Years before NASCAR every put Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the Sprint Cup schedule, there was always the debate if stock cars belonged on what open wheel enthusiasts always considered the hallowed grounds of the Brickyard. Indy was unlike any other track on the Cup schedule and a stock car sure wasn’t like anything that longtime Indy fans were used to seeing.
NASCAR and its Sprint Cup Series had one thing going for it back in the ‘90s, that it was the fastest growing motor sport in the world and the country just couldn’t seem to get enough of it. Tickets were hard to come by at just about every stop on the schedule and TV ratings were never a worry as new fans continued to tune in each week.
That’s why it became a natural fit for Bill France Jr. to bring Cup racing to Indy. It wasn’t coming to compete with the track’s long established Indianapolis 500, but to show the Midwest that the heavier stock cars could put on a good show. It also helped that the series brought a circus-like atmosphere with it when it came to town.
There had been rumors that Indy and NASCAR had been in talks about the possibility of hosting a race In the early ‘90s but once the sanctioning body announced that it would be holding a tire test there, everyone knew a race was on the horizon. The tire test became like a race as fans of open wheel racing came out to see what all the fuss was about and NASCAR did its share to show them as the sport’s biggest names showed up and had nothing but good things to say about the historic venue.
When the 1994 schedule was released, it was like Indy’s date was in huge bold red letters as everyone couldn’t wait for the firstever green flag to wave to signal a new era for both the Speedway and NASCAR. The build-up in the weeks preceding the race dominated the news as it became more and more apparent that the race was starting to resemble a coming out party for the Series because the Midwest had always been the sole property of the open wheel racers.
The race lived up to its billing as it attracted over 200,000 fans to the track and instantly became one of “the” races on the schedule. It also helped that the media fell in love with the event and gave both NASCAR and Indy a ton of publicity that further pushed the sport into mainstream America.
That love affair the race once had with the fans has lost much of its luster over the years. Just like every other track that hosts Cup events, the selling of tickets has become harder and harder over the last couple of seasons. The last couple of years there have been plenty of empty seats on race day and it appears it will happen again this weekend.
A sell-out crowd at most tracks on the Cup schedule wouldn’t dent the capacity crowd at Indy as the track has over 250,000 seats and room for 300,000 fans. Last year’s attendance was estimated at 138,000, which isn’t a bad number for a race, but it continued a trend that shows the track losing fans in recent years.
Indy is not by itself in trying to sell tickets. Bristol still has tickets left for its night race next month and we all know that was unheard of until the last couple of seasons. Like every other track trying to fill its seats, Indy is battling a tough economy that has forced fans to turn on the TV instead of filling up the car and heading to the track.
Race day can always be unbearably hot in Indiana in July and, let’s face it, once you have been to a race at the track, you realize it isn’t like any other track that plays host to a Cup race. The sight lines at Indy only provide fans a very limited view of what is taking place on the track.
The track is fighting an uphill battle trying to get fans back and it will be interesting to see how many will go through the turnstile on Sunday. Could Indy be losing its hold on being one of the “crown jewels” on the schedule? It is no longer about what takes place from the green flag to the checkered flag, but how many show up to see what does take place.
Event: Crown Royal 400 (Brickyard 400)
Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2.5 mile quad-oval, 9 degrees
of banking in the turns)
Date: July 29, 1 p.m.
Defending Champ: Paul Menard