Indy 500 "back home again" as Brickyard's biggest race

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29: Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara Honda, leads the field at the start of the IZOD IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

At this year's Indy 500, the sea of humanity stretched as far as I could see. And this was just in the Coke lot.

As a child, I went to several Indianapolis 500s, since we lived close by the track and we were, after all, Hoosiers. But as a child I did not notice the crowds except when they got in my way and impeded my enjoyment of the event.

When we moved away from Indianapolis, I entered a long hiatus from attending the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in person. So long, in fact, that I didn't return until 1999 - a gap of over twenty years. But when I came back, it was smack in the middle of the Indy Racing League years... and Indianapolis was a much-changed place.

Like all Hoosier traditionalists, I was angry and upset when the first Brickyard 400 NASCAR race was held at the Speedway. Most kids in Indiana grew up approaching the Indy 500 as a holiday on the level of Christmas, and even the huge commercial ramp-up to December 25th and presents under the tree could not hold a candle to the Month of May and Memorial Day weekend. So when NASCAR started racing at the Brickyard, we didn't have the same ridiculous ideas about "quarter horses racing in the Kentucky Derby" like Kyle Petty said. To us, it felt like someone decided to add a second Christmas couple of months after the first one, and while the thought of more presents was nice, it made both events less special.

Of course, the formation of the IRL and the subsequent very public open-wheel civil war resulted in a serious weakening of the Indy 500's status as a top-level motorsports event. A consequence of that was that NASCAR's Brickyard 400, once the bastard stepchild of the track, became at least as big a draw as the supposed cornerstone of the facility.

 There's no way around it. Hardcore fans rationalized and spun until they were blue in the face, but when I arrived at Indy in 1999 it was clear that the balance of power was askew. NASCAR souvenir trailers were as abundant as the IRL ones at the corner of 16th and Georgetown, and our ingress to and exit from the track were easier than they should have been for a race of this magnitude. The sight of huge patches of empty grandstands told the sad tale far better than I ever could with words.

Eventually, the track that had been revered for its one, huge crown jewel ended up with a handful of smaller ones. Instead of making Indianapolis a hub for the world's greatest races, the collection of the Indy 500, Brickyard 400, and the US Grand Prix seemed to sap the collective will of the city and divide loyalties. NASCAR's surging popularity in the late 1990s and first decade of the 21st century, mixed in with the apathy caused by the seemingly endless internecine open-wheel struggle, actually resulted in the Brickyard 400 becoming the track's biggest draw for a couple of years - in popularity if not actual attendance (simply because the Speedway didn't open up as much seating and infield space as they did for the 500).

The Speedway's Centennial Era fortunately coincided with several critical events - the unification of IndyCar racing, the changing of the guard at the top level of the sport, and the planned end of budget-conscious "spec" racing at the Brickyard. Though at times the potion seemed hastily mixed, the ingredients were a desperately-needed salve to the Indy 500's wounds. Over the course of the past couple of years, the 500 has begun to regain its place at the top of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway pyramid.

But I don't think anyone could have dreamed of how strongly the race would rebound this year, the 100th anniversary of the first Indy 500. For the first time in decades - perhaps even predating the Split itself - the track was choked with people both inside and out. Swarms of race fans clogged the track property in all directions. Pre- and post-race traffic became knotted in snarls so extensive that some fans waited four hours in their cars just to get to the track on race day.

It was a difference you felt palpably, something tangible in the air that you could grasp. It was the sense that the race was back from wherever it had gone in the past 15 years. Perhaps it was the Centennial Era that inspired Hoosiers to reconnect with their history. Or was it the sense that IndyCar has a future that involves growth instead of stagnation? Maybe it was combination of those and other factors.

Whatever the cause, that enigmatic puzzle piece seemed to click back into place this year. The adult in me says, "It's about damn time."

The child in me - the one wearing Tom Sneva's big Goodyear hat in the IMS parking lot - is just glad that he has his racing Christmas back. 

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