David Reutimann (83) and Kevin Harvick (29) race in front of sparsely populated stands during the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis on Sunday. (AP Photo)
There is no other place that symbolizes the rise and fall of NASCAR quite like Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The sport of stock car racing was on the verge of a popularity explosion when the Sprint Cup Series rolled into the Brickyard for the first time 20 years ago to run the inaugural Brickyard 400. The stars of the Cup series were greeted by 350,000 fans and a crush of media exposure on Aug. 6, 1994, and Jeff Gordon’s victory helped launch stock car racing to dizzying new heights.
That first race in Indianapolis was huge for NASCAR on a lot of levels, but symbolically, it was the day NASCAR took the crown as America’s top brand of motorsports.
There’s a legend that’s become ingrained in NASCAR lore that Big Bill France, the founder of NASCAR, was thrown out of the 1954 Indianapolis 500. On his way out, it’s said he yelled over his shoulder: “I’ll own this place someday!” While France’s name never graced the deed of the track, the inaugural Brickyard 400 was a triumphant return for Bill France Jr. just two years after his father’s death.
Fast forward 20 years and you’ll find a drastically different picture. The 75,000 (give or take a few thousand) fans who bothered to show up at IMS for Sunday’s race were treated to a race that featured only one pass for the lead that didn’t occur in the pits.
In short, it was an awful show.
And it wasn’t an isolated incident. NASCAR’s never-ending quest to bring parity to the racetrack by stifling the creativity of the individual race teams has diminished the sport over the past decade. The low point of the governing body’s meddling came in the form of the CoT, perhaps the worst race car ever conceived.
In addition to being flat-out hard on the eyes, the CoT stripped a sport that thrives on financial support from car manufacturers of any and all brand identity. Aside from a small decal on the hood, you couldn’t tell a Ford from a Chevy from a Dodge from a Toyota.
But the CoT’s biggest folly came at IMS back in 2008.
The most mind-boggling feature of the CoT was that the vehicle weighed more than the previous Cup car and had a much higher center of gravity. It shouldn’t take Mr. Wizard to tell you that the CoT was going to put a lot more stress on right-side tires, but somehow that notion eluded the great minds NASCAR put in charge of designing the new racing machine.
The design flaw was exposed on a very embarrassing day at IMS back in 2008. On a flat, abrasive track surface, the CoTs ate right-side tires at roughly the same rate Joey Chestnut eats hot dogs. Competition cautions were thrown every 10 to 12 laps, and the race devolved into a fiasco the sport still hasn’t fully recovered from.
Sunday’s race was run in new cars, the Gen-6, but it hardly mattered. The on-track product NASCAR has put forth over the last seven years or so has lacked any sort of excitement. NASCAR’s goal seems to be to cultivate parity, and the governing body is extremely proud that the 35th-fastest car on the track runs similar speeds in relation to the race leader.
But the problem with that is the lack of passing. If all the cars are going the same speed, you don’t have a race, you’ve got a parade. And that’s what we saw on Sunday. A parade.
Obviously Tony Stewart doesn’t agree with me on that point. He delivered a lecture to the media after Sunday’s event, telling them what a great race they just watched. He sarcastically told them to look up passing and racing in the dictionary. Great racing doesn’t require passing, said the Round Mound of Sound.
First, I’d like to invite Tony to look racing up in the dictionary and tell me where the phrases “wave-around” and “Lucky Dog” are in the definition. I couldn’t find them, but that’s probably because NASCAR quit putting on races and started putting on shows long ago.
Unfortunately, the show is stale.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in the sport 10 years running, is still looking for primary sponsorship on the hood of his car for 12 races this season and plans for next year are still up in the air.
It’s time for NASCAR to go back to the drawing board. It’s time to think way outside the box and come up with some ideas to spice up a stagnant product. It’s time to forget about Stewart’s romanticism of the purity of racing and find a way to wow the fans again.
If that doesn’t happen soon, the next pass Stewart might see is time passing his sport by.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.