Despite Attendance Decline, NASCAR Should Race On At Indy

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JULY 31: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, leads a group of cars down the frontstretch during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 31, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The crowds have dwindled to half of what they once were, the cars get strung out in a single-file parade and the finish often lacks excitement.

If the above statement described a place like Atlanta or Fontana, it would lose a race date faster than you can say, "realignment." Heck, Bruton Smith might even tear up one of his tracks for such a thing.

But when it comes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the thought of NASCAR's departure never seriously considered despite those problems.

Nor should it be.

NASCAR belongs at the Brickyard. It doesn't matter how boring the race may be: The prestige of racing at the century-old speedway is one of the greatest privileges in the sport.

Not to be too cheesy here, but Indy is magical. The atmosphere at the track just feels different – and it has nothing to do with how many people are there or not. Cars have been racing at the Brickyard practically since they were invented. What driver wouldn't want to be a part of that legacy?

Yes, the attendance is a concern. Just a few years ago, NASCAR estimated the attendance at 270,000. Last year was 138,000, but most observers felt it was considerably less than that.

If the crowds get too small, it might not be worth it financially for the track to pay what is surely a hefty sanctioning fee.

But as long as the dollar signs add up, NASCAR and Indy should never dream of a divorce. Racing at the Brickyard is simply too special, and there's a reason why it's NASCAR's second-biggest race of the season.

Is it possible, though, that the prestige of winning at Indy could be weakened through overexposure?

For decades, the only race on Indy's 2.5-mile oval was the Indianapolis 500. Then NASCAR came along and was allowed to use the track, which may have hurt the track's purity in the eyes of some old-school types. But it was still unique, and the stock cars proved to be good guests – even if it wasn't built for them.

This year, though, NASCAR has brought its Nationwide Series cars along for the ride. It ditched nearby Lucas Oil Raceway Park – where the stands were packed for thrilling Nationwide and Truck races year after year – and paired its junior circuit with the Grand-Am sports cars as part of a "Super Weekend."

There was nothing but dollar signs behind the move – both for NASCAR and the Speedway. Fans have bemoaned the loss of the LORP race and haven't expressed much enthusiasm for seeing the Nationwide cars take to the big track (though NASCAR's marketing department is trying its best to create that impression).

The Nationwide drivers are excited, though, because they get to race on a track once reserved for legends only. The drivers will come out of Turn 4, look down the canyon-like corridor with stands on both sides and get the same view Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt once had. They'll scream past the pagoda and the signature scoring pylon and rumble over the Yard of Bricks – an ode to the track surface once paved as 100 percent brick.

That thought might be a bit upsetting to those who treasure the track's history. After all, if Indy has become a track for anyone and everyone to race on, then does it not dilute the prestige of winning there?

It's unlikely drivers would suddenly feel less emotional about winning at the Brickyard just because other series share the venue. But in fans' eyes, seeing a Nationwide driver kiss the bricks might lessen the importance of the Cup race.

In that sense, it's possible the "Super Weekend" could backfire. And the last thing anyone wants is to hear a fan say is "This race doesn't mean quite as much as it used to."

Even more than reduced ticket revenue, that is something the Indianapolis Motor Speedway cannot afford.

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