Winning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a feat unmatched by any other competition. A victor’s names lives forever, engraved not only on trophies and plaques, but also on brick. Stock car, open wheel, motorcycle, sports car—the vehicle doesn’t matter. It’s Indianapolis, the Mecca of all motorsports.
Ryan Newman can attest to the power of Indy. Winless in 49 races, out of the Chase, and recently informed that he would not be returning to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, Newman’s Brickyard 400 victory revived his championship hopes and elevated his profile during a season that has otherwise been forgettable. Oh, and there’s also that little tradition of kissing the bricks.
But while Newman was basking in champagne, harsh reality permeated outside of the victory lane bubble. The race was boring. Terribly boring. In fact, Jimmie Johnson’s slow final pit stop, which lost him the lead, and subsequently the race, was about as exciting as things got.
Unfortunately, the charm and magnetism that once encompassed the Brickyard 400 is gone. While attendance is down at every track, fans can point to one painfully defining moment when this race, one of the biggest in the sport, lost it’s magic: the tire fiasco of 2008.
Several factors contributed to the disaster that was the 2008 Brickyard 400. NASCAR’s new Car of Tomorrow was running at Indy for the first time, and Goodyear did not bring a compatible tire that could withstand Indy’s abrasive surface. As a result, tires barely lasted ten laps before they started exploding. Forced to take action in the name of safety, NASCAR’s only option was to throw the yellow flag every dozen laps so teams could change tires.
The race was an embarrassment to everyone involved, and fans were disgusted. Tire problems of that magnitude should never occur at any track; and yet not only did it happen, it happened at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Five years have passed, and NASCAR has found out just how devastating that tire debacle was. Attendance for the 2009 Brickyard fell dramatically and has shown no signs of recovering. The Brickyard 400 sold out for 15 straight years. Now, it doesn’t even come close. Before 2008, fans ignored the fact that stock cars don’t produce great racing on the flat surface of IMS. This past Sunday all anyone talked about was the lack of passing. Yes, the magic is indeed gone.
Regardless of the circumstances, it’s sad that NASCAR’s presence at Indy has degraded so quickly. But the 2008 race will linger in fans’ minds for a long time, and many will continue to stay home. Also working against NASCAR is the slow but steady return of the Indianapolis 500 to its former glory. IndyCars have been putting on phenomenal racing at IMS for years, and casual race fans are starting to realize that May is the best time to be at the track.
Yet, despite the many factors working against it, the Brickyard 400 will always be a significant event for NASCAR. Teams prepare longer and work harder for that race simply because it’s Indianapolis. Winning at Indy not only defines a driver’s season, it defines his career.
Getting to kiss the bricks is a pretty good perk, too.