Monday, July 25, 2011

NASCAR invades IMS... but with fewer fans..

NASCAR invades IMS…..but with fewer fans…

The 18th annual Brickyard 400 rolls out this Sunday for 160 laps of Sprint Cup racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. NASCAR’s first race at IMS took place in 1994 and won was by Indiana boy Jeff Gordon. From 1994 until 2007 the race played to a packed house of over 250,000 fans. The Brickyard 400 also helped finance the Indy Racing League, which split from CART in 1996. Some would say that the Brickyard 400 hurt IndyCar racing because fans could see the stars of NASCAR racing (Stewart, Gordon, and Earnhardt) at the famous 2.5 mile oval, while the stars of IndyCar racing didn’t come back to the 2.5 mile oval until the early 2000’s.

Then came 2008….

The tire debacle of 2008 happened when the NASCAR COT (Car of Tomorrow) literally tore the right rear tires off nearly ever car in the race. Drivers could barley last six laps without tires fading. Cautions were thrown every 10-12 laps and Jimmie Johnson won his second Brickyard 400 under a cloud of controversy.

If you also think back to 2008, it was the first season under unification after a nasty 12 year split in the open-wheel community. The IRL absorbed Champ Car after the 2007 season and IndyCar racing started to put back the pieces of what was left of their sport.

2008 also was the first year of the economy downturn and NASCAR was hit hard. Combined with the economy and the dislike of the COT in Sprint Cup racing, NASCAR started facing issues it hadn’t dealt with in nearly 25 years. Layoffs on all three national series, attendance issues and rating dips, all were non-factors in NASCAR’s massive popularity boom during the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

IndyCar racing, during the split years, went the direct opposite way of NASCAR. The IRL / Champ Car split lasted long enough to cripple open wheel, and in 2008 it barley resembled what it looked like in the early 1990’s.

Now, here we are, July of 2011 and NASCAR and IMS sit at major crossroads. No longer is the Brickyard 400 the highest attended race on the Sprint Cup schedule, which has been the Daytona 500 the last two years. Attendance and T.V. Ratings for the Brickyard 400 the past three years has been as followed:
2008 – 270,000 (5.1)
2009 – 180,000 (4.8)
2010 – 140,000 (4.2)
2011 – expected 100,000 (TBA)

No longer is the Brickyard 400 the anchor event at IMS, that is now reserved for the Indy 500, the way it was prior to the NASCAR invasion in 1994. While INDYCAR is still fighting for respectable T.V. Ratings and attendance everywhere, the Indy 500 appears to be headed back to where it was in the pre-split years. Attendance and T.V. Ratings for the Indy 500 the past years has been as followed:
2008 – 220,000 (4.5)
2009 – 230,000 (4.0)
2010 – 230,000 (3.6)
2011 – 300,000 (4.0)

Of course all attendance figures are estimated and IMS doesn’t release attendance figures for any of its events, so none of those numbers are official.

IMS already had major changes planned for 2012 and its “Super Weekend” for NASCAR. The Brickyard 400 will become the Crown Royal 400, and this will be announced this Thursday at 11:30 A.M. 2012 will also feature the first ever Nationwide (former Busch) Series race at IMS. The Nationwide Race will take place on Saturday and will cap a full-day of action at IMS. Sprint Cup qualifying and practice, Nationwide practice, qualifying and finally race will all take place the day before the Cup race in 2012. Also added to the 2012 slate will be the first ever Grand-Am race on the IMS road course. The expected three hour race will take place on the Friday before the Cup and Nationwide races. IMS crews are expected to work through the night to transition the road course into an oval ready track. But the real question what does this all mean?

Some of the attendance issues at the Brickyard 400 are related to over congestion of NASCAR racing in the mid-west. 18 years ago the only race within 200 miles of IMS was Michigan. Today, Chicago, Kentucky, and Michigan twice all feature Sprint Cup races. Take into account that Nationwide and Trucks race at mid-west tracks as well and you have a market that is full of tracks and races for fans to pick from. Another factor is that IMS is one of the few tracks that you can’t see every turn, combine that with NASCAR racing at IMS features little passing and often strung out follow the leader type racing.

According to reps from IMS, the relationship with NASCAR has never been better, and that was shown when their Sprint Cup points leader, Carl Edwards, and President Mike Helton were present for the 2012 Super Weekend announcement. NASCAR needs IMS now more than ever, that’s a big switch from the early 1990’s when IMS needed NASCAR for the IRL.

The underlying theme this weekend that not many NASCAR media will touch on is that the Indy 500 attendance from 2011 will literally blow the Sprint Cup attendance of the Brickyard 400 out of the water. It’s fair to say that NASCAR premiere race, the Daytona 500, blows the Indy 500 out of the water in terms of T.V. Ratings. It’s also fair to say that IndyCar racing has a long way to go before they even enter the same ballpark at NASCAR in terms of popularity, attendance, and T.V. ratings, but at least now INDYCAR is starting to defend their home turf.

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