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Has A Crown Jewel Turned To Paste?

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, July 25 2017

The 2017 running of the Brickyard 400 featured sparsely populated grandstands and non compelling racing. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

A couple of weeks ago, as I walked to my car in the driveway of my house, I saw what was left of a mauled cottontail rabbit. The rabbit had huge portions of its skin peeled away and much of its throat was ripped out. It was possibly the work of a hawk or an owl or even a feral cat.

A thick, moving layer of black flies covered the doomed cottontail, which pathetically struggled to raise its head as I approached. Sad sight.

I went to the garage, got out a garden spade and did my duty with a firm, sickening thud of the iron on rabbit. Then I buried in the backyard under a shady bush.

Thus too should be the fate of the Brickyard 400.

To those of us who remember those few short years when the Cup Series drew capacity crowds of stock-car racing fans to the massive Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the sight of acre upon acre of polished aluminum bench seats glistening in the July daylight of central Indiana Sunday was pathetic and sad.

It was a testament to the changing tastes and the fickle nature of professional sports and modern sports fans.

My first trip to the Brickyard 400 was in 1999. It was not the first trip to IMS and the immediate reaction was to compare the event to the Indianapolis 500. There was a huge crowd, alright, but a different vibe. Not a worse vibe or a better vibe. Just different.

It was the missing bits that were most noticeable. The traditional bits. Bits like the early morning parades with high school bands, rising clouds of balloons, Jim Neighbors, bagpipers. Missing also was the sense of the nexus of sport, culture and history.

I noticed that out in the grandstands and infield and parking lots. I noticed that in the media center where several of the old NASCAR hands ranted on about how Indy car racing was dead and Cup was the future.

There were a lot of puffed up chests around the pagoda as NASCAR media, fans and officials wooed each other with crowd size comparisons between the slumping 500 and robust 400.

And who could blame them? The 400 was drawing as many/more fans than the 500. As a lifelong 500 fan, one couldn’t get too upset by the presence of NASCAR at the most iconic race track in the world, but you could become rankled by the disrespect of it by some of the Southeasterners who had made the trip north.

There was a feeling among some open-wheelers that the barbarians had been let into the temple and they were partying on its wafers and holy water.

The individual competitors during the early years of the 400 were mostly respectful. Some, like Jeff Gordon, were Midwesterners and Californians who grew up worshiping the 2.5-mile, 250,000-seat speedway. Even the vast majority of Southeastern-types had a grasp of IMS’s history and importance. By the turn of the century, peace had been made between Indy’s old guard and its new guests.

The Brickyard 400, at first a novelty act, had became a Cup crown jewel. Even though the racing itself was boring, the 400 had a satisfying feel to it. It was easy for all manner of fan to put up with the racing of cars not suited for the Indy flat track – for a while.

NASCAR ceased to become America’s fastest growing sport somewhere around the middle of the first decade of the 2000s. Pick your own reasons as to why. And the Brickyard 400 quickly suffered the consequences.

Enthusiasm for it shrank and the turnstiles slowed. More and more talk focused on the boring races. Talk among fans turned to scraping it.

Then came Sunday.

Crowd counts which just over a decade ago were estimated at a quarter million were reduced to a quarter of capacity and that may be conservative.

Those who did show up at the gates on Sunday morning were “rewarded” with racing that no amount of strong, black coffee could make lively. The big moment of the day was a boneheaded crash that took the two drivers who had led 95 of the first 210 laps – polesitter Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. – out of contention.

The race then ended under an absurd caution as officials waited for Kasey Kahne to cross the overtime line before waving the yellow.

Not even the constant, high-volume shilling from TV “partners” could put a bloom on this stinker for those fans who know and love powerful cars going fast around cool race tracks.

And the 2017 400 was not a one-off in terms of lack of excitement played out in front of empty grandstands. It was trend-confirming.

NASCAR is undoubtedly planning changes for the Brickyard. Probably implementing changes made to Xfinity cars for this year’s race: restrictor plates and aero ducting. A date change is also being contemplated.

But can any amount of change bring the crowds back during an era in which crowds have thinned to water at tracks that still feature decent racing in the heart of NASCAR Country?

One of the racing beat writers in my face that July weekend back in 1999 was the late, wonderful, dear friend David Poole of the Charlotte Observer. The Brickyard had become bigger and more important than the 500, he insisted and at that time, he may have been correct.

But the belief here today is that Poole is up there somewhere concurring that it is about time to get out the garden spade, get a good firm grip on it and take big, painful swing because even a move to a different part of the NASCAR schedule will change the sinking feeling around the former crown jewel.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, July 25 2017
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