Five things learned at Indianapolis
The Brickyard 400 race weekend offered insight into various aspects of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. What are the top five trends it brought to light?
1. Where have all the people gone? — There was a time when Brickyard 400 tickets were coveted. Before the current recession and Tiregate 2008, a ticket to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was something to revere. Two years ago, 240,000 fans packed the stands to witness tires shredding and a record number (52) of caution laps — nearly one-third of the race. Fans vowed not to come back — and they haven’t.
Yes, the Midwest has been hit hard by unemployment. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in April that 9.8 percent of the population of Indiana is out of work. People have hard choices to make. But on Sunday, the track couldn’t give away tickets. The speedway offered free seats to children 12 and under with a paid $40 general admission ticket. NASCAR’s estimated attendance of 140,000 was generous compared with track sources, which listed the numbers closer to 115,000. Still, only the Daytona 500 and the races at Las Vegas and Bristol enjoyed better crowds.
Roger Penske, whose teams have a record 15 Indy 500 wins, believes the key to building audiences is attracting “young people into the sport."
“When you look at the sport and you look at the demographics, I think kids are playing soccer, they’re playing hockey, lacrosse and I think we need to get the parents to bring the kids here,” Penske said. “My dad brought me here in ’51 to see my first race, whether that was what hooked me, I don’t know. I’m still here, for good or bad.”
There’s something about the aura of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that has drawn fans for the last century. For Midwesterners, IMS has always been the Mecca of Motorsports. But the track has lost its identity following recent personnel moves. One year into his role as IMS president, Jeff Belskus has been less than visible with the media. The former CFO of Hulman & Company seems more comfortable as a bean counter than as a promoter — a necessary skill in today’s challenging times. IMS must invest in ways to rekindle the love affair race fans have for the track. There appears to be a disconnect where stock car supporters are concerned. That's become increasingly clear with the cutbacks of key personnel who were masterful in establishing a voice for the speedway and nurturing key relationships with the public.
Speculation of NASCAR not returning to Indy or IMS not making a profit off of the race is ridiculous. Even if 100,000 fans peppered the massive stands at Indy, at an average of $80 per ticket the track still collects $80 million. Now add $11 million in TV revenue along with souvenirs and concessions and it’s still a decent payday for Hulman & Co.
2. ECR is the class of the field — When five Chevrolets powered by Earnhardt Childress engines qualified in the top 10 for the Brickyard 400, no one was surprised. Nearly one year after Richard Childress Racing turned its program around, one key to the resurgence stemmed from the engine department alone.
Why? The numbers were clear. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing posted solid results with Juan Pablo Montoya after adopting the ECR engines. Childress’ own racers could not blame their problems on horsepower. The stark reality was the organization had to go back to the drawing board on its bodies.
The upshot has Kevin Harvick leading the points, Jeff Burton in seventh place and Clint Bowyer as the last driver in the Chase Zone. ECR engines have powered drivers to four wins this season — including those in the sport’s top events, the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400.
Sunday, ECR cars led 108 of 160 laps, but most importantly the final circuit.
3. Ford’s resurgence — When Greg Biffle was the lone Ford in the top 10 in time trials, one media member joked about making an early call. But with Biffle backing up his qualifying effort with a third-place finish at the Brickyard and nearly pulling off a win after leading 38 laps, the team appears pointed in the right direction. Carl Edwards' seventh-place finish is further proof that the Roush effort was more than an illusion.
On Saturday, Biffle referred to his car as “our latest and greatest chassis — one of the our best cars coming out of the race shop.” And Biffle maximized his opportunity in the race in what he referred to as “the fastest car.” When was the last time those words were spoken by a Roush Fenway racer?
Sunday’s stable of cars boasted new chassis, new bodies and new engines — a product of RFR’s collaboration with RPM. The partnership appears to be paying off.
4. Let’s play the feud — One week following the latest incident in the ongoing rift between Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards, there was still a tinge of excitement as the drivers raced alongside one another on Saturday at O’Reilly Raceway Park in the Nationwide Series.
While the pair had more real estate on the 2.5-mile oval at Indy on Sunday, the Nos. 22 and 99 maintained a comfortable distance during the Cup race.
But does Keselowski’s boss, Penske, believe the incident has been put to rest?
“I think the main thing that has come out is the driver’s reaction about that type of a tactic that took place,” Penske said on Sunday. “I was surprised that Carl took it to the extent that he did to wreck Brad. They were racing hard. I don’t think anybody was intentional.
“On the other hand, at the end there, what I saw and what everybody else saw and to me, it’s over. NASCAR did take action on it, it would have been disappointing if they hadn’t, but I felt that I, I wasn’t at the race. I communicated my thoughts and NASCAR said they were going to take a look at it and they came up with the penalties and the points. The points are probably the most impactful of anything you could do so, to me, that made a lot of sense and that leveled the playing field. Obviously, what it doesn’t fix is the crashed race cars.”
Penske was more fearful for Keselowski’s safety. After the No. 22 Dodge spun uncontrollably on the front stretch at Gateway, he became a sitting duck for the incoming field. Consequently, Shelby Howard plowed into Keselowski’s car.
“Brad’s sitting there in the straightaway and could get T-boned, that was my concern,” Penske said. “You know how I am, moving on, I don’t need to create a firestorm over it.”
Certainly, with Edwards and Keselowski under probation, an artificial barrier now exists between the drivers. But Penske hopes the restriction doesn’t alter his driver’s ability to race.
“He knows how I feel and I think he’s doing a terrific job for us and we’re trying to win the (Nationwide) championship and run strong,” Penske said. “Obviously, every time he goes to a race now he has to worry about, does he put a wheel wrong, is someone going to want to retaliate, which is the only thing I don’t like about it.
“I think the other drivers realize that you get to that point and that type of an accident that we’ve gone over guys just taking the gloves off and boys be boys. It’s more of something that would have to be normal type racing. Guys are going to get into people from time to time and you have to understand that.
But intentional activity by any driver, I think they have to take a good look at it.”
5. The Chairman speaks out — After meeting with Speedway Motorsports Chairman O. Bruton Smith for 90 minutes at IMS on Sunday, NASCAR Chairman Brian France took time to address a few hot topics. While he reiterated that all requests have been submitted by tracks for potential movement, there are still issues to consider before a final schedule will be released in the coming weeks.
“We're digesting that, making sure it fits into our TV partners, fits into the track operators that have made the requests, all the other partners who count on the schedule to be done sort of correctly,” France said.
“I hope we're on the final throes of that. We had meetings this morning on that. I sense that we'll be close to wrapping that up here in probably a week or two.
“There will be some changes as I look now, and that could not quite materialize, but I sense it will. We'll have some pretty impactful changes to the schedule that I think will be good for NASCAR fans. “
Changes are also anticipated for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Although France would not release specifics and insisted nothing is concrete, he believes the alterations being considered will “serve us well for many, many years.” France said his group has taken the temperature of the garage and will speak with the fan base before any conclusion is made.
“... And I would remind you we look at these things annually," France said. "Looked at it very hard last year, almost a similar format change that is being proposed. There are few, but one in particular that we didn't think the timing was right. Making changes in lots of other areas, there's only so much you can do from a change-all-at-once approach.
“But whatever we do, it will be with the industry having lots of chances to weigh in, and us in the end thinking this is something that we can build around that enhances winning, enhances the championship, gives us more of a playoff field than we currently have now, if that's where we end up."