Tony Stewart’s retirement from NASCAR couldn’t come at a worse time for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
As the venerable track tries to bolster attendance for the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race, it has lost its two biggest attractions in two years.
This year marked NASCAR star Jeff Gordon’s last race at the Brickyard and next year is Stewart’s last turn around the famed 2.5-mile oval. Stewart announced Wednesday that he was retiring from full-time NASCAR Cup racing following next season.
If Gordon is Indiana’s favorite NASCAR driver, as many have said, Stewart—a Hoosier native—is certainly second.
Numerous local NASCAR fans have already said they’ll not return to the IMS to watch the NASCAR race once Gordon is gone. Now, Stewart’s retirement will no doubt drive some of his considerable fan base away.
The two fan bases together total at least half of the Brickyard 400 ticket base. It’s difficult to look anywhere in the IMS grandstands and infield on Brickyard 400 race day and not see an armada of Gordon and/or Stewart flags waving.
Sentimentalists shouldn’t expect to see Stewart, a former Indy Racing League driver, return for the Indianapolis 500. He dismissed that possibility at his retirement announcement this week.
Brickyard 400 attendance has already been sliced by more than 50 percent since the race’s heyday and is now hovering below 100,000. Race fans in recent years have complained that NASCAR racing on the relatively low-banked Speedway is boring, with little passing and even fewer lead changes. Most of the race-day intrigue is reserved for the pit stops.
Now would be an excellent time for NASCAR officials to come up with a tire and chassis package that allows real racing, not a processional parade, at the Speedway. The venerable facility and the loyal racing fans who have made it so deserve better than what they've seen on the local track in recent years.
The Brickyard 400 will likely survive despite its tepid attendance due to NASCAR’s lucrative TV package. Host tracks generally get a nice slice of that.
Stewart hasn’t been terribly relevant on the NASCAR’s top circuit the past two years, but he won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in 15 straight seasons from his 1999 rookie year through 2013 on his way to winning three Cup Series titles.
Stewart was always a love-‘em-or-hate-‘em kind of guy, but Hoosiers more than most loved his Bob Knight-temperament and no-holds-barred racing style. His run-ins with other drivers and the media made Indiana residents love him all the more.
Sports marketers expect Stewart to be front and center in the Speedway’s marketing campaign for the 2016 Brickyard 400. Gordon was in almost every single print, television and billboard ad the IMS ran for the 2015 race.
The good news for IMS officials is they’ll likely get an attendance bump from those wanting to see Stewart race at the Speedway one last time. After that, though, all bets are off.