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The Brickyard Still Matters

Parked in the dust and clutter atop my desk is a piece of history that isn’t leaving the dust and clutter anytime soon. Or ever, for that matter. It’s a 1:64 scale diecast replica of Jeff Gordon’s Chevy Lumina that won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994.

It’s not worth much more than the $7.95 it cost 17 years ago, but putting a price on sentiment never leads to anything tangible. This little purple box and rainbow-colored car under plastic – limited edition, one of 20,000! – reminds me of something significant. Something I witnessed. Something I covered.

As we move closer to Sunday’s Brickyard 400, I’m reminded of the controversy of that first event, the perceived irreverence of running stock cars on open-wheel racing’s most hallowed ground. I’m reminded of watching the start of the race against the fence inside Turn 1 next to Al Unser Jr., and listening to his comments as the field roared by.

For those who were used to raw speed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NASCAR was at IMS felt  lumbering and plodding. And the purists and critics jumped on Gordon’s first victory to point out, however self-righteously, that NASCAR and IMS didn’t mix. The race was dull, they said. It wouldn’t fly. It was blasphemy.

The angst over this race has indeed become part of its character. It’s certainly not the best Sprint Cup race of the year, nor the fastest, nor always the most interesting. It seems to have fallen out of favor with NASCAR fans, and attendance in recent years has waned. People say it has lost its luster, that its standing is diminished, that the track doesn’t fit stock-car racing.

Allow me to disagree with those sentiments. I’m not sold on the notion that the Brickyard is a slug of a race, or that it has lost its significance. Truth is, the Brickyard 400 is still relevant, and it’s relevant because of the very criticism most often made against it: Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s the track that’s the draw, folks. Not necessarily the race.

Yes, it’s true that the 2.5-mile rectangle isn’t conducive to great action. Stock cars fit much better on banked superspeedways like Daytona or Talladega, or half-mile bullrings like Bristol. Oftentimes the Brickyard disintegrates into a single-file parade that appears by IndyCar standards to be exceedingly slow. But sometimes intense drama and scream-inducing speed aren’t the point. Sometimes it’s about the venue, not the game.

Sometimes, people go to Wrigley Field not to see the Cubs founder and flail. They go to see Wrigley Field. They go for the history, the mystique, the feel. Doesn’t really matter if the game is a dud. What matters is that Ernie Banks stood right there and swung a bat.

And the history of IMS isn’t just the Indianapolis 500. This will be the 18th Brickyard, so it has a modicum of chronology of its own. As any NASCAR fan worthy of his or her racing T-shirt knows, Dale Earnhardt won the Brickyard in the dusk in 1995. The following year, after serious injuries in a wreck at Talladega, he was replaced by Mike Skinner. Dale Jarrett started the tradition of kissing the bricks that year. Tony Stewart thrilled the crowd in 2005 and climbed the fence. Bobby Labonte won a thriller in 2000. Bill Elliott added to his legend with a win in 2002. The tire debacle of 2008 led to Jimmie Johnson’s  second Brickyard victory. The race now has a lore of its own, and it’s not nearly as tedious a race as some might think.

What the race may lack in side-by-side drama, it makes up for in its own short history and the venue itself. Indianapolis is where all motorsports began. NASCAR is where the popularity of motorsports is in the U.S. at this point in time. That gnaws at the open-wheel purists. To this day, some folks still find it sacrilegious that stock cars race at the birthplace of open-wheel racing. Nonsense. IMS should be the center of all things motorsports. That includes motorcycles, sports cars, Indy cars and stock cars. (It also should include Formula One, but let’s not go there.)

As fans of racing, we’re not like politicians, or at least we shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t be polar opposites. We all have our favorite forms of speed, and none of them is wrong. Too often we fight among ourselves, as if our favorite form of racing is superior to someone else’s favorite form. Some – and I use that term with emphasis – F1 fans look at NASCAR as if it’s inferior. Some NASCAR fans look at IndyCar as if it’s pointless and foreign. Some fans of motorcycles can’t watch four-wheeled racing. Some dirt-track fans have never seen a rally race, and vice versa.

But most – and I also use this term with emphasis – race fans enjoy and follow all forms of racing. Most people I’ve met who are passionate about racing pay attention to all of it. They might have their favorite corners of the racing world, but they like and follow all of it. Or, as a buddy who’s multi-nutty about everything involving internal combustion engines says: “If it’s loud and fast, I’m there.”

So, as the Brickyard approaches, look at it in a different light. It might not be the greatest side-by-side or back-and-forth race on the Sprint Cup schedule, but it isn’t a bad race. It’s had its moments, and it has the greatest venue. It’s loud and fast. So be there.

And be thankful that you’ve got more integrity than a politician.

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The Brickyard Still Matters
Parked in the dust and clutter atop my desk is a piece of history that isn't leaving the dust and clutter anytime soon. Or ever, for that matter. It's a 1:64 scale diecast replica of Jeff Gordon's Chevy Lumina that won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994.
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