Losing NASCAR Race at Clermont Track Could Evoke Clause in Naming Rights Contract
Hoosiers understand it and appreciate it more so than anybody else. But the cozy five-eighths-mile oval at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis -- home of drag racing's storied U.S. Nationals -- is a NASCAR fan and driver favorite for its close-to-the-action, grassroots feel and reasonable ticket prices.
Now NASCAR has yanked away its Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series events from NHRA-owned Lucas Oil Raceway in Clermont, saying its participation in the annual Kroger SpeedFest lineup July 28-30 will be its last there.
NASCAR announced July 6 that starting in 2012, the NASCAR Nationwide Series event will move down the road to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That will consolidate its Brickyard 400 Spring Cup Series program. A new location for the Camping World Truck Series event has yet to be determined.
Wes Collier, general manager of Lucas Oil Raceway, said NASCAR "was under pressure to inject some excitement into that event."
Collier said the decision left the NHRA and its interests "on the outside looking in." And it left the drag racing sanctioning body and its Midwest marquee facility with another major problem.
Forrest Lucas, president and CEO of Lucas Oil Products, wants to negotiate his naming-rights lease. His issue is not with the NHRA, but rather with the actions of NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Just the same, the situation has changed since Lucas Oil became title sponsor of the facility in January.
"We're going to have to get the negotiating started. We did have a clause in there that if we lost it [NASCAR's business], we could back out, because that's the main reason we did it," Lucas told CompetitionPlus.com Thursday.
"We have some dealings with NASCAR. We're sponsoring three pick-up truck races. We have one this coming weekend in Nashville that we sponsor. The last several years we've done the one in Phoenix and Iowa Speedway. We want to have some something to do with it," he said. "But this [at Indianapolis] was going to be our biggest part of all because we have the Nationwide part of it."
NASCAR's Nationwide Series (and its previous iterations) have competed since 1982 -- a dozen years before the Brickyard race came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- at the facility located between the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the enclave of racing shops in Brownsburg. NASCAR's truck series began racing there in 1995. Legend A.J. Foyt won the first oval race there in 1961, when the track was a dirt track. So the facility has a rich NASCAR tradition.
Lucas and wife Charlotte are native Hoosiers. He's from Corydon, Ind., where his global company's production plant is located. And Hoosiers are known for having common sense as their compasses. So it's no wonder he sees the switch as an ill-considered decision that he has been told NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made jointly.
"It's truly about the fans who are going to suffer emotionally. So I hate it for them," Lucas said. "People come there [to Lucas Oil Raceway] to watch those races. They plan their whole year around having a vacation to come there and watch that weekend of racing. And the people there have suites and season tickets and all these things they've had for years -- just to watch that. The money they've invested has certainly lost a great deal of value."
As for NASCAR, Lucas said, "The one thing they're going to give up is a really good race where the fans love the race. It's good television and the fans can watch it, where the race they're going to, I can't see 'em having any fans. They might be part of the general, overall weekend -- they might make the weekend bigger to have all three classes there.
"There are some races that are better to watch on a short track. If it was left up to me, they'd all be on short tracks. We can see the whole thing," he said. "We build our own tracks, and they're all built so the fans can watch the whole race."
Lucas Oil owns racetracks in Wheatland, Mo., and Blythe, Calif.
"On a great big race track, especially if you build a bunch of houses across there, you can't see anything on the backstretch," Lucas said, referring to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway." So basically all you get is a big vrrroomroomroomroomroomroomroom and then you sit there and wait for them to come around again. It's not at all interesting. So I think if anybody wants to watch that, they'll have to watch it on television. It WAS interesting [at the Clermont facility].
"I think the trucks especially should be on a half-mile track, three-quarters at the most. Nationwide's the same way, as far as I'm concerned. Cup is best-watched on short tracks. A mile's plenty. I'm sure they need to change it up with different kinds of tracks, just to make it more interesting, so they don't all look the same, but that's just me talking," he said. "I like road courses. They're more interesting on road courses than dad-burn same old circles over and over again.
"They're just now getting the Indy Cars close enough together. They're getting the technology down to have a good IndyCar race. The track is designed for IndyCar racing. It makes a good race -- if you watch it on television. If you watch it live, again, you don't get anything. You only see a little bit of it. But it does make for a good race," Lucas said. "Nationwide, I think it's going to bomb, and the pick-up trucks, oh my God . . . Those guys, they're not even close together with same kind of powerplants. Again, I'm talking about maybe things I don't know about, but it's just my opinion on it."
Lucas shrugged off comments by IMS president Jeff Belskus that referred to "our friends at Lucas Oil" and pledged support for the neighbor racetrack.
Belskus said, "Our friends at Lucas Oil are important to us, and we've supported them for a long time. We're going to continue to support them and try to continue to find ways to work with them."
Responded Lucas, "He didn't say anything one way or another. He didn't admit to anything, any wrongdoing. He avoided everything -- just said some pretty words and that was it.
"There's nothing he can do to support us. He has his agenda, and we have our agenda. He doesn't have anything to do with NHRA one way or another. He doesn't have anything to do with the track one way or another. The only thing we had in common was these two races," Lucas said. "I see no common connection of any kind where he can support us at all in any way, not that he ever did."
NASCAR's decision, which might seem curious, for Lucas Oil has sponsored three Camping World Truck Series races. They include this weekend's event at Nashville Speedway.
"Maybe there are things we don't know about. Maybe they think they'll get more fans and make more money than they did over here," Lucas said. "They might be coming back with their hat in their hand in three years."
Maybe NASCAR will. Maybe NASCAR won't find any worth in its 30-year association with Lucas Oil Raceway. Either way, Lucas indicated, he will be fine.
"There's a lot of things going on in my life, and they're not all great. I've learned to deal with things," the pragmatic businessman said. "and this is another thing I have to deal with."