Murto: Lights won’t help Brickyard

By Craig Murto

This year’s running of the Brickyard 400 was a great race for Ryan Newman and an interesting race for fans.

But when all the hype has died down, a simple truth remains: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway currently is not conducive to exciting stock car racing.

Newman, an Indiana native, won the race. Strategies by other teams made it interesting for those following along — and in the end, it was good work by his pit crew (or poor work on the part of Jimmie Johnson’s crew) — that won him the race. But 400 miles is a long distance to watch NASCAR Cup cars run mostly single file.

What some press releases called a “near-capacity crowd” was actually about a third full. Given the fact that Indy holds such a large number of spectators, the Cup crowd was possibly between 80,000 to 100,000 — a good crowd — but that’s nowhere near the 250,000 the race once routinely drew.

So now there’s talk of spending perhaps $12 million or more to put lights around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

NASCAR night racing is hardly a novelty anymore. In some ways, fans are tired of it, as there are other things to do on Saturday nights than sit in front of the television. And, since there are so many Saturday night races, they don’t really draw more spectators. It’s a novelty when two or three Cup races are held at night; it’s the same old thing when that number swells to 10 to 14.

Not to mention the fact that televised Saturday night NASCAR races don’t do any favors to local short tracks, and is one reason NASCAR has 50 or fewer weekly sanctioned tracks around the country, whereas before the increasing number of televised Saturday night races NASCAR had 100 weekly tracks and a waiting list of facilities hoping to join those ranks. Many track owners don’t want to pay for a franchise from a corporate entity that turns around and competes against them, and you can’t blame them.

Local tracks aside, racing Cup cars at night on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will simply mean 400 miles of single-file racing at night. Will that put more people in the stands?

No, of course it won’t. It almost appears that people making decisions at our speedways and within our sanctioning organizations are bean counters who don’t understand racing. So let’s try to appeal to the bean counters.

After the 1992 Indy 500, the speedway did away with the aprons in the corners, thinking that it would help limit the severity of accidents at the track by changing the angles at which the cars hit the wall. Despite the fact that many people told the track it would make no difference, the track got rid of the paved aprons and put in grass where the track apron once was. It’s the same grass that got caught in Sam Hornish’s grill and caused his engine to overheat and blow during the Nationwide race.

Without the apron, stock cars in particular don’t stand much of a chance of going through the corner side by side. The track basically took away a racing groove after the 1992 season. As a result we have 400 miles of mostly single-file racing in the Brickyard 400. That — on top of the fact that Indy has horrible sightlines for spectators anyway — is why the race only draws a third of the crowd it once did.

Bean counters, pay attention: The apron in the corners of the racetrack can probably be restored for a lot less than half the money it will cost to install lights. Then the racing will improve, and then the crowds will return. Night racing is no longer a novelty; a weak product is a weak product, even if it’s served to the paying customer at night. Improve the product and you’ll see an increase in the number of paying customers.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway can be restored to its pre-1993 configuration for a lot less money than it would cost to install lights. That will improve the product for every form of racing at the speedway — all of the racing on the track will improve. And once the product has improved, the fans will once again pay to be there to see it in person.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.