- Terry Blount, ESPN Staff Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Is the thrill gone?
One might assume so since half the crowd went elsewhere from the Brickyard 400.
It's too bad. For those 125,000 people who used to attend the event, they missed one whale of a show Sunday.
An event that once had a crowd of more than 250,000 was a race with the gigantic Indy grandstands half empty.
They should have been here. It was quite a race, maybe the best one ever in the 17-year history of the event.
OK, that's not saying much, but this one was worth the price of admission.
What did they miss?
They missed a starting few laps so bizarre that I thought I was in a nightmare from "Inception" -- cars crashed on Lap 1, tires blew and engines overheated by Lap 10, and even one car (the No. 13 Toyota of Max Papis) caught on fire.
They missed Juan Pablo Montoya become NASCAR's version of the Andretti jinx at Indy, losing for the second consecutive year in the race he should have won.
They missed McMurray make an improbable pass on the outside line to get by leader Kevin Harvick on the last restart with 11 laps remaining.
They missed Johnson have a rare horrible day, finishing 22nd and failing to become the first Sprint Cup driver to win three in a row at Indy.
They missed Dale Earnhardt Jr., on his way to a top-15 finish, get collected in the Montoya wreck with 15 laps to go.
They missed Chip Ganassi become the first team owner to win the Triple Crown of American racing -- watching his drivers go to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500, the Indy 500 (Dario Franchitti) and the Brickyard 400 in the same season.
They missed a lot, so why weren't they here?
First, let's look at it from the "glass-half-full" perspective. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a big place -- 257,000 seats around the 2.5-mile rectangle, to be exact. The official estimated crowd Sunday was 140,000.
Even with attendance at an all-time low, this still was one of the biggest crowds of the season. It just isn't what we're used to seeing at the storied old place. One could safely say it was the smallest crowd ever for a major oval-track event at the Brickyard.
There was a point a few years ago, during the worst years of the Indy-car split and the boom of NASCAR popularity, when many observers thought the Brickyard 400 had surpassed the Indy 500 as the biggest event of the year at IMS.
"To come here is probably the most exciting by far because of the history with Indy and all that stuff," Cup driver Matt Kenseth said Friday. "If I was a race fan, it would be on my list to just come and see because it's such a historic track."
To come here is probably the most exciting by far because of the history with Indy and all that stuff. If I was a race fan, it would be on my list to just come and see because it's such a historic track.
”-- Matt Kenseth
And it was. But not anymore. What happened? Where did they go?
The NASCAR fans who bought a ticket just to see the Brickyard aren't coming now. Been there, done that, I guess.
Part of the problem is the same woes all speedways are suffering through these days in a down economy. But it's more than that here.
Tiregate at the 2008 Brickyard 400, when tires were shredding like paper and mandatory cautions were thrown every 10 to 12 laps, also turned some fans off.
But the downturn in attendance started before the tire debacle. The newness has worn off. The novelty of stock cars at Indy, which started in 1994, helped build the race into one of the premier events in NASCAR.
Now it's not out of the question to speculate about the event's future.
Jeff Belskus, president and CEO at IMS, sees no reason for concern.
"This is a very important event for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," Belskus said, standing in the infield area near the Pagoda Tower after Sunday's race. "It's a very important event for NASCAR and for this community. I have trouble envisioning the scenario where this event does not come back. We're having a good year and the crowd is looking good down here."
The Brickyard 400 isn't going away. It remains one of the most important races of the season, but something needs to stop the bleeding. Would a date change help, maybe a race in the Chase?
"It's something we've talked about in the past," Fred Nation, vice president of communications for IMS, said. "It's very hot here in July."
The heat didn't keep anyone away in the past. What will bring them back?
All those folks who left must think the thrill is gone. And they missed a heck of a show.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
18dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information