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Brickyard 400 woes inspire deja vu for IndyCar fans

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NASCAR crew members remove used Goodyear tires from the pit box during racing action at the 2008 Allstate 400 At The Brickyard. Tire issues plagued teams all day thanks to a new car and new tire compound. (Photo: Chris Jones/IMS)
NASCAR crew members remove used Goodyear tires from the pit box during racing action at the 2008 Allstate 400 At The Brickyard. Tire issues plagued teams all day thanks to a new car and new tire compound. (Photo: Chris Jones/IMS)

I had to blink once or twice to make sure I wasn't seeing things.

The man with the motorsports media's most legendary goatee, Bruce Martin, wrote an article this morning that got linked on CNN's home page. The article was entitled, "How to revive the Brickyard 400."

The incredulity that sprang into being reading the title grew to astonishing proportions as I read through the article. It was as if Martin had taken an article from five years ago about the Indianapolis 500 and done a Word search and replace on it to change the context from IndyCar to NASCAR.

Let's get something clear - I'm not dogging Martin or his article for the points he makes. In fact, I myself, along with dozens of other IndyCar media folks, bloggers, and fans, spent years making precisely the same arguments about the Indianapolis 500.

I shouldn't be as surprised as I was when I read the article, though. In fact, I have been expecting something like this - the only thing that shocked me was that it took this long for it to happen. But it still gives me an unsettling sense of unwanted familiarity.

In 1992, when NASCAR conducted their first test to gauge the feasibility of running a stock car race at the famed Brickyard, opinions polarized between two extremes. Either the idea of a Winston Cup race at Indy was the greatest idea since sliced bread, or it was, as Kyle Petty so aptly put it, "running quarter-horses in the Kentucky Derby."

We must remember at this point that the Indy Racing League was still just an idea that Tony George was playing with in his brain. CART was still hugely popular and Indianapolis was still the nexus of American open-wheel racing. But there was no arguing with the way R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company had dragged NASCAR's top series into the national limelight. The sport was on the cusp of a breakout, and George was already looking to put his personal imprint on his family's crown jewel property.

The test went well, and after IMS underwent a massive facility improvement to accommodate the bigger, heavier stock cars, George and NASCAR president Bill France, Jr., made the announcement in April 1993 that the inaugural Brickyard 400 would take place the following year.

Regardless of how one felt about the race, there was enormous interest in the Winston Cup's first race on the hallowed asphalt of Indianapolis. Sure, NASCAR had run at the nearly-identical Ontario Motor Speedway for nearly a decade, but the "Indianapolis of the West" was not Indianapolis. Fans were treated to a surprisingly entertaining event that was won by the hottest race driver in America at that time, sophomore driver Jeff Gordon.

It bears mentioning that Gordon and his "Rainbow Warriors" team at Hendrick Motorsports were having their own breakout season that year. The young Californian was emerging as Dale Earnhardt's chief rival and the face of Winston Cup racing. Slick, well-spoken, and incredibly corporate-friendly, Gordon represented the future of NASCAR racing.

1994 was also the year that Tony George, spurred by his own motives as well as the not-so-egalitarian advice of his new friends in NASCAR, announced the formation of the Indy Racing League. Destined to be one of the worst decisions in motorsports history regardless of how it looked in principle and on paper, the Indy Racing League drove a spike into open-wheel racing that fractured the fan base, destroyed the goodwill built up for IndyCar racing in the popular culture, and resulted in a 15-year-long siege that nearly brought an end to that category of racing altogether.

It was the perfect storm for NASCAR and the Brickyard 400. The cataclysmic effects of the open-wheel split, timed precisely with the enormous momentum of Winston Cup racing on the shoulders of Jeff Gordon and other young, emerging stars, accomplished the unthinkable - the Brickyard 400 became more popular than the Indianapolis 500. It was incredible! If you had suggested that such a thing was possible even five years before, you'd have been laughed out of wherever you had had the balls to make the pronouncement.

The immediate success of the Brickyard 400, coinciding as it did with the unbelievably rapid decline of open-wheel racing and the Indy 500, created an artificial bubble that convinced NASCAR's top brass that their new race was an instant classic - a crown jewel of both NASCAR racing specifically and American auto racing in general. The numbers seemed to bear this theory out if one ignored the greater context.

The trouble was - and is - that that bubble was bound to burst at some point. NASCAR's boom period was amplified by Dale Earnhardt's death during the first year of an unprecedented national television deal, but midway through the first decade of the 21st century American pop culture apparently decided that NASCAR was no longer the "it" sport that it used to be. Ratings and attendance began a slow decline, and when the economy started going bad, those declines increased.

Once the pop culture bubble burst, the Brickyard 400's weaknesses as an event became more exposed. The single-groove nature of the racetrack was never an attractive feature in the first place for any type of race car, but the NASCAR stock cars' slower speeds and heavier weight made those flaws much more visible. Visibility was also an issue with the track's sight lines, which, thanks to the Speedway's infield development, were worse than at any other time in the track's history. And with cars running at 180mph instead of 220mph, it took a lot longer for them to come back into the fans' view.

Without a blackout in place that forced fans to go in person if they wanted to see the race, many fans decided that air conditioning and dozens of TV camera angles were preferable to sweltering in Indiana's August humidity. The bleak silver of the grandstands - so visible during the Indianapolis 500s of the IRL era - began to show at the Brickyard 400 as well.

It was 2008 that may have done the most damage to the Brickyard 400, however. Goodyear's new tire built for the newly-introduced Car of Tomorrow was a disaster, requiring teams to pit every 10 laps to avoid blowouts and accidents. It was a situation reminiscent of the 2005 Formula 1 US Grand Prix held at Indy, when only six cars started the race after the teams supplied by Michelin quit the race on the formation lap because of tire concerns. The fan backlash in 2005 was so enormous and had such an effect on future events that Formula 1 ended their relationship with Indianapolis in 2007. When NASCAR's tire problems hit in 2008, it was as if it was a sign from some angry racing god.

It was a swing of fortune that was deeply ironic. The fortunate timing in 1994 of so many events that created such a fertile environment for the Brickyard 400 was counterbalanced by the timing of several events - the F1 and NASCAR tire issues, the burst of NASCAR's pop culture bubble, and a depressed economy.

I would be remiss if I did not also mention the resurgence of the Indianapolis 500, brought about by some fortunate timing of its own. New leadership in the series, paired with increased attention brought on by IMS' Centennial Era, has resulted in the Indy 500's empty grandstands gradually refilling. In such a difficult economy when discretionary income is spent so reluctantly, it appears that local Indy fans are choosing the 500 over the 400.

So that is how we have gotten to this point - where racing scribes are coming up with ideas on how to restore the Brickyard 400s greatness instead of the Indy 500's. This would be a perfect time for a bit of judicious schadenfreude from IndyCar fans, considering the voluminous weight of crap dumped upon them by gloating NASCAR fans during the Split years.

Not for me, though. I'm still just weirded out a bit by it all. Maybe it's because I don't have a dog in the eternal fight between IndyCar and NASCAR hardcore fans, but for me this juxtaposition of fortunes is more bizarre than it is redemptive.