INDIANAPOLIS – There’s a giant sign above the 16th Street entrance to Indianapolis Motor Speedway which proclaims welcome to “The Racing Capital of the World.”
Fans of open-wheel racing certainly agree. Many drivers in NASCAR do as well.
NASCAR fans are a different story, however.
They initially packed the hundreds of thousands of seats at the track when NASCAR’s Cup series debuted here in 1994 and for several years after.
Sunday’s Brickyard 400 marks the 20th anniversary of NASCAR’s first visit to the iconic track, and drivers continue to appreciate the meaning of racing at Indy. The luster has worn off for fans, at least when it comes to attending.
When Ryan Newman leads today’s field to the green flag it will be in front of thousands of empty seats, perhaps the 400’s smallest draw yet.
IMS officials have added a Nationwide Series race and Grand American Road Racing event to the weekend to increase the amount of competition at the track.
Two other solutions – moving the race date and adding lights for a night race – would be considered sacrilege by open-wheel fans.
NASCAR has been more open to change, particularly when it comes to addressing fan and track concerns.
To many drivers, like veteran Jeff Gordon, a smaller crowd doesn’t translate into a less important event.
“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since we won here in 1994. That certainly says a lot about how fast things can go by,” said Gordon, who has four wins in the Brickyard 400, including the first.
“To me, that inaugural race really set the precedent for how impressive this facility is and how prestigious the race was the first year and always will be.”
Drivers like Gordon, Newman and Tony Stewart either were born or spent much of their formative racing careers in and around Indiana and have an extensive appreciation of Indy’s place in auto racing.
While Daytona International Speedway is often referred to as the “World Center of Racing,” its history has far more of a NASCAR slant.
“You have the Daytona 500 and then the Brickyard 400, in my opinion. Some people may rank it different than that, but that’s how I look at it,” Gordon said. “There was a time – maybe back in 1994 – where I would have ranked this No. 1.
“Looking at the history of our sport, the prestige and all the ingredients that go into making the most prestigious race, you have to rank Daytona first. But for someone who always dreamed about coming to Indianapolis as a kid and raced all around here, this one ranks very, very high.
“I think it’s the history of the race track, everyone wants to win here and it’s about the trophy – who has won here, how hard it is to win here and the history of the track and race itself.”
The Brickyard was designed for open-wheel racing, so stock cars always have had somewhat of a fish-out-of-water feel. The quality of the racing hasn’t ranked among the best, but the uniqueness of the venue seemed to carry the interest.
The recent at-track attendance woes are not unique to IMS – tracks around the country are cutting seats and/or upgrading facilities. The attendance decrease at Indy is more pronounced in part because of the size of the facility.
Does that mean NASCAR should consider dropping its annual stop to the Brickyard?
“Every driver respects this facility and respects what this victory does and can do and will do, and what it’s done for so many drivers,” said Jimmie Johnson, who is looking for his fifth 400 victory. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Formula 1 or IndyCar. We’re all very aware of that.
“That rings a little different for Tony (Stewart) and a little different for Jeff (Gordon). You look at Dale Jarrett and just being a stock car guy when he won here and how special it was to him; even though he didn’t aspire to being an IndyCar driver, it still meant the world to him.
“It’s meant the world to me.”