by Ben Schneider
LASTCAR.info Guest Contributor
On Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series took to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course for a second time. What followed was almost a carbon copy of last year: chaos in the closing laps, a driver short-cutting the course yet continuing to race for the “lead,” and a massive debate over the current state of NASCAR’s relationship with IMS.
Let’s make one thing clear: that relationship is in ruins. Regardless of where fans may stand on running the road course vs. the oval, that much is almost impossible to deny at this point. Long gone are the days of putting 250,000 people in the stands to watch NASCAR Cup cars race at arguably the most prestigious racing circuit in the world. Those days are so long gone that the Brickyard 400 - the race that brought NASCAR to IMS in the first place - is no longer on the calendar. In its place is the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard, a race on the speedway’s infield FIA Grade One road course that was completed in 2000 to bring Formula One to the track - a track that was not constructed with stock car racing in mind, and that lacks both the prestige and history of the speedway’s much more iconic oval. What could go wrong?
It turns out the answer is quite a lot.
Fans might recall the incident last year that resulted in the curb coming up and multiple overtime attempts as the field continued to wreck at the same part of the track on every ensuing restart. While that wasn’t an issue this season, it did not stop the final few laps from seeing multiple cars spin in multiple corners during each of the last two restarts. Double file restarts on a long straightaway heading into a sharp 90-degree corner in overtime is asking for trouble. While Ross Chastain may very well deserve criticism for racing as hard as he did knowing a penalty for cutting the course was likely coming his way, I cannot blame him for bailing out of Turn 1 knowing the carnage that was likely to occur.
At LASTCAR.info, our mission is to cover the underdogs of motorsports, particularly in the world of NASCAR. While NASCAR as a series continues to be more popular throughout most of the country, the sport itself remains an “underdog” when competing with IndyCar for fan interest at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. If those IndyCar fans are going to take NASCAR seriously, then NASCAR’s executives, teams, and drivers must realize that competing at IMS is a privilege not to be taken lightly, and one that commands the respect it deserves.
Divebombing the field on a restart five-wide into Turn 1 going the wrong way down the main straightaway not only fails to give the speedway that respect, but is, to quote Kevin Harvick, “embarassing” for the series. Now that we’ve seen two races on the road course, I believe it is incapable of putting on a race worthy of that respect.
So where does NASCAR go from here? The first and most simple answer would be to revive the fourth Crown Jewel race by bringing back the Brickyard 400. To be fair, the races on the oval were far from perfect. Fans have not forgotten about the infamous 2008 tire debacle that was undoubtedly the turning point in starting the Brickyard 400’s decline. But the statute of limitations on that argument can only go so far. Goodyear did not have an issue of that scale at IMS in the fourteen races on the oval before or the twelve since, and there is no reason to believe they couldn’t produce a suitable race tire once again should NASCAR test the Next-Gen car on the oval.
The second (and perhaps more drastic) answer would be to leave IMS entirely. Some may consider it blasphemous to suggest such an action, but then again, others already consider it such that NASCAR has been racing at the speedway for almost thirty years now. Many folks within the sport are still disillusioned by the long, slow decline of the Brickyard 400. An argument could be made that racing on the oval with attendance levels as poor as they were towards the end of the race’s run was not a good look for NASCAR, nor is the polarizing reaction to the two road course races the series has tried so far. With concerns surrounding both events, it might not be a terrible idea for NASCAR to step away from IMS for at least a few years to let the dust settle from the controversies of the last decade-and-a-half. Once enough time has passed, fans may start asking for a return to the Racing Capital of the World, and NASCAR will have an opportunity to bring back a once-great event in front of a larger Indiana audience than they’ve had in years.
With respect to A.J. Allmendinger and Tyler Reddick, any win at IMS is special. But because NASCAR has traded one of their most prestigious races at one of the world’s most prestigious tracks for a demolition derby on that track’s less-than-iconic infield road course, their relationship with IMS is special no more. For it to be special again, their race must be on the oval, whether that means bringing the Brickyard 400 back to next season’s schedule or taking a break from visiting the speedway for a while.