Why We Need the Brickyard 400 to Succeed

The 26th Running of the Brickyard 400 took place this past Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I’ll have to admit that I saw a total of three laps of the entire race, and those were the final three laps of the race. After all, I had already said I was dedicating this past Sunday to watching the NFL. By the way my Titans dismantled the Cleveland Browns, I came away from Sunday a happy man. Susan and I are headed to this weekend’s season-opener against the Colts, so I’d say our presence will guarantee a Colts victory – but I digress…

After the Titans game, I flipped over to watch the race only to find there were only three laps remaining and there wasn’t much question that Kevin Harvick would win. I’m not positive about this, but I’m going to guess that this was only the second NASCAR race I’ve seen all season. I watched all of the Daytona 500 and the last three laps of Sunday’s Brickyard 400. I used to watch a lot more NASCAR than this – a lot more. But after they instituted “stage racing”, I found it to be unwatchable. While watching this year’s Daytona 500, I realized I had heard of less than half of the field. I also realized I had not really missed it very much. I haven’t gotten mad or boycotted NASCAR or anything, I’ve just drifted away from it.

But what I saw when I did turn on was a strange sight. The stands were practically empty. I did tune in and watch some of the Xfinity race on Saturday. I think the Wednesday practice at IMS last May was better attended than the Xfinity race. With a change to September and the Colts out of town for their opener, I was expecting a bigger crowd on Sunday for the Cup race. It was bigger than Saturday, but not by a whole lot.

There were the usual jokes on social media, like “More people on pit lane than in the stands” and the predictable “If NASCAR holds a race with no one there, did it really happen?”

Surprisingly on Monday, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported that there was a significant increase in attendance over the last couple of years and that there were around 60,000 fans in attendance. I’ve never been good at judging crowd size at any event, and with a facility that big – I’m skeptical of anyone who says they can closely guess how many people are on hand. But from what I could see on television – it looked sparse.

Many of those making jokes about the size of Sunday’s crowd were aiming their jabs at NASCAR instead of IMS. I’ll admit, there is a side of me that takes a little delight in seeing the dwindled crowd for the Brickyard 400.

I’m sure the timing of the first Brickyard 400 in 1994 was not a coincidence, coming off the heels of the announcement of the formation of the IRL. It gave Tony George another ace in his back pocket and if it was successful, he could use the proceeds to prop up his fledgling league in the future. Two years later, most CART teams stayed away from the Indianapolis 500 and the die was cast for The Split that would fracture open-wheel racing and cause the Indianapolis 500 to take a serious attendance hit.

This is not meant to spur a discussion on The Split – far from it. But you cannot look at the genesis of the Brickyard 400 in the nineties, without realizing that the Brickyard 400 and the IRL were intertwined.

For several years, the popularity of the Brickyard 400 grew. In the meantime, the Indianapolis 500 was becoming less relevant in the eyes of TV viewers and attendees. NASCAR devotees loved to point out, with some truth behind it, that the Brickyard 400 was now the most important race held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They took great pleasure in throwing that in the face of longtime open-wheel fans.

It didn’t help IndyCar fans feel any better that NASCAR stars Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett had already racked up multiple Brickyard wins, while NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt also graced the historic oval’s famed Victory Lane by the year 2000. That was the same year that saw the fifth Indianapolis 500 run under the IRL banner. CART backmarkers Buddy Lazier and Eddie Cheever had already put their faces on the Borg-Warner Trophy, while traditionally struggling teams of Ron Hemelgarn and AJ Foyt were front-runners in the new league.

The credibility of the teams and drivers were already being questioned before Chip Ganassi and Juan Montoya decided to come over from CART to run the 2000 Indianapolis 500. They made a mockery out of it as Montoya dominated, leading 167 laps in the process. One year later, several CART teams came over to try their hand in the great race. The Top-Six finishers on the 2001 Indianapolis 500 were CART teams.

Again, I’m not trying to incite both sides. These are just the facts that helped bolster the Brickyard 400’s popularity and made the NASCAR fans puff out their collective chests as they took over our beloved Speedway once a year. Add to that that in an odd way, the death of Dale Earnhardt and the new TV deal between FOX, TNT and NBC – were teaming together and NASCAR was suddenly becoming mainstream, while open-wheel and the Indianapolis 500 were becoming afterthoughts in the eyes of the public.

