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Sports Business

NASCAR insiders want Brickyard 400 under lights

July 26, 2010
KEYWORDS Sports Business

Could the Indianapolis Motor Speedway lose its place on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule?

What would have seemed utterly ridiculous a few years ago, may not seem so ridiculous now. Speedway officials said they absolutely want to continue the event, and insist it remains profitable.

NASCAR honcho Brian France, however, has IMS officials scratching their heads over comments he made at an impromptu press conference before Sunday’s Brickyard 400. He indicated that Indianapolis’ July calendar date could be shipped to Kentucky Speedway.

You must be joking? Well, this is Brian France, so maybe not.

“It’s no secret Kentucky is talking about having a Sprint Cup event and it’s not that far away and it has implications to Michigan (Speedway) and here from a geographic standpoint,’’ France told reporters at the IMS.

But what does that mean for the IMS? It’s difficult to say, but one thing is clear.

NASCAR officials aren’t about to sit idly by and watch attendance continue to decline. This year, NASCAR race attendance is down about 20 percent. At Indianapolis, it was much worse than that. Several newspapers reported this morning that there was an estimated crowd of 140,000 in attendance at this year’s Brickyard 400, down about 40,000 from last year. I’d like to know who was doing the estimation. I’d say the crowd was more like 100,000, unless lots more people were hanging out at the man-made beach than I thought. Remember, this is a race that drew at least 275,000 fans less than a decade ago.

I attended several NASCAR events Thursday and Friday, and there’s a consensus that something needs to change with this race to restore some energy to it.

One common theme was a desire to add lights to the storied Brickyard and move the race to Saturday night. Team owners, drivers and sponsors agreed that would likely increase the television audience and give fans attending the event some relief from the mid-day heat, which may be keeping them away in droves these days.

Qualifications could be held Thursday or Friday night, and the lights would also give the track flexibility for other activities. Most estimates I’ve obtained peg the price of installing lights around the 2.5-mile oval at under $5 million. That could easily be recouped in increased ticket sales in a year or two.

There’s a lot at stake for the Speedway. The IMS has long used profits from its NASCAR race to prop up its other enterprises, namely the Indy Racing League.

Now that the Brickyard 400's annual revenue stream has shrunk from $30 million in the mid 1990s to $10 million or less this year, dramatic action may be necessary by Speedway officials.

IMS CEO Jeff Belskus has some difficult decisions to make. He has a track record of being a conservative, quick to protect tradition and slow to make big changes. But remember, he was the Speedway’s chief financial officer before he replaced Tony George just more than a year ago.

The kind of declining revenue he’s seeing from the Brickyard 400 might be just the motivation he needs to step outside the box.

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