BENNER: 'Empty' Brickyard still pulls a pretty good crowd

July 31, 2010

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: If the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sneezes, central Indiana could catch a cold.

Therefore, the thousands of empty seats at IMS during the 17th running of the Brickyard 400 is cause for alarm well beyond the gates at 16th and Georgetown.

At the same time, we need to provide some perspective. If the attendance was, as estimated, somewhere between 130,000 and 150,000, that still makes it the second-largest single-day sporting event in the world and represents a healthy influx of cash, much of it coming from elsewhere, spent in the area over the weekend.

Yet the vastness of IMS and the plentitude of those 257,000 permanent seats is both a curse and a blessing. All those rows of empty aluminum did not make for appealing viewing, either in person or on television.

As noted in the local daily leading up to the Brickyard, NASCAR attendance and television ratings are down across the board. The spectators we didn’t see at Indy are symptoms of a larger problem.

Yes, it’s the economy and, in this case, it strikes particularly at NASCAR’s working-class demographic. But it is also a diluted product, the result of too many races. And the lack of passing has turned those races into mind-numbing parades.

Certainly, some of it is directly related to the Brickyard at IMS. It is the hangover, I’m sure, of the tire debacle of two years ago that caused some ticket-buyers to keep their vows to never return. It also is because the novelty of NASCAR at the fabled Speedway has long worn off. Fact is, attendance began to slide earlier in the decade. And, honestly, it is the quality of the entertainment product at IMS. Those long straightaways and relatively flat corners do not lend themselves to the most compelling racing.

And some of it is mere convenience. Unlike the Indy 500, there is no local blackout and tape-delayed telecast. So you can get up at the crack of dawn, fight the traffic, lug your own food and beverage into the track, sit in the hot sun, then repeat the process when you leave … or, tune in to the network telecast on the high-definition big screen television in your home with a cold beverage as close as the fridge.

Anyway, there is cause for concern, but no need for drastic measures, such as the notion of installing lights for a night race, which would not only cost a boatload of money the IMS folks don’t have, but no doubt raise issues for the neighborhoods around the Speedway, not to mention safety concerns for police.

The hint of NASCAR’s vacating Indy for a race in Kentucky is also nonsense, lest virtually all the drivers and teams are not to be believed when they proclaim the Brickyard to be the second-biggest race of their season.

The IMS folks will continue to work hard to deliver additional bang for the buck (as they did this year with infield concerts and the “beach party” inside Turn Three). They already have announced a reduction in general admission prices (from $40 to $30) for next year. And, we all hope, the economy will improve.

I’m not the biggest NASCAR fan, but I attend the Brickyard and I want it to succeed for a simple reason: It’s good for central Indiana. 

Now then, to my untrained eye, it appeared Helio Castroneves did nothing wrong in protecting his line as he fought Penske teammate Will Power for the lead in the IndyCar race at Edmonton. 

But to competition chief Brian Barnhardt, who is paid to observe such things, Castroneves clearly violated the rule against blocking and it was an easy call to knock Castroneves from first to 10th in the final standings. If nothing else, it shows Barnhardt has the moxie not to play favorites or kowtow to a highly popular driver.

What’s not in dispute is Castroneves’ irresponsible reaction to the decision. In any sport—and in most human endeavors—it is simply not acceptable to grab officials. As this is being written, no decision had been made regarding Castroneves’ punishment. Simply put, anything less than a suspension would be inadequate.

What’s disturbing is how many seem to think this controversy and the images of an enraged Castroneves manhandling an official are somehow good for the sport because of the additional exposure they created. The reason I find that disturbing is, I’m afraid they might be right.•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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