The Brickyard 400 is a mere fraction of its once greatness

The brickyard 400 used to draw a big crowd
The brickyard 400 used to draw a big crowd

In 1994 when the inaugural Brickyard 400 Monster Series NASCAR Cup race was held at the venerated Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was a historical event for all of motorsports writes Steve Waid of Popular Speed.

For the first time stock cars were going to compete on the two-mile track that had, since 1911, been reserved for open wheel cars and was the home of the Indianapolis 500, perhaps the greatest sporting event in the world.

You can well imagine the atmosphere in Speedway, Ind., for NASCAR’s debut.

It was teeming with excitement. It was the scene of great anticipation. Thousands upon thousands of fans and the just plain curious poured in. The grandstands were full.

The attendance wasn’t as great as that for the Indy 500, but there were hundreds of thousands on hand. It was clearly the largest crowd ever to attend a NASCAR event.

Only seldom do drivers feel a sense of awe coupled with the type of tension that makes palms sweat. They were enveloped by it all at Indy.

After all, they were going to race on track that once was closed to them. For years the open wheel crowd, and Indy, looked down on stock cars, which were considered unsophisticated, jacked up taxicabs built by shade tree mechanics.

The story went that Bill France, the founder of NASCAR, came to Indy once and was denied entry. Afterward he swore to build his sport by constructing a track the likes of which had never been seen. Thus, eventually, Daytona International Speedway was born.

So the story goes.

But there was no denying that the “taxi cabs" were not welcome. That was particularly true during the long presidency of Tony Hulman, the man who saved Indy from oblivion during the World War II years.

Hulman’s successors, John Cooper and John Cloutier, considered a second race at Indy from time to time. But the board of directors never acted. It never really wanted to do so.

Things changed when Tony George took over operations in 1989. George was ambitious and he began to plot how the speedway could expand its presence – and increase its income – with a second event.

In 1991 George made a proposal to the board of directors. This time it approved the establishment of a second race. Its first choice was a NASCAR Winston Cup event. The International Race of Champions was also considered.

Rumor rumblings began. Media and drivers alike heard and spread the word that NASCAR may indeed get to Indy. Such reports had been heard earlier but were quickly quashed by Hulman.

This time, no matter how silent George and NASCAR remained, the rumors would not go away.

They grew louder in 1992 when NASCAR regulars Dave Marcis and Dick Trickle tested IROC cars at the track. It was said they were doing so because Indy was considering IROC for a second event, to be conducted in May as a companion race for the 500.

After testing it was determined that changes needed to be made if the track were to play host to a stock car event. New walls and fences were built to withstand the impact of a 3,500-pound car. Pit road was widened and pit stalls surrounded by concrete.

It became obvious Indy wasn’t spending all this money solely on an IROC event.

Much had gone on behind the scenes. After a year of silence and skullduggery – and an increasing amount of rumors – it was announced on April 14, 1993 by George and NASCAR President Bill France, Jr., that a race to be known as the Brickyard 400 would be held on August 6, 1994.

As far as the NASCAR world was concerned it was like being jabbed with a cattle prod. The media, even those that did not cover racing on a regular basis, made ready to cover what would be history.

NASCAR’s loyal followers from the South made travel and ticket arrangements.

Teams and drivers announced in droves that they were going to Indy. Some who raced only on a partial basis or were even retired – like A.J. Foyt – intended to compete. Eventually more than 60 teams attempted to qualify.

The first scheduled NASCAR test was held in 1993 and thousands of fans attended. No one could remember the last time the media hit their budgets so hard to cover testing. Nor could anyone remember the last time competitors were so excited to get on a track.

The Taxicabs race before largely empty grandstands at Indy now
The Taxicabs race before largely empty grandstands at Indy now

Dale Earnhardt made it a point to be the first out.

So it came as no surprise that an electrically charge atmosphere swirled around that first Brickyard 400, a race that was immediately claimed by many to be the equal of the Daytona 500.

That was then.

But today …

For the Brickyard 400 Indianapolis is surrounded by thousands of empty grandstand seats. It’s like a vast, barren canyon in which a shout would become an echo.

Compared to the past attendance is paltry. The excitement and anticipation is gone, replaced by apathy.

Drivers still want to win at Indy, but far fewer of them even bother to come as they once did.

The media doesn’t come in past numbers. But those who were on the job at the inaugural event, and for several years afterward, recall how it used to be and wonder why it’s all changed.

Doubtless there are several reasons. But suffice it to say that Indianapolis is now part of the malaise that grips NASCAR, its speedways, its attendance and its television ratings.

If you were there for the first Brickyard 400 or even for several of those that followed, it’s likely you share the same opinion as I:

It’s sad, so very sad. Steve Waid/Popular Speed

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