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SPORTS: NASCAR ill-prepared to race on hallowed ground

August 4, 2008

It would be piling on if I were to join the chorus of displeasure and disapproval following the 15th running ... and stopping ... and running ... and stopping ... and running ... and stopping ... and running of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

Aw, the heck with that. Clear the way while I pile on.

For the second time in three years, the good folks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway-without throwing a punch-received a black eye from a tire company and a sanctioning body.

A quick question before we proceed: Isn't "competition yellow" a racing oxymoron? Think about it.

Anyway, in the end-and, by the way, thank Gov. Mitch Daniels for giving us an extra hour of sunlight, or else the drivers would have had to replace those headlight decals with real headlights-the fastest driver over Brickyard weekend, Jimmie Johnson of Hendricks Motorsports, won.

But the race itself was a bad joke, and another example of how NASCAR has succeeded in spite of itself.

In one sense, the other winner was the Speedway. With its long straightaways and its relatively flat corners, nothing less but the best from driver, machine and rubber is required to conquer it. Clearly, the aerodynamics package of NASCAR's "Car of Tomorrow" isn't ready for today's challenge of the greatest race course in the world.

That NASCAR and its tire partner, Goodyear, were so ill-prepared is an affront and an insult to the fabled tradition of the Speedway.

It was like bringing gutta-percha balls and hickory shafts to play at Augusta National.

More than that, this was a slap in the face-a slap in about 200,000 faces-to the paying customers who make this NASCAR's biggest race in terms of attendance.

I was among the lucky ones. My only investment in the race was my time ... although it was an awfully long day. The poor saps who bought their tickets, financed their accommodations, or hauled their RVs in for the weekend really had it stuffed up their tailpipes, if you get my drift.

If nothing else, events at the Speedway are making my tire choices easy. I now have sworn off Michelin and Goodyear.

NASCAR, of course, will hide behind the safety issue, as if someone can get hurt driving those bulky cars anymore. I'm not saying there is not an element of risk and danger in NASCAR, but what's the most serious injury anyone has suffered in 15 years of racing at Indy? Bruised egos are the worst I can recall.

That's why I'm among those who believe NASCAR should have left the racing in the hands of the racers. Let them figure out where the comfort level was on those bad tires. Perhaps a team or two or several would have determined it could run 25 laps at 150 miles an hour before the tires became an issue. Let them try to find the balance. I thought adjusting to conditions on the fly is a big part of what racing is all about. It could've been a crap shoot. Instead, it was just crap.

But this, to the point of last week's column, is why I find NASCAR so lacking. The racers don't race. They manage their fuel. They manage their tires. And they wait for NASCAR to set up yet another controlled, contrived finish. What's sad is that little seven-lap sprint to the end wasn't all that unusual, only the circumstances leading to it were.

And no, Rusty Wallace, you numbskull, it wasn't, as you suggested on ESPN's coverage, the abrasiveness of the Speedway asphalt. It was, again, NASCAR's and Goodyear's dual culpability in not being ready when it came time for the rubber to meet the road.

There are amends and apologies to be made, and NASCAR offered up a belated one. Still, its arrogant leadership-not altogether different from Formula One's Bernie Ecclestone-knows it can spit in the face of its fans and defame the most hallowed ground in all of motorsports without serious consequence. It is riding high and mighty now. But trust me, there will come a day.

Now then ...

You would think an athletic department with a history of having to buy out contracts would exercise caution. But Lord no, not at IU. Understand, I'm as bullish on Tom Crean's future as the Hoosier men's basketball coach as anyone, but extending the contract of a guy who has yet to coach a game in Assembly Hall seems a bit premature.

Let's at least give him a year or two to prove he can walk on the Jordan River, because there's also the possibility of getting swept away in the torrent.



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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