Indianapolis isn’t NASCAR’s crown jewel anymore, but Brickyard still stands out for motorsports

The Brickyard is no longer the Brickyard.

Yes, the race still has the word in the title – the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard. Indy is still Indy and Indy will always be amazing. The trophy lifted by AJ Allmendinger after his shock victory one year ago looked like that of the likes of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and their fellow legends. And like every Indianapolis winner—car or not—since Dale Garrett in 1996, “The Danger” has fallen to its knees and kissed a brick yard.

It is Summer. It is Indianapolis. It’s auto stock in Indianapolis in the summer. But let’s be honest: It’s just… different.

“When you retire as a driver, what do they do to measure you as the best NASCAR racer ever?” asked Denny Hamlin rhetorically. “They want to know how I did at the ‘Crown Jewel’ events. For me, that’s always been the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 and Brickyard 400. I still want to win in Indianapolis because I’ve never won. Whenever I do, I’ll be very excited. I’m going to win the Brickyard, but I’m not going to win the Brickyard 400. Nobody is going to win, I think, from now on.”

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On Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series will take the green flag in the World Racing Capital for the 29th time. That’s a skewed number for those old enough to remember when the old-school Indianapolis 500 crowd said the “taxis” on their track were like spitting on the cathedral floor. But for the second summer in a row, stock cars won’t be racing on the most sacred 2.5 miles of holy land with horsepower, the 113-year-old rectangular circuit that anchors modern motorsport. Instead, they’ll only roll their way down a portion of a short waterfall and a large portion of the forward stretch but will enter and exit those gorges after weaving left and right across the greater section of the 2,439-mile highway course.

“I think that was the weirdest part of last year, just reboot the way your mind approached the whole weekend. Even the way you drive around the pitch in your car on the street is different,” admitted Kevin Harvick, three-time Brickyard 400 winner He won the last two ovals in 2019 and 2020. He grew up wanting to follow tire trails to Bakersfield, another California-bred racer, a four-time Indy 500 champion. ‘I’m not going to lie and tell you I love it. For me, driving through this tunnel, looking straight past the museum and into Turn 2 and back, I got chills just thinking about it. Last year I thought, ‘Well, hell, we won’t be racing there anymore’ .”

To be clear, the new race isn’t bad, at least as far as one can imagine from a one-year sample size. The opening weekend of last year’s Cup Series was a lot of fun. And this year’s schedule is filled with a rare IndyCar/NASCAR double-header. Again, this is a concept that for a long time seemed like an impossible one. See: IMS owner Tony Holman after Bill France Sr. was escorted off the ground when the NASCAR founder was seen snooping around Gasoline Alley in May 1954.

But also, again, being in Indy and driving the race car clockwise out of turn oval 1 and then hanging hard on the field before hitting Turn 4, it’s just…yes…different.

“I don’t think anyone would try to sell you the idea that Indy road racing is the same as racing on the oval,” explained Kurt Busch, one of only eight drivers to start 20 or more Brickyard 400s. His best result was on his first start, where he finished fifth as a Rookie in 2001. In 2014, he made his only Indy 500 start, the sixth place that earned him the Rookie of the Year title. He won’t be in this weekend’s race, and is still recovering after a training crash at Pocono.

“My sadness is that I never won this race and now I think I will never get a chance,” he said. “But those of us who have been around for so long were also heartbroken when we saw what happened to the Oval Race over the years.”

Oh, yeah, that’s the whole reason for the decision to switch layout.

Some of the most stunning images of NASCAR’s greatest glory days were produced by the first iteration of the stock cars at Brickyard. Gordon’s victory in the 1994 inaugural event occurred in front of more than 250,000 spectators, as they watched the kid who graduated from high school in nearby Carmel, Indiana, claim second of 93 career cup series victories. In the years since, those who have absorbed the Silver Tile Cup have been the Konga line of the NASCAR Hall of Famers, from Earnhardt and Garrett to Bill Elliott and Tony Stewart. Brickyard has become the ultimate reminder each August that NASCAR has captured the torch from open-wheel racing as the dominant force in American motorsport.

But as modernity faded and mega cars continually struggled to produce any side-by-side races on the tight geometry of the IMS, attendance dwindled. Then came one of the most uncomfortable days in NASCAR history, when the shoebox-like car of tomorrow joined forces with Goodyear’s poorly planned tire strategy to create a race that had never been a race. The field would make a handful of laps and then a pit to replace its torn tires — over and over again. By the time Johnson suspended Carl Edwards, thousands of fans had left in disgust. Most of them never came back.

When racing was moved to the 4th of July weekend in 2020, the idea was to create an American holiday for racing fans. But the epidemic has other plans. When the 2021 schedule was announced, the oval came out. The road cycle, which was originally designed for Formula 1 and then added to the IndyCar calendar (after another tire disaster, this time in F1), has been around. Last year, an estimated 60,000 fans attended the new NASCAR event, nearly double the attendance of the lowest point of the Brickyard 400, a crowd of 30,000 in 2017, and 3 million TV viewers, double the audience in 2018.

As with all things NASCAR, judging success now versus the great Gatsby days of the late 1990s and early 2000s is a mistake. Nobody thinks the era of 250,000 Brickyard fans is back, but when measured using the 2022 metric—not 1999 by any stretch, but certainly more robust than 2017—it’s easy for officials to say that last year’s numbers seem to point in the right direction.

“I don’t know anyone really wanted to do what we did, but we also knew something had to be done,” Allmendinger explained after his victory one year ago. The 40-year-old racer made 10 entries in the original Brickyard 400 and finished seventh on his only start in the Indy 500, coming in 2013. He will be back to defend his victory with Kaulig Racing this weekend. “I also think it’s easy to say, ‘OK, it’s not really Indy’ before the race, but I think if you see how I just celebrated there, this is still a special place and this is a special race.”

Special, but not the crown jewel. It’s no longer a staple on NASCAR’s all-season schedule, but, as Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Douglas Bowles stated — a man with the energy levels that make Energizer Bunny look like a sloth — tireless racing fans via his social media are the Brickyard 200 Sunday is the culmination of a week-long schedule of races held throughout Indianapolis and Speedway, Indiana.

“It’s not the same and it never will be the same,” Harvick added. “But I also don’t think anybody wouldn’t race that much harder to win it.”

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