Speedway mulls installing lights for NASCAR race

Despite attendance struggles at the Brickyard 400 (now known as the Crown Royal presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard) over the past five years, there’s no talk from NASCAR or Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials about discontinuing the race.

IMS officials said the commitment on both sides couldn’t be stronger for continuing the race long-term and making it stronger than it currently is.

“I don’t think either party could be more secure in its relationship with [the] other,” said IMS spokesman Doug Boles. “There is no thought internally or within NASCAR that this race shouldn’t continue.”

To bolster sagging attendance, Speedway officials are breaking new ground this year and may be willing to break even more ground in future years. For the first time, the IMS will host Grand Am and NASCAR Nationwide races over the weekend in conjunction with the Sprint Cup headliner on Sunday.

More radical changes could be coming. Speedway officials this week told IBJ that they have discussed installing lights at the massive facility—a project that would cost tens of millions of dollars—to allow races at night, particularly NASCAR events.

“Those types of discussions are more common now than they were even a year and a half ago,” Boles said. “One consideration is it would allow us to get fans out of the heat of the day.”

Erecting lights would be a major departure for Speedway officials, who previously have shunned the idea. IMS stands as one of the few major race tracks nationally without lights.

The Grand Am cars this year will race on the Speedway’s 2.6-mile road course Friday, and theNationwide qualifications and race will be held Saturday. Saturday will also feature Sprint Cup practice and qualifications.

Speedway officials are confident that this year’s race weekend will see a10-plus-percent attendance increase over last year’s weekend line up. Much of that increase will be attributed to the two new races. The Nationwide race last year was held at Lucas Oil Raceway just to the west of IMS. This year the Nationwide race will get a big boost from former IndyCar driver Danica Patrick.

Racing industry experts think 25,000 to 35,000 people will attend the first Nationwide race at the famed Brickyard, and Speedway officials said 200,000 is a reasonable expectation for the three-day weekend. The average Nationwide race brings in about 20,000 fans.

NASCAR officials estimated that 140,000 attended last year’s Brickyard 400. This year’s ticket sales for Sunday’s headline race are tracking close to last year’s, IMS officials said, but they are hopeful that cooler temperatures blowing into Indianapolis will drive strong walk-up ticket sales and push attendance over last year’s Sunday total.

Facing a decade of attendance declines, IMS CEO Jeff Belskus told IBJ that a Brickyard 400 overhaul was one of his top priorities when he took over as Speedway CEO for Tony George in July 2009.

“In 2009, we sold half as many tickets as we did in 1999,” Belskus said. “That’s a painful trend.”

IMS doesn’t divulge attendance numbers, but NASCAR estimated 2010 Brickyard 400 attendance at 140,000. Attendance was 180,000 in 2009, 240,000 in 2008, and 270,000 in 2007. In 1994, the very first Brickyard 400 at IMS drew more than 300,000, according to NASCAR.

Despite attendance declines, Speedway officials indicated that the event is still profitable. An infusion of sponsorship support from Kroger and Crown Royal at this year's event should help keep the event financially healthy.

Indianapolis is far from alone in NASCAR attendance declines. While Brickyard 400 attendance started to lag in the late 1990s, Belskus said, they were accelerated by the tire problems that occurred in 2008, when teams were forced to pit every 10 to 15 laps to replace shredded tires. The post-2007 economic swoon hasn’t helped.

IMS has added myriad popular music acts and other entertainment to try to bolster the weekend. This year will be the first time the Speedway road course and oval have been used during the same weekend.

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