The Brickyard Hasn’t Changed; Racing Culture Has
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
It was 1972 and my college roommate Frank and I were at Road America for a Can-Am race. We were walking the paddocks when he stopped and took a deep breath. Man, he said, love the smell of that Castrol. Frank was/is a road racing purist and what he did was what racing purists do: The cumulative jolt they get from their sport is comprised of a thousands of small pixels.
It’s the week after the Brickyard 400 and once again it’s angst time as media and competitors attempt to explain what Sprint Cup driver Jeff Gordon called last week, “the flattening” of fan interest in a race that at one time, packed the excited owners of 250,000 butts on Indianapolis Motor Speedway bleachers.
And it’s true. The Brickyard is no longer the world-stopping, cross-over, must-see event that it was in its first decade. It no longer causes massive traffic jams on Georgetown Road. It no longer demands that television viewers take the phone off the hook for three hours on race day.
But it’s not the event that has changed. It’s the racing culture that has changed.
See, the Brickyard 400 is a race for purists. It does not cater to walk-ins. Because the racing itself in the Brickyard is what the constant-action crowd would call droning, it is the kind of event that appeals only to those who love racing for the little, often tough to see, un-sexy things.
The competitors themselves in NASCAR annually line up shoulder to shoulder to talk about the history of racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Especially the competitors who tend to be considered purists.
“This place just has so much history,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “The story of how this track came about and how it almost ended up being history in itself during the war. It’s just amazing what’s gone on here. I would love to win
here and hope to be able to accomplish that at some point in my career.”
Some even get huffy when it is suggested that the lack of passing is a solid reason for taking it off the schedule.
Like driver Kevin Harvick, who was asked last weekend what could be done “to make it a better show on Sunday”.
“I think you should argue with somebody to see if you can get anything changed around here,” he said to the questioner. “When you’ve got 100 years of history and you know that you don’t have to have as good of anything when you come to the Brickyard just for the fact that it’s the Brickyard and history is history, and it’s a very unique racetrack. I think as you look through time you’ve had some – you know what the circumstances are going to be here, so it’s just a unique race from what we do on a week‑to‑week basis.”
But it isn’t just history that makes the Brickyard a race for purists.
Doing well at Indy in a stock car requires zero defects in race prep and execution. It requires that precisely because the track is narrow, flat and does not lend itself to door-to-door racing and massive passing for the lead.
You want to win at Indy, you’d better have the right strategy and flawless execution.
Alan Gustafson, the crew chief for winning driver Jeff Gordon, was on a NASCAR teleconference on Wednesday. He was asked how special it was for him to win the Brickyard. He gushed. Gushed because he knows how hard the race is to win. Knows the level of perfection it takes on all phases to get the win.
“It was a huge win for me,” Gustafson said Sunday. “Really even being from Ormond Beach, Florida, that race is the one that I wanted to win the most in my career.
“I think Indy demands the best of everything. You have to have a great car, great engine, great driver, great team, great setup, everything. Strategy has to be perfect. Everything about that race is extremely, extremely difficult.
“Obviously the Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the year for us. That gets a lot of attention. It should be. But what differentiates Indianapolis and Daytona for me is, as a person who loves racing, the engineering side of racing, technology, trying to get a car to go fast, that applies more at Indianapolis than it does at Daytona with the restrictor plate format.
“That’s what kind of makes Indianapolis a little bit more special to me, is it’s more of what we do every week, more of I don’t want to say the traditional racing that we do week in, week out, if that’s at Charlotte, if that’s at Kansas, if that’s at Richmond, wherever.”
Gordon, who won his fifth Brickyard on Sunday, says the fact that Indy offers the kind of racing it does should be considered a good thing. An old-school thing. A pure thing.
“It’s not, you know, our high-banked mile-and-a-half Atlanta, you know,” he said. “It’s just not that. And so you come here to see stock cars, you come here to be a part of a NASCAR event. You come here because it’s Indianapolis. You come here to see the cars fly down these long straightaways.”
You come here because you know that the more pixels, the better the picture.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at email@example.com Comments