mind because of a personal story. That year, a close friend of mine sent me a note to the effect that a friend of his, a Texas musician, was coming to the Brickyard with his family. I got in touch with him, and we ate lunch together on the Saturday before the Sunday race. He had become a big NASCAR fan after attending races at Texas Motor Speedway. He was almost as excited, being at Indy, as he would have been playing the Grand Ole Opry.
The first Double Bubble popped on the fourth lap. The race was run in segments, not the planned ones of the current year, but every 10-12 laps because that was as long as the Double Bubbles could be depended upon to last.
I hear from the musician from time to time. Usually it’s about his latest song, or the likely fortunes of the Texas Tech football team, but never about NASCAR. He may still go to Texas Motor Speedway. If he does, he hasn’t mentioned it.
At some level, the experience of this country singer is a microcosm of what has happened to NASCAR generally and to its premium race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in particular. If the recent story of NASCAR is decline, what is now, honest to gosh, known as the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400, is the extreme example.
Brantley Gilbert, by the way, is a country singer. What goes around hasn’t actually come around. It fell off a cliff and crashed into a bank of irony.