NASCAR

SPEED READING: The NASCAR Decade

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Ryan McGee

 
   
 
As open wheel racing fades, the Brickyard 400 becomes the new greatest spectacle in racing
What a difference a decade makes.

When NASCAR first arrived at Indianapolis in 1994, many racing purists reacted as if someone had propped open the back door to the country club, and the Clampetts had driven their 1921 Oldsmobile truck directly onto the ballroom floor.

When 43 fender-laden vehicles crank up in Gasoline Alley for the tenth time on Sunday afternoon, we will all look around to acknowledge the excitement in the air and the electricity in the crowd. And many of us will be thinking something that we would never say out loud for fear of being struck down for speaking motor sports blasphemy.

The Brickyard 400 might be a bigger deal than the Indy 500.

The race day crowd will not be bigger, ensured by the fact that the Speedway will not open all the infield areas for the stock car crowd. But the true test of popularity -- TV ratings -- does not lie. 4.9 million households watched this year's Indy 500, down slightly from last May's tally of five million. The 2002 Brickyard 400 was watched in 6.7 million homes, a 400,000 home increase over 2001. The difference in viewership between the 400 and the 500 is equal to the population of Philadelphia. For those of you scoring at home, that's a lot.

"It ain't the same," says Ernest Eppen, a resident of Georgetown Avenue who has lined his checkbook by parking race fans' cars in his yard since the 1920's. "I used to make all my money during the month of May. Practice, qualifying, all of that. Nobody goes to that stuff anymore. Now the crowds come three times a year. And we park as many people during three days in August as we do the whole month of May."

Those kinds of comments are like a bucket of ice water over the head of old school race fans. The people who remember Indy's glory days of the 1960's, '70's, and '80's -- the realm of larger than life monikers such as Andretti, Mears, Foyt and Unser.

When the small block 358's rolled into Indy in 1994, open wheel racing was still at the business end of the motor sports food chain. Stock car racing was stuck primarily in the southeast and still was carried almost exclusively on cable. Indy, however, was known around the world and had been on network television as long as anyone could remember.

Sure, Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt were known to do some stock car racing, but they referred to the excursions as "going down there to race with NASCAR". Whenever an open wheeler made a NASCAR start, they always managed to make it sound like they were college students volunteering to tutor some intermediate school kids with their algebra homework.

In the weeks leading up to the inaugural Brickyard 400, the traditionalists retracted their pinkies briefly to express their disapproval of the idea. When 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal was asked what impact NASCAR would have on the Speedway, he said, "It's like the place has been soiled a bit."

Much of that snobby sentimentality was rooted in the feelings of the man who owned and operated the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 1945 to 1977. Tony Hulman was said to have caught NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. snooping around the Indy paddock during the 1950's and immediately had him thrown out on his damp-backed ears. Over the next three decades, the France family continued to hound the Hulmans about the possibility of racing at Indy. The answer was always a rather firm "Thanks for stopping by... but no."

But by 1991, Hulman's grandson and new track boss, Tony George, recognized one hell of a potential business opportunity. Seven months later, he invited Bill France Jr. and a handful of his taxicab racers up for an invitation-only test. Nine drivers -- including Dale Earnhardt, and Davey Allison -- scrambled to see who would be the first to complete a lap around the 2 1/2-mile rectangle. At the second test in 1993, more media showed up than had covered the 500 in May, and was so excited, he stopped on the backstretch to take pictures with an Instamatic he had stowed under his seat.

One year later, the Brickyard 400 was a reality.

"There was a lot of concern over that first race," admits Tom Carnegie, the man behind the legendary voice that booms down out of track loudspeakers. "A lot of people, including myself, didn't know if it would work. But, man, did it work. Some of us that had been around a while were shocked at the level of enthusiasm and the number of fans that showed up for that first Brickyard 400."

Ten years later, the balance of power at the Brickyard has almost completely shifted. Since the CART-IRL schism of 1996, open wheel racing has been lost in the woods. CART now struggles to survive on a nearly month-to-month basis. Slowly but surely, George's Indy Racing League is finding its sea legs, but is still years away from rebuilding its scattered fan base.

NASCAR? It just keeps humming along, scarlet letter gone. This weekend, it breezes into what was once a playground with razor wire around it to keep the rednecks out. Some have even suggested the only cash flow keeping the IRL alive during its leanest times came from Brickyard 400 revenues.

True or not, a drive down 16th Street this summer reveals billboards featuring ., , and . There are no signs sporting the likes of Helio Castroneves, Sam Hornish or even Al Unser Jr. There will be a Mears, an Andretti, a Fittipaldi and a Foyt on the track this weekend... Casey, John, Christian and Larry. And they will be in cars with fenders on them in front of what is easily now the Speedway's most enthusiastic crowd.

What a difference a decade makes.


Ryan McGee is the managing editor of and on Fox Sports Net. He can be reached at his e-mail address: rmcgee@foxsports.com.
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  • Busch Beat
    On the NASCAR Busch Series schedule since the series' inception in 1982, Indianapolis Raceway Park could find itself in a battle to keep the Saturday night date. Long considered a laughable idea, the thought of the Busch Series racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one that some NBS owners want looked into.

    Before 1994, the only race run at the Brickyard was the Indy 500. This year there will be five, including Formula One, IROC and the IRL's version of the Busch Series, the Infiniti Pro Series.

    Truck Stop
    Winston Cup car owner Andy Petree will be returning to action this weekend as a driver, behind the wheel of the Monaco Coach Chevy Silverado. It will be Petree's third Truck Series start this season. He finished 14th at Mesa Marin in March and 10th at Martinsville in April.


    Petree, who was crew chief for Dale Earnhardt's title-winning cars in 1993 and 1994, was a contender for the win at IRP one year ago before spinning out in someone else's oil and finishing 12th.

    The Why We Call Richard Petty "The King" Fact of the Week
    The King retired from driving in 1992, two years before the inaugural Brickyard 400. On August 16, 1993, at the first open test for stock cars, Petty brought a car to donate to the IMS Hall of Fame Museum.

    When asked to take some ceremonial laps before handing the car over, The King obliged... and cranked out a handful of laps at more than 150 miles per hour.

    Totally NASCAR Who's Hot, Who's Not
    Richard Childress Racing: Well, two out of three, anyway. Over the last five weeks, and have combined for six top-10 finishes, one win (Gordon at Infineon) and a ppr (points per race) average of 134.5. Now, if they could just get along...
    finished second at Chicagoland three weeks ago, reaching eighth in the point standings. At Loudon and Pocono he looked like a contender, but finished 22nd and 37th. Along the way he has dropped six point positions to 14th.
  • Racy Ryan says Brickyard bigger than Indy

    Check out McGee's advice column:

    This is hard to believe, but it was one year ago this week (July 27 to be exact) that the final Ann Landers advice column ran in more than 1,200 newspapers around the world. Miss Landers passed away last summer at the age of 83. Her sister -- Dear Abby -- hung up her writing pen years ago, handing off duties to a daughter that now dishes out guidance under the same byline.

    Being the jealous sort, I have always wanted to try my hand at Abby and Ann's chosen profession. Only, I don't want to deal with all those mushy queries about love and relationships. I want to be the first NASCAR advice columnist.

    So, folks, you are about to witness... er, read... history. The world's first NASCAR advice column. "Dear Racy Ryan". As you can imagine, the early response has been overwhelming, so let's get to it.

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