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Sunday, July 31, 2011
NASCAR's Indy decision a good one?

By John Oreovicz
ESPN.com

CLERMONT, Ind. -- Maybe it was inevitable that the Brickyard 400 weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would eventually incorporate a NASCAR Nationwide Series race.

Since the inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994, the Kroger 200 Nationwide event at Lucas Oil Raceway in nearby Clermont has served as a warm-up for the Brickyard, just like the track's traditional "Night before the [Indianapolis] 500" USAC Midget race in late May.

But on July 6, NASCAR and IMS announced that the Indianapolis market's Nationwide Series race will be moved to the "Big Track" in 2012. The "Super Weekend at the Brickyard" will also feature a full day of Grand-American sports car racing, marking the first time in IMS history that the facility's road course will be used at the same race meeting as the more famous 2.5-mile quad oval.

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will not return to LOR after serving as part of the Kroger SpeedFest bill since 1995.

Since the news broke, it's been hard to find many people who seem genuinely happy about the change. The Nationwide Series has raced at the track traditionally known as Indianapolis Raceway Park since 1982, and Kroger's 30-year support of that event is the longest-lived sponsor relationship in NASCAR.

Stenhouse/Keselowski
Restarts are always fun at any NASCAR track, but the kind of tight action found at Lucas Oil Raceway is getting harder to find.

The Lucas Oil Raceway race was an annual highlight for the Nationwide Series, and when the Brickyard 400 was added to the Sprint Cup schedule in 1994, having the two series run on separate tracks located just six miles apart added a unique kind of enjoyment to the weekend.

"I hate to see it move," said former Sprint Cup Series champion Dale Jarrett, who drove in nine Nationwide races at LOR, including the inaugural event in 1982. "Races like that one that are separate from Cup races helped give the series its own identity and I think they need more of those. Hopefully they can work out something to keep it."

The Indianapolis market may be keeping a Nationwide race, but it's losing a loyal sponsor in Kroger. And one has to wonder how many of the 30,000 fervent short-track fans the Kroger SpeedFest annually attracted will also stay away from a venue that has become notorious for less-than-exciting stock car action.

It came down to a business decision, and NASCAR believes that using the Nationwide Series to revamp and revitalize the struggling Brickyard 400 weekend has greater potential than trying to grow the traditional grassroots event at LOR.

"Everybody wants to grow, and we're no different than that," said NASCAR president Mike Helton. "I think it speaks to the commitment that NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have with each other to better the future of motorsports to create a truly world-class event here in July in the middle of our season, which gives us a great moment to look to.

"It was a tough decision because the Raceway Park has been such an important part of the Nationwide program for so many years. Hopefully we'd like to try to figure out a way to be in their future and they in ours."

Lucas Oil Raceway general manager Wes Collier said NASCAR's move to IMS took him by surprise.

"It was a complete shock and obviously we're pretty disappointed by it," Collier said. "We've heard the rumors the last couple of years and knew it was a possibility, but nonetheless it's still disappointing for a lot of people -- especially the race fans and the drivers.

"This was pretty much NASCAR's decision and there wasn't a thing we could do about it," he added. "We were willing to do whatever it took to keep the event here. But it was a business decision between NASCAR and IMS that left us on the outside looking in."

Lucas Oil Raceway doesn't have Indianapolis Motor Speedway's overwhelming presence and sense of history. But it has its own brand of cachet. Opened in 1961 and owned by the National Hot Rod Association, the facility includes a 2.5-mile road course in addition to the 0.686-mile oval that is used by NASCAR, USAC and ARCA and beloved by short-track fans.

Of course LOR is most famous for its drag strip, which has hosted the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals for 50 years. But the SpeedFest (which also features USAC Midget and Silver Crown competition and an ARCA stock car race on Thursday night) was a key element in the track's business plan.

A clause in Lucas Oil's naming rights contract allows the company to renegotiate with the NHRA if the track loses its business with NASCAR. And Lucas Oil founder Forrest Lucas is none too happy that NASCAR has taken that business elsewhere.

"They're going to give up a really good race where the fans love the race," Lucas told Competition Plus. "It's good television and the fans can watch it. There are some races that are better to watch on a short track. If it was left up to me, they'd all be on short tracks.

"They might make that [Brickyard] weekend bigger to have all three classes there, but I can't see 'em having any fans."

During Tony George's tenure as IMS CEO, he reportedly resisted NASCAR's attempts to add the Nationwide race to the Brickyard weekend. But Jeff Belskus, who took over the Speedway's top job in 2009, has been intent on cutting costs and raising revenue.

