Decline of Brickyard 400 shows power of Indy 500

After chatting with resident IBJ graphics guru Dave Vrabel this morning, I realized the Brickyard 400’s declining attendance demonstrates the strength of the franchise that is the Indianapolis 500.

Vrabel is an avid motorsports fan—the kind who doesn’t hesitate to drive a few hundred miles to a race, and he often helps me better understand the undercurrents of the sport. This morning, he brought something up, that while it seemed obvious after he mentioned it, I had not considered.

While the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race has seen its rise and fall within a relatively short 19-year history, the Indianapolis 500 has persevered through good times and bad, through peace time and World Wars and through massive popularity swings in open-wheel racing.

Even when CART vacated, leaving 33 drivers most people couldn’t pick out of a line-up, the Indianapolis 500 drew more than 300,000 fans. Even as the IndyCar Series struggles today to find its re-unified legs, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing continues to pack ‘em in.

Is it a complete sellout like it was in the 1970s and 1980s? No. But it still counts itself as the nation’s largest live sporting event. It’s massively popular with locals and a good deal of out-of-towners. Safe to say, it’s still hugely profitable.

As Vrabel pointed out to me, it’s a weird situation regarding the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400. In its inaugural year in 1994, the Brickyard 400 drew a crowd comparable to that year’s Indianapolis 500.

Now, NASCAR would kill for the Brickyard 400 to achieve the kind of attendance and TV ratings that the Indy 500 has long produced. But once you leave Indy, IndyCar would kill for the ratings and attendance NASCAR has throughout their season.

Yes, NASCAR ratings are down from a couple years ago, but they’re still much better than any IndyCar race outside of Indianapolis.

Several IndyCar races, including the most recent race in Edmonton, drew fewer television viewers than the live audience at Indianapolis. That’s crazy.

It’s equally difficult to pinpoint why Brickyard 400 attendance has been cut in half over the last decade as it is to figure out why the Indianapolis 500 attendance remains so stable.

This is what I routinely hear about Brickyard 400 attendance declines from fans, sponsors and vendors: The novelty of stock cars on the track has worn off; the on-track action is boring with little passing and lots of single-file racing; and this down economy has hurt the lower and middle class NASCAR fans a lot harder than it has other segments.

In that case, I guess the novelty of watching open-wheel cars zip around the 2.5-mile oval will never wear off.

The Indy 500 has a phenomenal history and heritage here. And it is a spectacle—think people watching and food consumption—that goes far beyond the racing on the track.

The one thing that can be deduced from all of this is that the Indianapolis 500 has a long-enduring brand value that should be nurtured and cherished. It must have been a magical set of circumstances that chiseled this event into the consciousness of Hoosiers and race fans nationwide.

And as the Brickyard 400 blows smoke, the Greatest Spectacle can be looked upon with widening wonderment for its enduring horsepower and undeniable staying power.

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