So if you’re wondering why one small part of me sort of smirks with the sparse attendance at the Brickyard for the last few years – that’s why.

But when I think about it and bring my logical side into the equation, I get no joy at all when I see the expanse of empty seats at IMS during the Brickyard. Why? Because from my understanding, the formula that Tony George came up with a quarter-century ago is still being used. The proceeds from the Brickyard 400 are what is used by Hulman and Company to help fund the NTT IndyCar Series.

That arrangement was explained to me by someone who would know, about ten years ago. I could be wrong, but I don’t think anything has changed.

I will plead ignorance in one area – NASCAR’s TV deal. I could be completely off base, but it seems to me that NASCAR tracks share in some of the TV revenue so that the tracks are not as dependant on ticket sales as tracks hosting an IndyCar event. My understanding is that NASCAR and their tracks operate off of a completely different business model than IndyCar. I won’t pretend to know what that means, but I think tracks have some protection against poor gate receipts.

Still, it can’t be good for anyone’s bottom line if the Brickyard 400 draws 40,000; when it once drew over 200,000 fans. Concessions drop, souvenir sales drop, parking revenue drops – everything falls when IMS draws only 20% of what they used to. Worst of all, a main revenue stream for IndyCar drops if the Brickyard 400 is not doing well – if that, in fact, is still their formula for funding IndyCar.

So, if you are an IndyCar fan and you want what is always in IndyCar’s best interest – it serves no purpose to see the Brickyard 400 fail, except to chuckle to yourself how it serves NASCAR right. But if the Brickyard 400 ultimately fails and ceases to exist, it won’t be NASCAR that will bear the brunt of it. It will be IMS, Hulman and Company and ultimately IndyCar. None of us need that.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “Why We Need the Brickyard 400 to Succeed”

  1. I’m probably one of the few people who thinks stage racing improved NASCAR. That’s not to say I’m in favor of stage racing but the races were so unbearably long and boring before, at least the stages shake that up a bit and force drivers to actually race for the whole duration instead of just hanging out and waiting for the last 20 laps to start racing.

    NASCAR has a very sweet tv deal and from what I’ve heard even if nobody showed up for the Brickyard IMS would still make a profit because they’re cut of the tv money is very nice. That contract goes away either this year or next year and you can bet any new contract will not pay nearly as well as this one. Once that happens, the Brickyard 400 is probably in jeopardy.

    I watched all of the race and it was actually decent compared to recent runnings. And I thought the crowd was pretty good. I guess if you consider anything less than a packed house to be a small crowd then everything but the 500 is a failure. But compared to recent races the crowd looked up quite a bit, the north end was well populated, the infield was well populated, the front stretch was not well populated but it never is and they aren’t great seats so that’s to be expected. I would guess around 50,000. Of course 50,000 at any given IndyCar race outside of Indy would be considered a huge success, but here 50,000 is considered a failure. I don’t get it.

    • billytheskink Says:

      NASCAR’s TV contracts with both Fox and NBC do not expire until 2024, though they may have performance targets that allow the networks to have some of their fee refunded or to alter the schedule if they are not met.

      While the race does not draw close to what it once did at the gate or on television, the Brickyard 400 does continue to be one of NASCAR’s top 2nd half ratings performers (though Sunday’s race struggled… it was the first BY400 to ever go up against NFL week 1, which NASCAR once typically countered with a Saturday night show). I think the race will continue for as long as some portion of NASCAR’s television money goes to the tracks, even if (when) that money is reduced.

  2. Are the stands half full or have empty? Depends on expectations. I did not attend but thought about it only because I knew it would be a smaller crowd than the 500 . I no longer closely follow NASCAR and like you have drifted away . I did watch much of the race between dozing and switching to NFL games which I also found boring.

    You can not blame IMS for not marketing the weekend as they did all they could. The weather was very good all weekend as well.

    I am not sure what tickets cost but I thought IMS should place a flat ticket price and let spectators roam the stands much like on qualification days. You might need to charge a little moore for turn 1 penthouse and maybe NW Vista . Try this for a year or two,to,see if crowds return.

