Commentary

At the Brickyard, it's about the place and not the race

The 15th Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is likely to go down much like the 14 before it. Just remember that the Brickyard is about the place more than the race, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: July 22, 2008, 12:32 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Jeff GordonSteve Swope/Getty ImagesJeff Gordon won the inaugural race at Indy, an early highlight to a storied career at the most storied track in the United States.

The Allstate 400 at the Brickyard is NASCAR's second-biggest show. It's a big-money race in front of the largest crowd of the season.

All of which proves you don't need great on-track racing to have a successful Sprint Cup event.

A race on the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway is something every fan should experience at least once. Just don't expect too much thrilling action on the track if the NASCAR event is the one race at Indy you decide to attend.

No race gets more attention with less action than the Cup stop at Indianapolis. When 160 laps are completed and the checkered flag waves, some first-timers might be saying, "Is that it?"

The late Bill France Jr. knew what he was doing when he agreed to cut a deal with IMS owner Tony George to race stock cars on the 2.5-mile rectangle.

It was the start of a new era for NASCAR. The inaugural 1994 event had more than 250,000 spectators, the biggest crowd in the history of the sport. Racing cars with fenders was OK with the Indiana folks loyal to open-wheel competition.

But exciting racing it wasn't. And it hasn't changed much over the years. This storied old house wasn't built for NASCAR equipment.

Big stock cars and the narrow, flat pavement at Indianapolis don't mix well. The combination makes for some pretty boring racing at times.

The Indy layout, with four separate 90-degree turns, is what some drivers refer to as a "roval" -- half road course and half oval. The only speedway that compares somewhat is Pocono, which is a triangle. But Pocono is much wider than Indy.

The sharp turns on narrow pavement make Indy a one-groove track for NASCAR racing. Passing is difficult. The best way to get by another driver is to outrun him down the long straightaways and dive-bomb past him into the turn.

That requires more horsepower, which could be good news for the Toyota drivers. The Camry engines have a little more power than the Chevys, Dodges and the Fords.

But the car also has to handle well in the turns or it won't matter if there's a slight horsepower advantage.

Drivers have to fight their way through the turns, which doesn't bode well for racing the new car at Indy. This is the first time the Car of Tomorrow -- now just "the car" -- will race at the Brickyard. The car is more difficult to turn, and turning happens 640 times in the Allstate 400.

A few drivers, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., participated in a Goodyear tire test at Indy in April.

"We're not exactly discovering gold out here," Earnhardt said during the session. "We're running into the same old problems that we have with this car and the same scenarios."

In other words, don't expect any sudden improvement in the racing at the Brickyard with the new car.

Many things impact the quality of racing at Indy, including the weather. The big rectangle may be the most weather-sensitive track in NASCAR.

A temperature change of only a few degrees can wreak havoc with the car's setup. The size of the track can impact how a car handles on each end. It could be cloudy in Turns 1 and 2, but sunny in Turns 3 and 4.

Making those adjustments is difficult for any race team, but it's an easier task in an Indy car than a much heavier stock car.

One man who knows how it feels in both is John Andretti. In 1994, he became the first person to complete the same-day double of racing in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon also have done it.

John Andretti

It's not the same racetrack in a stock car. It drives totally different. You think you'd feel the bumps more in an Indy car, but you really don't. It's really smooth in an Indy car, but you feel all the little bumps in a stock car.

-- John Andretti

Andretti has raced in nine Indy 500s and 10 Allstate 400s. He often has been asked to compare the two.

"It's not the same racetrack in a stock car," Andretti said. "It drives totally different. You think you'd feel the bumps more in an Indy car, but you really don't. It's really smooth in an Indy car, but you feel all the little bumps in a stock car."

The racing isn't so hot, but no one seems to care. The fans still show up in droves and the drivers love competing at Indianapolis with a chance to write their names into the record books of the Brickyard.

Jeff Gordon has done that, winning the inaugural NASCAR event at Indy and becoming one of only five men to win at least four times at the speedway. A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears each won four Indy 500s. Michael Schumacher won five U.S. Grand Prix Formula One events.

"We started off here just excited about being at Indianapolis," Gordon said. "I was a kid who watched the [Indy 500], and to be able to race on the same track as A.J., Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser, Rick Mears and Mario Andretti, it was a dream come true."

It's all about being part of history. As for the racing, just hope for the best.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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