A lot on the line as NASCAR returns to the Brickyard

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KOONTZ LAKE, Ind. -- There's a lot on the line at Sunday's AllState 400 at the Brickyard -- NASCAR's annual trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Simply put, there are three entities that cannot afford to fail -- NASCAR, Goodyear and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself.

At last year's race, Goodyear tires were so mismatched for the diamond-ground surface that they were exploding after six to eight laps, forcing officials to throw a competition yellow flag every 10-12 laps to prevent further mayhem. While that kept a bad situation from getting worse, the yellow flags left many race fans upset.

Loud boos rang throughout the massive Speedway when fans realized they were witnessing a series of short sprint races rather than a 400-mile contest. Jimmie Johnson was first across the finish line, but he was more of a survivor than a race winner.

NASCAR officials vowed such a fiasco would never occur again. At the time, it said a full-scale open test would be held to correct the problem. But when the economy crashed last fall, NASCAR was forced to make cutbacks, including the banning of on-track open testing at tracks that hosted NASCAR races.

To work around that ban, NASCAR and Goodyear conducted a series of tire tests at the 2-1/2-mile oval last season. An October session helped develop a tire that could last for more than 30 laps, but when Goodyear returned in the spring, another tire compound was starting to fail after six to eight laps. Meanwhile, IMS officials were seeing the fallout of last year's race reflected in ticket sales.

Keep in mind, when the Inaugural Brickyard 400 was held in 1994, tickets to the event were the most prized of the year. Sellout crowds came year after year to watch the all-American contingent of NASCAR drivers compete at the world's most famous race course. There were even some in NASCAR who wanted to perpetuate the notion that their race had become bigger than the Indianapolis 500.

But by 2002, there were empty seats at the Brickyard. The style of racing on a flat oval was less than spectacular, leading many fans to pick other races to attend. At the same time, NASCAR did little to help promote the race to the local fans.

This year, however, NASCAR sent an A-list group of drivers -- including Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Indiana's own Jeff Gordon -- to the Speedway to help promote the race. IMS officials are hoping ticket sales increase this week because the race is very important to the company's bottom line.

The race began the same year that then-president and CEO Tony George announced the creation of the Indy Racing League, which would begin competition in 1996. Profits from the NASCAR race helped George and IMS fund the IRL.

One media cynic -- that would be me -- even went so far as to rename the Brickyard 400 the "IRL's Annual Summer Bake Sale and Fundraiser" because it didn't take an MBA to figure out that the millions taken in at the gate made it possible to fund the IRL.

George is no longer in charge of either the Speedway or the IRL, ousted in a family coup by his three sisters after this year's Indy 500. He was replaced by long-time IMS executive Jeffrey Belskus, who began his role as IMS, Corp CEO on July 1.

If the crowd falls below expectations on Sunday, IMS may have to do what other businesses are forced to do in a bad economy -- make more budget cuts, including across the street at the IRL.

That's why Sunday's race may be the most important of the season, because of its impact on auto racing in two series. NASCAR needs to regain its status and luster at IMS while the IndyCar Series needs to benefit from the overall economic health of its parent company.

Meanwhile, Goodyear has to prove it is up to the task of developing racing tires that are safe and competitive. Many NASCAR drivers, including the outspoken Stewart, have blasted the tire company in recent years for tires that don't allow the drivers to race. Such criticism was unthinkable in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, when Goodyear had the power to determine who got the good tires and who didn't. Now, such criticism is bad pr.

With so much at stake, expect Sunday's race to be a dramatic improvement over last year. In times of adversity, both NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have been able to answer the challenge in the past. And if they are successful in at least making this year's race competitive and entertaining, this event can recapture some of the glory and prestige it once enjoyed.

Last week's revelation that NASCAR driver/owner Jeremy Mayfield failed yet another drug test is just another sad off-track story that won't go away. This is starting to look like a storyline from the cable television series Breaking Bad.

There isn't much that I can add to this tale other than there are no winners in this situation. Whatever support Mayfield may have had is dwindling rapidly in the court of public opinion and the more he talks, the more he sounds like former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Mayfield's career is basically over because sponsors have fled the driver.

We haven't heard the last of this story, but there are some who wish it would simply go away.

Honda Performance Development president Erik Berkman said that he wants his company to have competition from another auto manufacturer rather than be a single-engine supplier to the IndyCar Series. It's a stance Honda has held to firmly since it agreed to be a single-engine supplier after Toyota and General Motors left IndyCar racing after the 2005 season.

Some IndyCar Series officials have said Honda may be open to a single-engine supplier formula, which would help drive costs down while making it easier for the series to keep speeds under control. Volkswagen submitted a plan for board approval to continue its process of considering IndyCar Series participation. However, IndyCar Series officials had hoped to hear from VW by late April. As the season reaches late-July, the German automaker has not yet gained that approval.

"I read some comments attributed to Terry Angstadt [IndyCar Series president, commercial division] that indicated we were more open to that, but I want to say we have consistently said -- and I will continue to say -- that we want competition," Berkman said prior to Sunday's Honda Indy Toronto. "We are not at a point where we have an absolute consensus among potential competitor companies about what the spec should be, but I don't see that as an obstacle to moving forward; we are still talking."

Berkman did say that the notion that HPD could save money by being a single-source engine supplier would be valid because it would set up a spec at a "safe level."

"We wouldn't have to improve performance -- we'd just get it right and keep it there and we would save some money," Berkman said. "But we want competition because we want to spice up the show and bring more fans to the stands and get the thrill of competing and winning."

Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, Fiat and Alfa-Romeo continue to express interest in joining the IndyCar Series in 2012. Honda is expected to renew with the series beginning in 2012, but that determination has not been finalized while the long process of the new engine formula continues to evolve.

"No one has opted out -- no one has said we are going to fold my cards, I'm done," Berkman said. "We are still together as strong or as loose as anybody wants to perceive that to be. We still have time -- there is no reason to panic."

Berkman has held to his view that a turbocharged V-6 engine would be the best for his company to continue in the sport. VW is pushing for an inline 4-cylinder engine.

"If we are going to have engine competition, we should knock speeds back to 218 miles per hour at the Indianapolis 500 and then allow engineering development to creep up over a period of time back to the 230 mph number," Berkman said. "That's what competition is, to find ways to go faster but not where the top speed is too fast."

Berkman believes a fundamental direction on the new engine should be decided by Christmas of 2009 then they can proceed for a 2012 rollout of the new engine."

"If I was a betting man I would say NASCAR. It would be a very difficult proposition for [Danica Patrick] to turn down. I personally think she is powerful enough where she could do IndyCars for a little longer and still have that power. In this economy she attracts a lot of attention and a lot of financially backing, and people understand that. I'm not saying IndyCar can do the same as NASCAR, because they are a smaller entity,, but IndyCar needs to put forth some effort to show value to her from the series standpoint. If NASCAR makes a big offer it will be hard to turn down, but that is a difficult transition. A lot of guys have tried that and have not done well at it." -- IndyCar Series driver Dan Wheldon on where he expects Danica Patrick to be racing next season.

Long before it was known as the AllState 400 at the Brickyard, NASCAR's annual trip to Indianapolis used to be one of the highlights of the season, if for no other reason than to experience the feel and excitement of another Race Day at the "Hallowed Grounds of Auto Racing." Here's hoping that Sunday's race is a drastic improvement over last year's.