INDIANAPOLIS -- For its first 45 years of existence, NASCAR dreamed of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track was the motor sports mecca of the world and the home of the world's most famous race -- the Indianapolis 500 -- which began in 1911.
In 1994, NASCAR got its wish. For the first time since 1918 an event other than the Indianapolis 500 would take place at the most historic racing venue on earth. The Inaugural Brickyard 400 became the most anticipated NASCAR race in history, and for those of us who were at the Speedway on Aug. 6, 1994, it was one of the most memorable days in NASCAR history.
It was a hotter ticket than the Daytona 500 and demand even exceeded that of the Indianapolis 500, which at that time was still a race that sold out close to a year in advance and drew crowds approaching 400,000 when the infield was wide open. The Brickyard 400 did not have an open infield, but close to 350,000 fans jammed the Speedway that glorious August day as Jeff Gordon scored his second and perhaps most famous victory of his career.
It was an important day for NASCAR, but around 2001 something happened. The novelty of NASCAR at Indianapolis began to wear off. Combined with the brutally hot weather that hits the capital city of Indiana this time of year, many fans decided to stay home. Also, with NASCAR's new television contract with NBC, the race was no longer blacked out in Indianapolis as of 2001, so many fans decided to watch it from the comfort of an air-conditioned home.
And frankly, the action on the racetrack was pretty boring. I even wrote that I'd seen better racing on I-465 -- the highway that encircles the Indianapolis Metropolitan area.
The Brickyard 400 began a steady decline in attendance, with gaping areas of empty seats, especially in Turns 2 and 3.
Then came the infamous tire debacle involving Goodyear in 2008, when the compound was so bad on the abrasive Speedway asphalt that the cords on the tires began to show after five or six laps, creating a dangerous situation. The 160-lap race the following day featured yellow caution flags waving every 10 laps or so to allow teams to come in and change the tires before they blew and hit the wall.
The fans were enraged and many of them never came back. Last year's Brickyard 400 was the lowest attendance in the history of the race and projections for Sunday's crowd are significantly off last year's ticket sales.
Despite that, the Brickyard 400 remains an important race on the NASCAR schedule. It's a historic venue and the drivers and teams that usually win this race are among the best in the sport, as it takes all the ingredients (driver, team, crew, car and strategy) to end up in the most famous Victory Lane in racing.
So while the Brickyard 400 may be down, it is far from out. There are a variety of ways to makes this race a bigger than life event again. Here are some that can help return the Brickyard 400 to prominence.
When the Inaugural Brickyard 400 was held in 1994 it boasted NASCAR's largest purse. Jeff Gordon collected more that day than Sterling Marlin when he won the Daytona 500 that year. In fact, then-Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George wanted to pay the Brickyard winner even more, but NASCAR officials resisted. They didn't want a NASCAR race at Indianapolis to overshadow the Daytona 500, which had been NASCAR's "Crown Jewel" since it began in 1959.
The big purse enticed drivers from all forms of racing to run in the Brickyard 400 that year. Four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt -- a seven-time NASCAR Cup race winner, including the 1972 Daytona 500 -- started in that race as did international racing star Geoff Brabham and 1985 Indianapolis 500 winner Danny Sullivan.
So, let's start paying the winner of the Brickyard 400 $1 million or $2 million to win.
Wally Dallenbach, Jr. was in the race that day, driving for team owner Richard Petty. Dallenbach competed in six Brickyard 400s, finishing 14th in 1999, and is now part of the Turner Sports Family calling NASCAR action for TNT. He is also an analyst for the IZOD IndyCar Series telecasts on VERSUS.
He strongly believes more money would mean more prestige.
"If you make it $1 million or $2 million to win, then all of a sudden it becomes important again to the drivers, teams and sponsors," Dallenbach said. "That gets everybody's attention. Then it becomes a special event again. Put up $100,000 to win the pole and $1 million or $2 million to win and all of a sudden there is a little more spark in that event again.
"I would spin my mother out on the last lap for $1 million. I don't care how much money these drivers make, when you start putting that kind of price tag up they race differently."
