Decline of Brickyard 400 shows power of Indy 500

July 30, 2012
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After chatting with resident IBJ graphics guru Dave Vrabel this morning, I realized the Brickyard 400’s declining attendance demonstrates the strength of the franchise that is the Indianapolis 500.

Vrabel is an avid motorsports fan—the kind who doesn’t hesitate to drive a few hundred miles to a race, and he often helps me better understand the undercurrents of the sport. This morning, he brought something up, that while it seemed obvious after he mentioned it, I had not considered.

While the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race has seen its rise and fall within a relatively short 19-year history, the Indianapolis 500 has persevered through good times and bad, through peace time and World Wars and through massive popularity swings in open-wheel racing.

Even when CART vacated, leaving 33 drivers most people couldn’t pick out of a line-up, the Indianapolis 500 drew more than 300,000 fans. Even as the IndyCar Series struggles today to find its re-unified legs, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing continues to pack ‘em in.

Is it a complete sellout like it was in the 1970s and 1980s? No. But it still counts itself as the nation’s largest live sporting event. It’s massively popular with locals and a good deal of out-of-towners. Safe to say, it’s still hugely profitable.

As Vrabel pointed out to me, it’s a weird situation regarding the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400. In its inaugural year in 1994, the Brickyard 400 drew a crowd comparable to that year’s Indianapolis 500.

Now, NASCAR would kill for the Brickyard 400 to achieve the kind of attendance and TV ratings that the Indy 500 has long produced. But once you leave Indy, IndyCar would kill for the ratings and attendance NASCAR has throughout their season.

Yes, NASCAR ratings are down from a couple years ago, but they’re still much better than any IndyCar race outside of Indianapolis.

Several IndyCar races, including the most recent race in Edmonton, drew fewer television viewers than the live audience at Indianapolis. That’s crazy.

It’s equally difficult to pinpoint why Brickyard 400 attendance has been cut in half over the last decade as it is to figure out why the Indianapolis 500 attendance remains so stable.

This is what I routinely hear about Brickyard 400 attendance declines from fans, sponsors and vendors: The novelty of stock cars on the track has worn off; the on-track action is boring with little passing and lots of single-file racing; and this down economy has hurt the lower and middle class NASCAR fans a lot harder than it has other segments.

In that case, I guess the novelty of watching open-wheel cars zip around the 2.5-mile oval will never wear off.

The Indy 500 has a phenomenal history and heritage here. And it is a spectacle—think people watching and food consumption—that goes far beyond the racing on the track.

The one thing that can be deduced from all of this is that the Indianapolis 500 has a long-enduring brand value that should be nurtured and cherished. It must have been a magical set of circumstances that chiseled this event into the consciousness of Hoosiers and race fans nationwide.

And as the Brickyard 400 blows smoke, the Greatest Spectacle can be looked upon with widening wonderment for its enduring horsepower and undeniable staying power.

  • Something to consider
    At the majority of Sprint Cup tracks (I said majority), you can see all the way around the track if you sit high enough. I quit going to the BY400 (if I couldn't score free tix), but still went to IRP's races simply because I saw more from my seat at IRP and got a better view on TV than I did at IMS. If I pay $85+ for a race ticket, I want to do more than just watch it on the jumbo tron.
  • IMS is the Indy 500
    The folks at IMS really need to see the forest for the trees. The Indianapolis 500 is what people associate IMS with. The Indianapolis 500 is a sport-transcending event. It is part of America's cultural fabric. Maybe it is not a huge swath of it, but substantial enough to be importnat. Anything else is irrelevant. Burl and the crew were there yesterday. The atmosphere was like comparing apples and oranges. The Indianapolis 500 is king. Pure and simple. IMS officials need to treat as such and stop holding other motor racing events at IMS. They just do not fit in. Thsi was my last Brickyard 400. It is an atrociously boring event. With the exception of the restarts, it was like watching Cup practice. I attended the first two Brickyard's and the one Montoya almost one. Now this one. Yesterday's was the worst. IMS serves one hold the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.
  • For Pete's Sake
    All of this is designed to make IMS money. PERIOD. The 400 is a BORING race, from it's very first one till as-long-as-they-race here. Nothing short of changing the track is going to fill the stands. Also, how does NASCAR lose by less attendance at Indy? Doesn't IMS pay sanction fees to NASCAR to host such a race? Doesn't that IMPACT the speedways year-end coffers only or does NASCAR get part of the gate??? Anthony, it's hard to believe that that could be possible (NASCAR having control over IMS' gate receipts).
  • Two Things
    1. By removing the grass between pit lane and Turns 1 & 3, racing will greatly improve for IndyCars and Stock Cars. 2. BY 400 TV Ratings > Indy 500 TV Ratings...
  • Everyone knows...
    That 12+ overnights remain only fodder for sweeping generalization. Now if you'll pardon me, I have to buy some Clabber Girl Baking Soda.
  • $6M Nascar Sanction fees
    IMS pays NASCAR $6M in sanction fees for the Curtiss Shaver 400? Bwahahhahahaha! In the IZOD Indycarz, they dispensed with pesky sanction fees last year at places like New Hampshire and Las Vegas. This year, either limited or NO saction fees allow the series to seill places like Toronto, Edmonton, Baltimore, Milwaukee. PLUS, they excluded RA for the China fill in race because RA wanted a discount as well. IMS said NO, and thus that great business decision nets a three week MID SUMMER layoff. Randy should run for POTUS. If you can't sell it, give it away. Just like IZOD clothing specifically branded for the IRL or Indy 500. Great business strategy right thar!
  • Racing not as popular anymore
    One thing that tends to be overlooked is the simple fact the "NASCAR Phenomenon" or fad, if you will, has pretty much run its course, no pun intended. Ten years ago I recall constantly running into people I would never associate as "racing people", who were all exicted about and followed NASCAR. I am still in the same cirlces as then, and what used to be 20-30 NASCAR "fans" is down 3-4. I even know a couple of people who are amazed they followed it and one that is kind of ashamed based on class values and perceptions....NASCAR being sonsidered lower class. Pretty amazing stuff. Add the fact a good third to half of the people who were around ten years ago have moved on and left NASCAR behind with the fact the racing itself is bland and predicatble (not to mention a creepy notion the sport may be contrived in many ways) and it is no small wonder it is in a decline. Mayeb the decline is not a nosedive, but no doubt the sport is suffering a downturn. I watched the race Sunday from Panama City, Florida, at a resort. I was the only one watching in the resort day room. Maybe ten, fifteen people were in there. A couple came by to ask who was winning and watched for maybe five minutes then went back to sunning or shooting pool. Very little interest in that room. At IMS itself, I was stunned to see the incredible swaths of empty seats. There is no question this race is in a significant decline to the point of almost being irrelevant. NASCAR and IMS say they will continue to run the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard or whatever it is called they days, but I think they are bluffing and/or in denial. No way that event Sunday had even an iota of success written on it. It looked bleak, uninteresting, and dying. Maybe IMS should let the race go. It makes them money, but hurts the image of the place. Maybe NASCAR is headed to its rightful place once again...a third-tier sport for diehard stock car fans. That is ok. They are lucky, even, as I know so few people who watch it any longer. NASCAR may be on the way out, but it will survive as a smaller, less followed sport.
  • nascar and indy fan
    I'll watch any race the IMS holds...NASCAR or indycar.motogp...Indy car fans come across as snobs...and it shows here..

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