The first running of the Brickyard 400, in 1994, was a paradigm shift in the history of motorsports. The mere idea of any race other than the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was an intriguing draw.
Today, despite NASCAR’s best efforts, the Brickyard 400 is one of the least popular events on the schedule. That decline can be traced back to a single day in 2008, when over 200,000 fans showed up at the Brickyard expecting to see a race, and found anything but that.
The first signs of trouble at Indianapolis
2008 was the first season in which NASCAR ran the “Car of Tomorrow” body full-time in the then-Sprint Cup Series. This drastically changed the way teams prepared for tracks and races.
In April, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran an independent tire test for Goodyear, NASCAR’s exclusive tire supplier. After two days, they reached an alarming conclusion – the tire compound used for Indianapolis practically disintegrated after only ten laps.
Neither Goodyear nor NASCAR could find a solution in time for race weekend. Instead, NASCAR mandated “competition cautions” for every 10 laps of the 160-lap race. This practically ensured that the race would become a grind, but it was the only way to guarantee the safety of the drivers while not canceling the event.
Goodyear and NASCAR also brought along 200 sets of tires intended for use at Pocono Raceway. For some reason, none of these were used.
The Brickyard 400 becomes a slog
As a result of the competition cautions, the race was practically divided into a series of short “heats”, with a final sprint to the finish line. In a way, it foreshadowed the segmented race format that NASCAR has since adopted.
The final stats for the race are not pretty. In all, 11 cautions waved during the race, six of them “competition cautions”. Even NASCAR’s actions couldn’t prevent drivers from suffering tire mishaps during the race. On lap 48, Matt Kenseth suffered a violent tire failure on the backstretch, causing him to spin into the grass. ESPN commentators compared the damage to a car bomb.
Jimmie Johnson emerged as the winner for the second time at the Brickyard. He finished with a time of 3:28:49, coming home with a sluggish average speed of 115.117 miles per hour thanks to all the competition cautions.
This was not the first tire-related controversy at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Three years earlier, Formula One’s United States Grand Prix came to the speedway. The race turned out to be a fiasco, as the 14 drivers who used Michelin tires pulled out of the race after the parade lap due to tire wear problems suffered throughout the weekend. Only the six drivers who ran on Bridgestone tires ran the full race. Formula One left Indianapolis not long after.
The aftermath of the tire debacle
NASCAR never recovered its lost reputation in Indianapolis. Attendance dropped from a reported 240,000 in 2008 to 70,000 in 2013 — the last year that NASCAR publicly released attendance figures. Once the second-most prestigious event on the calendar, after the Daytona 500, the race has now become an afterthought.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway seats over 250,000 people, and can cram even more into its vast and sprawling infield. There is a financial incentive for NASCAR to try and make the Brickyard 400 a success once again, and they have tried. In 2018, they moved the race to September from its traditional spot in mid-July. This would make the 400 the final race before the end of NASCAR’s “regular season”, thus increasing the stakes of the event, and hopefully spiking fan interest.
In 2020, an even more drastic calendar shift took place. The Brickyard 400 moved to 4th of July weekend, taking the place long held by the Daytona summer 400-mile race. That event would take the Brickyard’s place at the regular season finale in September. It remains to be seen whether either of these changes will be permanent, as most of the changes in NASCAR’s calendar came out of respect to the COVID-19 pandemic.