Past and present collide at Indy — in front of a lot of empty seats
The mostly barren grandstands around Indianapolis Motor Speedway provided an exceptional contrast to the scenes unfolding just after Sunday’s Brickyard 400. Two drivers — Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart — circled the 2.5-mile track after the checkered flag for a final time in side-by-side formation. Both had been part of unforgettable moments at IMS, previously defining their illustrious careers with wins in NASCAR’s annual stops at a facility once reserved for open-wheel cars, and this was another one.
“I don’t have the words for it. That’s a moment I’ll always remember,” said Stewart, dripping with sweat after departing his No. 14 on IMS’ pit road.
Stewart finished 11th after a pit road penalty, and Gordon finished 13th in his first race since retiring from full-time racing last November.
“Being out of the car this long made me realize how tough this truly is — how not only fit are these drivers, but how talented they are,” Gordon said. “They just took advantage of me on those restarts.”
Sunday, Gordon and Stewart were paired in an impromptu celebration of Stewart’s creation that again delighted the crowd. But that crowd, overheated after watching the Brickyard in excessively warm weather, likely ranked as the smallest ever for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series at IMS. The estimated that 50,000 people “filled” the 250,000-plus seats and infield areas.
And then there was Kyle Busch, spinning his No. 18 in a smoky burnout on the frontstretch to celebrate his second straight Brickyard win — just like he had done in the XFINITY Series race the day before. Busch became the first NASCAR driver to sweep both poles and both races in a double-header NASCAR weekend. In winning Sunday, he led the most laps ever (149) in a Brickyard 400.
“I figured our strength was our long-run speed, but we also had short-run speed too and could get out on the field there the first couple of laps,” Busch said. “It was a great day for us.”
It was sure-fire dominance, but his team’s visit to Victory Lane undoubtedly played second fiddle to Gordon’s and Stewart’s trip down memory lane.
The competing moments and swaths of empty seats provided a stark look at how difficult NASCAR’s ongoing transition between eras continues to be. Gordon (retired but called back to duty for Indianapolis and this week at Pocono Raceway to drive the No. 88 car of an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and Stewart (retiring in November) both are products of NASCAR’s 1990s and 2000s boom. They remain immensely popular among fans as they depart.
Busch, meanwhile, is the defending Cup series champion and very often seems to be leaps and bounds better than anyone currently driving in NASCAR. He’s winning in all three NASCAR national series at an absurd clip that seems to have no bounds. It’s Hall of Fame-level stuff, but fans are struggling to connect with him and other drivers not named Dale Earnhardt Jr. Busch’s supporters were drowned out by groans from the small crowd when he won the pole Saturday at Indianapolis, and the contingent of fans watching Busch and his team pose on the IMS frontstretch in the traditional post-race pageantry Sunday was far from large.
NASCAR’s transition also is complicated by the action on track. The series has made drastic changes to its rulebook in attempts to bring closer racing that will attract back fans who have become disinterested in recent years. The formula seems to be a positive one in races to date in 2016, but it has yet to drive notable increases in interest.
Nowhere was the more evident than at Indy. Once a venue that guaranteed NASCAR’s largest crowd of the season (often over 250,000 people), the speedway has seen plummeting ticket sales in the last five years as the competition on track seemed to grow more spread out.
NASCAR said Monday that it remains committed to the venue. “It’s an important market for us, but by the same token we’ve got to put on the racing that people want to see,” said NASCAR vice president Steve O’Donnell in a satellite radio interview. “It’s a balance, but we’ve got to make sure when we go there it’s the best of all worlds, and this year was a challenge, and we want to see that turn and reverse.”
Kyle Busch’s Brickyard 400 win came in dominant fashion, but the small crowd on hand saved its enthusiasm for Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.