    Really not sure what can be done to improve the show that has not been attempted, it is what it is . Interest in any entertainment ebbs and flows so this may be as good as it gets for now

    • I thought about going too, but I checked ticket prices on Friday and the cheapest grandstand seat you could get (other than that little one in the infield in front of the museum) was over $70 before fees. Decent seats were $90+ before fees. Screw that, no wonder why the crowd is small at those prices. I like your idea, open up a few of the grandstands that are usually empty and allow General Admission folks to sit there wherever they want in them. Would probably help to make the frontstretch not look so empty.

  3. According to Miller the Brickyard is worth $20 million in TV rights to IMS even if nobody shows up in person.

  4. The novelty wore
    Off after several years, IMS is not the best track for a NASCAR race…..many stars retired……several sweltering hot races in August……the tire debacle a few years back…..stage racing……millennials don’t follow racing. Thus a potential death nail to the Brickyard 400. I think racing on the road course as part of their championship would go over much better.

    • I’ve seen these stock cars on the IMS road course many times and they’re fantastic, I think the Cup cars would put on a great road race there. Xfinity might be racing on the road course in the future (they either recently tested it or will soon be testing it) but apparently the Cup cars won’t because that would mean they “failed on the oval”. So instead they will continue to fail on the oval. Once the apron went away this track was no longer conducive to stock car racing. I doubt going on the road course would put any more butts in the seats though so it’s probably pointless.

  5. I tuned in the last 20 laps to see the crowd as well. There is no way there were 60,000 at that race. I don’t believe it was even half that.

    A lot of the decline of this race falls squarely on IMS. After 20 years as a season ticket holder I gave up my tickets when they turned my section into a “festival seating” area and offered me more expensive seats. The tire fiasco around 2008 or so really is what started the major decline in attendance. That was handled badly. Now we are seeing the lack of date consistency that has killed so many other races.

    NASCAR changes have done the rest.

    One big mistake IMS is making is raising prices as the events get closer. I considered attending a couple of races there in the last couple years, but when I realized I’d have to pay more than I would have a few days before, I ruled it out. My guess is this happens a lot and really affects their walk up business. They should have ignored Boston on this one.

    I believe this race still does help finance Indycar, though not close to the level it did when Tony George was in charge. But NASCAR now is so sick, I’m not sure there is a lot that IMS can do in the short term. Its going to take changes by IMS and NASCAR overall before there can be a major turnaround in this race.

    I’m all for them restoring the apron if that will help. 🙂

  6. Here’s a modest word of warning to those who think NASCAR is in steady decline. All things in racing tend to be cyclical. While many of NASCAR’s established “stars” retired recently, there are new faces, (albeit more “corporate” types) starting to emerge.) Look at Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Truex, Jr., Keselowski, and several others who are on the rise or already established in the upper echelon of the sport.

    Sure,I think NASCAR loses a lot of its appeal as it gets more and more “gimmicky.” And attendance is in decline, but that’s true in several sports, and when you consider the number of race wins NASCAR lost recently, I do not consider this decline precipitous.

    At the same time, IndyCar is getting older. Banzai Sato, Will Power, and Tony Kanaan are clearly on the downside of their careers; Montoya, Franchitti, and Helio are already done (well, Helio may get a return trip to Indy,) and while IndyCar does have a wealth of talent in the wings (so it won’t be like the early 90’s when Foyt, Al Sr., Mears, Rutherford, Johncock, and Andretti retired almost simultaneously,) the current group of “old guys” have had a huge impact on IndyCar in the years since the early 90’s talent drain.

    Another thing to consider as it relates to Indianapolis: Brickyard 400 dollars help keep the doors open and improvements continuing at 16th and Georgetown. Perhaps the better question is what will be the impact of moving the second Daytona race to the fall? Where will they put the Brickyard?

    Two years ago, I made the point that if you were a betting man, you could pick 5 NASCAR drivers you would likely find a winner; it was only a matter of what odds could you get on that 5 drivers. Not so, anymore.

    So, let’s not all start crowing that IndyCar is “catching” NASCAR. IndyCar marketing, particularly in terms of up and coming drivers, still isn’t CLOSE to what NASCAR gives their drivers. There is much left to do.

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