He said he believes that the Brickyard weekend has plenty of scope for improvement in that regard. The Indianapolis Sprint Cup race was an instant success on its 1994 debut and the IMS continued to fill nearly every seat for more than a decade.

But the combination of the novelty of stock car racing at Indianapolis wearing off, the realization that stock car races on the flat IMS oval aren't particularly entertaining and the Goodyear tire debacle of 2008 have cut attendance for the Brickyard 400 in half.

Some observers -- such as Forrest Lucas -- believe IMS will struggle to attract 30,000 fans to a Nationwide race at the Speedway despite offering reserved seats for as little as $25. They point out that 30,000 spectators looks a lot more impressive in a venue that holds 30,000 than in one with more than 250,000 permanent seats.

But Belskus remains bullish on the weekend's prospects. The Speedway is lowering the price of top-tier Brickyard tickets from $165 to $150 and general admission remains a competitive $30. Reserved seats for the Nationwide race will range from $25 to $65, and a four-day "Super Weekend at the Brickyard" package offering grandstand seating for the Grand-Am and Nationwide races and general admission for the Sprint Cup race will sell for $80.

"We're looking to add content to the event for the weekend and we're going to price it appropriately," Belskus said. "We're going to triple our hours of track activity here. That will be good for the fans and it will be good for the sponsors. It's going to be a fun weekend, really.

"We've got hundreds of thousands of seats here, so I suppose the sky's the limit," he added. "We're interested in providing a good value for our race fans, and we hope that brings them out. We have high expectations. We hope a lot of people come out and can enjoy some good racing."

NASCAR and IMS intend to position the Nationwide race at Indianapolis as one of the premier events on the second-tier stock car series schedule. They're hoping that the inclusion of Indy on the schedule will make it easier for Nationwide teams to sell sponsorship packages.

Keselowski
The stands were full for Saturday night's Nationwide Series race at Lucas Oil Raceway. There may be as many people at next year's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but it won't look like it.

But strong participation from Cup drivers has the potential to hurt some of the smaller Nationwide Series regulars, who are in much greater need of the sizeable purse the Brickyard Nationwide race promises to offer.

From a logistical standpoint, it's going to be a much more expensive endeavor for them, as well. Nationwide practice will take place on Thursday, but Friday will be an idle day for them as the Grand-Am cars take over the facility to race on the road course. Nationwide activity will resume on Saturday.

JR Motorsports head Dale Earnhardt Jr. put on his team owner's hat to offer his perspective.

"It's a double-edged sword," Earnhardt said. "I'm excited because I can probably sell a Nationwide race at Indianapolis. I can't sell [Lucas Oil Raceway] or those kind of races, I can only sell races that are easier to sell with the Cup guys in conjunction. So I'm excited about that -- I'll be able to come here and probably get a good deal for this race and that will help me financially for the team.

"But I'm not sure whether taking away another short track is the way to go because I think short-track racing is some of the more exciting racing that we have in any series."

And that's the crux of this bitter breakup. It seems most fans and drivers would rather keep the Nationwide Series (and the Truck Series, for that matter) at LOR. But NASCAR and IMS call the shots, and they want to transfer it to the Brickyard.

"Certainly I say it's good because you're bringing the series to the Brickyard and I feel there's a chance to put more butts in the stands," Kyle Busch said. "The negative is you're getting rid of another short-track race that's been great for the sport for many, many years, since 1982. I hate to see the history of that track go away, with all the heroes of the Truck series banging like they did."

Ryan Newman cut his racing teeth at Lucas Oil Raceway, coming up through the USAC ranks in the heyday of "Thursday Night Thunder." The Indiana native is sad to see one of his favorite tracks disappear from the NASCAR ladder.

"We talk all the time about how it's important to stay true to your roots, to enjoy the short-track racing," Newman said. "I'm sure there's a big-picture reason for bringing the Nationwide race to the Speedway but I don't think you should take away from the short-track side of it. It's kind of a Catch-22 and I don't know the ultimate answer, what's right or wrong. But I do feel short-track racing is some of the best racing we have in all of NASCAR, no matter what series it is."

LOR may be losing its second-biggest draw, but topped by the NHRA U.S. Nationals, the facility will continue to host about 110 events a year, including SCCA club races, local drag races, ride-and-drive programs and even police driver training clinics.

"This isn't an obituary for a race track," said NHRA and Lucas Oil Raceway senior communications manager Scott Smith. "We got a nice bump in ticket sales when the news broke that this was the last Nationwide race and I think that shows how people feel about this place.

"We're not going anywhere."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.