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DATE News (chronologically)
07/29/11
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Brickyard 400's star growing dimmer
There will be no hiding the obvious this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Brickyard 400 isn’t the draw it used to be. That’s not to say NASCAR isn’t popular in central Indiana, which remains a stock car hotbed. This is a case of ticket buyers becoming scarce.

Last year’s crowd was said to fill every other seat, but that might have been a stretch. Sunday’s crowd won’t be any larger, IMS boss Jeff Belskus said.

That means half-empty grandstands.

IMS is too big for this era of NASCAR, and insiders know it.

“If you only sell 125,000 to 150,000 seats here, you have 125,000 to 150,000 open,” Belskus said. “That’s where we’re at.”

The event debuted in 1994 to one of the most impressive crowds in U.S. racing history, but that seems like a distant memory. Remember when there was talk of the Brickyard supplanting the Indianapolis 500 as this city’s premier event? Forget that now, as the 500 is experiencing a resurgence.

Brickyard attendance has fallen so far that IMS and NASCAR are bringing to the 2012 program Grand-Am sports cars and the Nationwide Series, which will have spent 30 years at Lucas Oil Raceway.

So what happened to the Brickyard? The list of possibilities includes real and perceived explanations.

Belskus starts with what he calls “a dilution” in the market, and that’s likely the No. 1 issue.

Since the first Brickyard, several Midwestern tracks have been built: Kentucky Speedway (130 miles away), Chicagoland Speedway (190), Kansas Speedway (460), Nashville Superspeedway (300) and Iowa Speedway (430). They all host NASCAR races of some kind.

Add in Lucas Oil Raceway, Michigan International Speedway (240) and Bristol Motor Speedway (430), and there are eight Sprint Cup, 12 Nationwide and 10 Camping World Truck Series oval-track races to siphon tickets from IMS.

And that’s just NASCAR’s side of it. There are the IndyCar, NHRA and local short-track races, plus the countless other nonracing demands for people’s money, time and energy.

“That’s a lot to deal with,” Belskus said.

If competition wasn’t enough, most fans have less money in this downtrodden economy.

NASCAR as a whole relies on a nomadic fan base, and those motor homes and RVs aren’t exactly known for getting great gas mileage.

“Indy is one of those places (on the NASCAR schedule) that a lot of people travel to, and obviously people are traveling less,” four-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon said.

NASCAR has slipped as a hot sport, too. The rapid rise that began in the mid-1990s and carried into the mid-2000s has tailed off, leading to steadily declining attendance.

Some tracks are taking down grandstands, but IMS can’t.

“We need those seats for the 500,” Belskus said. “We’re in a unique situation in that respect.”

The counter to that has been a restructured ticket program, with 98 percent of the Brickyard’s seats costing the same or less than they did a year ago. A $30 general admission ticket was introduced last year. Children 12 and under are free with a paid adult admission.

Still, it’s tough all over the country, and NASCAR chairman Brian France sees that.

“The economy’s still not perfect in places like (the Midwest),” he said. “So while we’re not economists, we understand when our fans are going through tough times, and we’re going to work with the tracks to get ticket pricing and other things (right) that might help the cause.”

And IMS wasn’t dealt any favors when Goodyear had a tire foul-up in 2008, with 52 of 160 laps run under caution.

Many of the other reasons fall in the category of theories. The quality of the racing is one of them.

From an outsider’s standpoint, the chance to win at the historic track is intriguing, and it seems NASCAR’s best usually excel at IMS. But while the drivers covet winning at IMS, they don’t always enjoy it.

The reason: Relatively flat corners and long straightaways aren’t the best recipe for showcasing stock cars. The majority of the Brickyard races have been high-speed parades.

“It’s not good racing,” said A.J. Foyt, who drove in the first Brickyard 400. “There’s not enough banking (in the corners), and those straightaways are just too long for stock cars.”

Said Gordon: “Indy has always been a race for us that’s about the prestige, but it’s not the best race we put on.” More at Citizen-Times.com

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