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SPORTS: NASCAR: Good for the city, not so fun to watch

July 28, 2008

Depending upon when IBJ lands in your hands, the 15th Allstate 400 at the Brickyard will be either coming to or going from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

So let's talk racin'.

Let me begin by saying how pleased I am that Tony George

took that giant leap in 1994 and welcomed NASCAR to the hallowed openwheel grounds of IMS.

By most accounts, the Brickyard 400 instantly became the second-most-coveted prize on the NASCAR circuit and it has remained in that stature, eclipsed only by the Daytona 500.

The NASCAR drivers express appropriate reverence for the Speedway. Driving there-even though it is anything but the ideal track for stock cars because of the relatively flat banking of the turns-is like the golfer who has the privilege to play Augusta National or the college football player who participates in the Rose Bowl.

From the standpoint of our community, we also should be glad-no, make that ecstatic-that Indy is part of the NASCAR calendar. Having the two biggest single-day sporting events in the world represents a huge twice-yearly economic payday for the city and region. Add in the Craftsman Truck and Nationwide Series that competes at O'Reilly Raceway Park, and this is a weekend that puts a big smile on a lot of faces locally. It pays a lot of the bills.

That said, as I've written here before, NASCAR is not my preferred cup of motor oil. And my interest in the sport, piqued by NASCAR's arrival here and its subsequent transformation from a regional niche interest into bonafide national prominence, has begun to wane.

If attendance and television ratings are any indication, I'm not alone.

No, I'm not saying NASCAR is in danger of falling from its perch atop American motorsports. Not anytime soon, anyway. But too much of anything over a prolonged period can eventually cause a fickle public to say, "Ho-hum. Haven't we been there, done that, already?"

OK, the NFL might be the exception to that rule.

For a number of years, I watched and followed NASCAR pretty closely. Lately, however, one race seems just like the next, and the next, and the next. The races are also too long. Way too long, every one of them a three- or four-hour marathon. Finishes, too, are often contrived ... what the heck is a "green, white, checker," anyway? A 400-mile race should be over at 400 miles, shouldn't it?

I also find it to be an inferior form of racing, at least compared to open-wheel. It's slower, with far less precision required. And, quite frankly, there's less risk. In Indy car, there is no rubbing of fenders, or tires, without serious consequences. In NASCAR, it's nearly an every-turn occurrence.

And while it's not my place to question anyone's career decisions, I'll do it, anyway. Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti, what were you guys thinking?

The winners of the 2006 and 2007 Indy 500s jumped to NASCAR, citing the quest to meet a new challenge. Well, Hornish is an insignificant backmarker and Franchitti is out of a ride, having his team eliminated by owner Chip Ganassi. And, no, it's not because they don't have the driving skills to compete in NASCAR. It's because driving skills don't make the difference in NASCAR like they do in IndyCar.

At least that's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it.

Now then ...

Last week, Danica Patrick had another nationally televised dust-up, this time with fellow female Indy Racing League driver Milka Duno, otherwise known as The Human Chicane. After a close call during practice at Mid-Ohio, Patrick went down to "discuss" the situation with Duno. The confrontation was caught by a Duno publicist and quickly became a cause célèbre.

Yes, Patrick would be wise to choose her spots and control her emotions. She's not racing just for herself, but for an entire gender, and that includes little girls who might be taking their conflict-resolution cues from her.

At the same time, had that been Marco Andretti, or Scott Dixon, or any other male driver going to Duno to vent, I'm guessing the clip never would have shown up on television or become fodder for comment among the media.

Duno represents a problem IndyCar has to surmount if it is ever to fully reclaim its national stature. She's there not because she's truly qualified to drive at that elite level, but because she has a major sponsor (CITGO) to support her mediocre talents.

In sum, what I'm saying is that there's something wrong with the picture when Duno has a ride, and racers such as Paul Tracy and Dario Franchitti don't.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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