Race buzz is the pits

Kyle Busch leads the field on the first lap of the NASCAR Nationwide Series Indiana 250 at...

Kyle Busch leads the field on the first lap of the NASCAR Nationwide Series Indiana 250 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The race, and a Rolex Grand-Am event, were added this year in an attempt to bolster flagging interest in NASCAR at the Brickyard. (GETTY IMAGES)

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:18 PM ET

INDIANAPOLIS - The huge expanse of grandstands and race track that stretch out from the corner of Georgetown Road and 16th Street is so imposing they named the town around it Speedway.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway in, yes, Speedway, Ind., is to car racing what Fenway Park is to baseball.

And for more than 80 years it came to life only once every 12 months for the Indianapolis 500 — the most famous oval race in the world.

In an effort to bolster the bottom line, however, the Hulman-George family that controls IMS decided in 1992 that it would open the

2.5-mile track to NASCAR stock cars for a tire test, just to see how they would perform.

To many it was a sacrilege that the shrine to open wheel racing would be defiled by a bunch of good ol’ boys racing lumbering sedans that the purists considered nothing much more than high-speed billboards.

Three time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, who grew up in the shadows of IMS in nearby Columbus, Ind., remembers he was one of those purists who could not believe that stock cars would be allowed on the fabled track.

“I’ll be honest, when I first heard about the test that was going to happen there, I was against it,” Stewart said. “I’ve always said that. I was a guy that had grown up in Indiana. I remember the month of May, literally being the full month of May at Indianapolis.

“I was against (NASCAR coming) because I thought that the Indy 500 was the only thing that deserved to be at the Brickyard.”

That tire test, though, showed that NASCAR would be a good fit at IMS.

And when the gates opened for the inaugural Brickyard 400 on Aug. 6, 1994, fans poured into the cavernous facility in numbers that challenged those for the Indy 500.

When adopted hometown boy Jeff Gordon, who cut his racing teeth in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., won that first race the Hulman-George family looked like geniuses.

It even converted a diehard open wheel fan like Stewart.

“After seeing the test session there and after the first race there, it was like, ‘Wow, this really does work and it really does belong there,’ ” he said.

The love affair between Indianapolis and NASCAR, however, came to a screeching halt in 2008 when the event was reduced to a series of yellow flags interrupted only briefly by actual racing when, ironically, Goodyear tires kept going flat.

The next year attendance was down to an estimated 130,000 from a high of 200,000.

And every years since has seen a drop in interest to the point where NASCAR and IMS decided this year to add a Rolex Grand-Am and a Nationwide Series race to the card in the hopes of luring back fans.

So far it hasn’t worked.

A drive down Crawfordsville Road from Interstate 465 toward IMS on a Saturday morning before race day would usually see every open space crammed with cars and campers. Not this week however, as lawns and parking lots sit empty.

The lack of a buzz about Sunday’s Brickyard 400 is also seen in the downtown area where the big hotels still have lots of rooms available at non-inflated prices.

Still Sprint Cup drivers have been out beating the drum, extolling the Brickyard’s racing heritage and prestige.

Kevin Harvick, who won at Indianapolis in 2003, said on Saturday he still gets a thrill just driving into the track.

“This is Indianapolis and as a kid you grow up wanting to race Indy cars and race in the Indy 500,” he said. “Just to come to Indy and be able to race here and be fortunate to have won a race here is something that you will always remember. It’s definitely one of those places where you get that feeling when you walk in you can feel the rich history that the race track has.”

Not even the return of one-time IndyCar poster girl Danica Patrick in the Nationwide race, however, has translated into more ticket sales.

It doesn’t mean that the Brickyard 400 is in danger of being taken off the NASCAR schedule. There will be more than 100,000 bums in the seats on Sunday and that will be more than at any sports event in the state this summer.

And it will make money, something that is needed to keep the big track open.

Canada’s Paul Tracy, who has had more than his share of heartache at IMS, said the facility needs NASCAR and other events.

“It takes a lot of capital to keep this place the way it is, and only having one race a year probably doesn’t generate the kind of money that it takes for the Speedway Corporation to keep the level that this track needs to be at to be the pinnacle of the world,” he said. “It’s one of the best facilities in the world, and why not use it for what it’s intended, and that’s for all forms of motor sport.”

DANICA DOWNER

INDIANAPOLIS — Danica Patrick’s return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway lasted only 39 laps in the NASCAR Nationwide Indiana 250 on Saturday.

Patrick, who finished in all seven of her previous starts at the famed track in the IZOD IndyCar Series, wrecked her No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet after ramming into the rear of the No. 98 Ford Mustang driven by Reed Sorenson.

Brad Keselowski won the inaugural Nationwide race at the 2.5 mile oval in the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge with teammate Sam Hornish Jr. second in the No. 12 Dodge.

It was Penske’s 16th win at Indy, the other 15 coming in the Indianapolis 500.

Patrick had high hopes that coming back to the track that made her famous — by becoming the first female to lead a lap in the 2005 Indy 500 — would rejuvenate her NASCAR career that had been in stall mode for most of her first full season driving stock cars.

“It’s unfortunate,” she said. “This was a big weekend for us. It’s track that we really wanted to do well at.”

But an attempt to pass Sorenson going into Turn 1 went wrong.

“We were just trying to pick them off one by one,” Patrick said. “I just picked the wrong line. I got into the centre of the corner and I got real close to (Sorenson) and I might have tapped him.

“I didn’t mean to take him out. I am sorry if I did anything. I was just trying to go around him and when I think he hooked right.

“It’s just a bummer.”

 


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