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Pedley: Romance Of Indy Continues For Drivers

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 28 2011

Fans may be giving up on the Brickyard but the drivers are still gaga over the most important racing venue in the world. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Indianapolis – Brace yourself. As the weekend approaches, more and more stories about anemic ticket sales for Sunday’s Brickyard 400 are going to be visiting your television and computer screens.

The stories will be woefully sad because word is, Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday is going to be a pretty lonely place; relatively speaking, that is.

And you will be hearing and reading about how the Brickyard has lost its panache; how everything from the tire debacle of a couple years back to mass hypnosis have caused the NASCAR fan base to turn its back on a race which used to attract almost 300,000 people.

That, of course, is all speculation.

What will not be left up to speculation is how the event is viewed by those who will be competing in it. To them, racing at Indy was and is, a major deal. A deal that thrills them and chills them.

Driver after driver in recent days have thumped the tub of IMS. They have been quite vocal about the positive feelings they have for the most famous race track in the world. The guys gripping the wheels are

The green flag moment at the Brickyard. (Photo by Travis Lindquist/Getty Images for NASCAR)

not the guys griping. Drivers, it is clearly evident, still consider the Brickyard 400 a crown jewel event. One that is surpassed on the schedule by only the Daytona 500.

“Indy is a big deal,” Richard Childress Racing’s Clint Bowyer said. “In the sport of auto racing, Indy is one of the biggest deals out there. I think that the Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the year and Indy is the second biggest race of the year. Jeff Burton and I sat on the front row the first year I was there. It was a great feeling to be able to lead the field down through there into a sea of people. It’s just an unbelievable sight to see and to be able to soak that all in is a pretty cool feeling.”

And for a few, it looms bigger than the 500.

Tony Stewart grew up in Indiana. Grew up worshiping the place. To ask him to pick between Indy and Daytona would be like asking him to pick between his mother and father.

But he will tell you all about his love for the place.

“I rode my bike to school every day, and your parents beat it in your head to stop at stop signs and wait for green lights before you cross the road,” Stewart said. “Well, I played ‘Frogger’ going home, basically with a bicycle, trying to get home as fast as I could trying to get the TV on. That’s my biggest memory is just growing up and watching, loving the opportunity to get home. I didn’t care how much homework I had. It was the last priority when the month of May was going on and whatever coverage was on TV. You were just glued to it. There wasn’t any one particular moment. It’s just been something that’s been a huge, huge part of my life.”

Midwesterner Paul Menard also says IMS has played a big part in his life.

“I love Indianapolis and I really look forward to going there every year,” Menard, who drives a Cup car

Paul Menard grew up at IMS. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

for Richard Childress Racing, said. “I was 8 years old the first time I ever went there, and it was the coolest experience I’ve ever been through. I’ve been a huge fan of Indianapolis ever since. We would go to the (Indianapolis) 500 to watch my dad’s cars race. Indy has my two favorite races. My favorite one to watch is still the (Indianapolis) 500 and my favorite one to race in is the Brickyard (400). It was very exciting as a child to be at the (Indianapolis) 500 because it was a big, historical event. Indianapolis has a special place in my heart. I just love that race track.”

Hendrick Motorsports’ Jeff Gordon remembers the time he was not invited to drive at the 2.5-mile monster with  a portion of a golf course on the inside.

“I think NASCAR had a test session here in 1992 or 1993, and I was bummed that I didn’t get the chance to participate in it,” Gordon said. “When I finally got the chance to drive down the front straightaway, it was like ‘whoa.’ And then to win the inaugural race? Unbelievable. It’s still like that for me – just an incredible feeling driving here.”

So, even if the cars and stars of America’s most popular racing series head up the famed Indy frontstretch in front of completely naked grandstands on Sunday, well, at least the drivers will have goosebumps.

“When you go to Indy there can be nobody sitting in the grandstands and it’s still the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” hard old Kevin Harvick said. “It’s still been there for 100 years and still is our second biggest race that we go to. So for us, it’s where you bring your latest and greatest car, you latest and greatest engine, and it’s just kind of like the Daytona 500. It’s all about trying to win the race and putting it on the line to do that is what it’s all about. It’s a prestigious race to win and nobody in the garage is going to go there with any intention other than to try to win the race when they unload their cars.”

By the end of the weekend, there will doubtlessly be talk about scuttling Indy as a Sprint Cup venue at some point in the near future.

Virtually none of that talk will come from the drivers.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 28 2011
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