SPEEDWAY, Ind. – For most of its storied 104-year career, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway didn’t have to do much more than open its doors to attract a big crowd.
A soured economy, a lack of compelling races and the tire debacle of 2008 changed all that.
The speedway has never worked harder to put fans back in the stands, especially for Sunday’s Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard. As the allure of being at Indianapolis continues to be replaced with a lot of single-file racing, the world’s most-fabled race track is trying to boost sales and interest by adding a three-hour GRAND-AM Road Racing sports car race on Friday and a 250-mile Nationwide Series race on Saturday.
Drivers still consider Sunday’s race the second-biggest to the Daytona 500 on the NASCAR schedule. Fans still aren’t sold on it yet.
“From Day 1, it never felt like it was the best fan-spectator race track if you look at NASCAR tracks,” said four-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon.
With more than 300,000 seats, the grandstands probably never will look full. Even at 50-percent capacity, Indianapolis still would be one of the top-five attended races on the schedule.
The 2.5-mile oval has very little banking which doesn’t suit a 3,450-pound stock car. There are huge grandstands along pit road which blocks the view of the entire backstretch. When a car speeds by, it usually takes about 50 seconds before it comes by again, which makes it difficult for the track to capture, and keep, everyone’s attention.
“If it’s a mile-and-a-half, you can see three-quarters of the track from the grandstands, where at Indy you see them flash by down the front straightaway,” Gordon said. “If you are sitting in the corner, you see them coming into the corner and going off the corner.
“But, from a spectacle, and just hype and excitement and energy to be a part of, I think it’s a huge event. For the drivers, it still holds just as much prestige as it ever did.”
When NASCAR made its first trip to Indianapolis in 1994, stock car fans were eager to make their own history while Indy-car fans believed it trampled on tradition.
A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser have won the Indianapolis 500 a record four times. Although Gordon has won the 400 four times, he doesn’t get the same attention as the others.
Now both Indy-cars and NASCAR struggle to put people in the stands. NASCAR tracks as a group have reported declines in ticket revenues of as much as 40 percent in the past 10 years.
“As we’ve seen, many times over the last couple of years, many different factors weigh in as to why the fans fill the stands at some tracks and don’t at others,” Gordon said. “I would think Indianapolis would be one of those tracks that a lot of people typically travel to. When you have that many grandstands, it’s not just everybody Indiana filling it up. It’s other people traveling from further out.
“And, it’s expensive to travel these days with gas prices and hotel prices and everything else.”
The tire selected for the 2008 Brickyard 400 compounded Indy’s problems. The tire wore out so quickly drivers were forced to stop two or three times for each tank of gas. It’s been difficult for the track to recover.
“It’s big for us and the more people that are in the stands, the more we enjoy it as drivers,” said two-time Indy winner Tony Stewart. “The year that we had the tire troubles really made a huge impact on the race there.”
But make no mistake: No matter how many people show up on Sunday, the Brickyard 400 is a big deal.
“Indianapolis is Indianapolis,” Carl Edwards said. “To me, Daytona and Indy are huge. There’s no bigger race than those two. I haven’t won [at Indianapolis] yet. That would be a career accomplishment. The guys who haven’t won it dream of standing on those bricks.”
Just how many people are there to see it in person remains a work in progress.