Should NASCAR leave the Brickyard?
INDIANAPOLIS -- The stands at Indianapolis Motor Speedway were nearly empty when the rental car pulled through the tunnel on a rainy Saturday morning for qualifying. Large sections of empty seats are sure to dot the landscape for Sunday's Sprint Cup race as well, with some predicting as few as 125,000 could grace these hallowed grounds.
That would leave this grand facility with as many unsold tickets as there'll be at Chicagoland Speedway.
And Chicagoland, which seats about 75,000, isn't hosting an event Sunday.
You can blame the economy, which has affected attendance at every track. You can blame the embarrassment of the 2008 race, in which NASCAR called a competition caution every nine to 11 laps because tire wear was so severe.
You can blame it on the fact that this track never has produced great racing, not only for stock cars, but often for the open-wheel cars that have made it what it is for the past 100 years.
So maybe it's time for NASCAR to move on. Maybe the sport has gotten the prestige it was looking for when it invaded the IndyCar Series' crown jewel in 1994. Maybe it's time to give another track a chance.
Give Darlington back its second date. It is NASCAR's oldest superspeedway and deserves two races, regardless of how few people it seats and how few sponsors care about going to the South Carolina Sandhills. Give North Carolina Speedway back a date. The competition there was better than most places on the circuit before it fell victim to what officials called an oversaturated market.
Or better yet, give this date to Kentucky Motor Speedway. Surely Speedway Motorsports Inc. president Bruton Smith would jump at the opportunity. He probably has the news release typed and ready to go.
Imagine a packed house of 66,000 on a hot, humid summer evening in the middle of lush Kentucky farmland, with thoroughbred horses nearby grazing and dreaming of being in the Derby.
Ah, the prestige. Doesn't get much better than that.
Of course, this is ridiculous. Even at 125,000 -- and it's likely to be closer to 150,000 -- this will be one of the top five attended races of the season, with only Daytona and Bristol likely to draw more. With a heavy walk-up crowd, it could be No. 1.
Say what you want about last year and the damage it did, but the sport needs to be here. There's more mystique and history inside this 2.5-mile oasis than at any other track on the NASCAR circuit.
As Jeff Burton reminded people at a reception Friday night, it's been here 100 years. That's almost twice as long as NASCAR's oldest track.
Drivers don't come here worried that it's almost impossible to pass or that the odds of a spectacular move coming into the narrow chute off the final turn are worse than those of Michael Waltrip winning. They don't care that the prize money is second only to the Daytona 500.
They want to kiss the bricks just as badly as the winner of the Indianapolis 500 wants to drink the milk. This is all about prestige, and in a long season that sometimes drags through the hot summer months, prestige makes up for anything else that's lacking.
"I don't know of a racetrack that is more prestigious than this racetrack," Burton said. "It's been here for a hundred years. Think about that. A race track that's been here for a hundred years in a country that's close to 230 years old. That's pretty amazing.
"We need to be here. It helps us being here. We didn't create the history and the legacy here, but we're adding to it."
Sure, some of the allure that surrounded this event the first few years is gone. Sure, there won't be more than 250,000 fans, like the event averaged for much of the past 15 seasons.
This race is special, and for the only reason that matters.
"The history," said Mark Martin, 50, who is looking for his first win here. "I think that is the answer to your question."
It is the answer to almost any question one might have about why NASCAR should be here. As four-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon said, it never has been his expectation to have great racing here.
"I don't know if it is the best race that IndyCar has," he said. "It is hard to beat what they do at Texas and when they were at Michigan. That was some amazing racing.
"What makes this a great event, whether it is stock cars or IndyCar or Formula One, is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's history in automobile racing."
Would the racing be better at Kentucky? Definitely. It would be better at nearby O'Reilly Raceway Park. But that isn't what this weekend is all about.
"It is not the perfect track for us because it doesn't have banking," Gordon said. "Our cars really like banking. That was the case from the first race and still today.
"But it doesn't, in my opinion, [take away] from how important this race is and the excitement around the race."
You can't find a driver in the garage who doesn't agree. Most of them still get goose bumps when they drive through the tunnel and see all the majesty, from Gasoline Alley to the Brickyard Crossing golf course.
"I don't think this track suits a stock car, and if you watch the 500, it's tough for those guys to pass as well," said Jimmie Johnson, the defending Brickyard champion and winner of two of the past three events here. "So from a pure racetrack perspective, there are better tracks out there for us to race and put on a better show."
But Johnson wouldn't pull this from the schedule. Nobody would.
"The history of this track and what it means to everyone picks it back up a notch," Johnson said.
Exactly. Not even heavy rains Saturday dampened enthusiasm. There's a buzz here like at no other track, outside of Daytona in February.
So we'll look past the empty seats Sunday and hope this race continues another 16 years. Another 60. As long as the sport exists.
"To me, the history makes this a great race," Burton said.
And does NASCAR need to be here?
"There's no question," he said.
Nor should there be.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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