Originally, I thought of suggesting that if a driver won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 in the same season he should win a $5 million bonus. (The only drivers to win both races in the same season are Dale Jarrett in 1996, Jimmie Johnson in 2006 and Jamie McMurray last year.) But why stop at two races?
"Do the old Triple Crown where you have Daytona and the Brickyard and an off-the-wall track like a Bristol," Dallenbach said. "Make it part of something really cool again."
When there is that much money on the line, the pressure among the drivers and teams only increases. And racing fans love to see their favorite teams and drivers perform under pressure. It could be the type of program that would generate interest. After all, when Bill Elliott won the "Winston Million" in 1985 by winning the Daytona 500, Winston 500 (at Talladega) and Southern 500 at Darlington it was front page news on sports sections around the country.
Hey, it even got him on the cover of
Why not make the Brickyard 400 part of something even bigger?
While this may not do much to generate excitement among NASCAR fans, it certainly might be enough to bring some of the Indianapolis 500 fans back to the Speedway at the end of July.
Ticket sales are off for the Brickyard not only because NASCAR fans have lost interest, but also because many of the IndyCar fans don't like the event. But give Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon a ride in this year's Brickyard 400 and perhaps some fans would give the NASCAR race a chance.
"Why not?" Dallenbach asked. "Give the winner a good opportunity in a good car I'm sure the Indy 500 winner would jump at it. But NASCAR and IndyCar don't want to work together, so it's all pie-in-the-sky stuff."
By taking away the apron, which is the inside portion of the track in each of the Speedway's distinct four corners, it has narrowed the room cars have, turning it into a "one-groove track." If the Speedway repaved that area and made it part of the racing surface once again, it would open up more room in the turns and might even allow some "side-by-side" passing at the end of the long straightaways and the end of the short chutes on the north and south end of the racetrack.
"Bringing the apron back would certainly help the racing," Dallenbach said. "Give them another 100 horsepower so they have to use more brake when they go into the corner. You go in there and you are using every square inch of that place to get around and it is hard to let them run side-by-side.
"If they let them use the apron and get back to using more of the racetrack I think the race would be better."
When the Brickyard first started, it filled a huge void in the Midwest where the only other NASCAR track was Michigan, which is about five hours up the road from Indianapolis. But with the additions of Chicagoland Speedway, Kansas and, beginning this year, Kentucky, Indianapolis is surrounded by NASCAR competition.
One way to offset that is for NASCAR to become more involved in the Indianapolis community. This year the Speedway will hold the "Largest Sprint Cup Autograph Session of the Year," where nearly every driver will be signing autographs on Friday. This is a great chance for NASCAR fans to get a chance to see their racing heroes up close and personal.
Beginning next season, the Rolex Grand American sports car series will stage a race on Friday around the IMS road course and the NASCAR Nationwide Series will have its first ever race at the Speedway on Saturday, creating a three-day show.
My initial reaction was, "How do you address the issue of bad racing by adding two more bad races?' But I gave it some thought and this certainly can't hurt. At one time the International Race of Champions (IROC) staged races in conjunction with the Brickyard 400, and while the IROC events were snoozers, it at least gave the fans something to watch the day before the race.
This year's schedule at the track is practice on Friday, qualifying on Saturday morning and more practice on Saturday, so there really isn't much that would entice fans before Sunday. And while Grand American fans and NASCAR fans generally don't mix, for someone who wants to see a variety of racing at Indianapolis this could be a good start.
When the Brickyard 400 first started, it was an event worthy of "Mount Rushmore" status on the international motor sports calendar. And while it is still mentioned in the same breath as the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, a concerted effort to make it special again would be a tremendous boost for the Brickyard 400.
"At one time it was an event and it needs to get back to being an event," Dallenbach said. "In qualifying and practice we had a ton of people in the grandstands. Now, they can hardly put people in the grandstands for the race. It's lost a little bit of that mystique and we need to get it back somehow. At one time, it was one of those events where [if you asked someone], 'Hey, where do you want to win?' It was the Brickyard and Daytona. It's such a cool place to race."
NASCAR shouldn't let its 45-year dream of racing at Indianapolis continue to dwindle as it has in the past decade.