Another NASCAR gem lost
INDIANAPOLIS -- It's a few minutes after 10 a.m. on Friday and Mike Broge is resting peacefully in a red reclining lawn chair underneath the shade of a tent in Raceview Family Campground.
"It's kind of lonely," says Broge, wearing a green t-shirt with Cooter's Wrecker Service on the front.
In years past, Broge would be a few hundred yards away outside the general admission gate near Turn 1 at what most refer to as the "Little Track." He would be there with several hundred other fans hoping to reserve a spot for that night's Camping World Truck or Nationwide Series race on the knoll with a canvas tarp or blanket.
It typically was like a scene from the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, with grown men and women practically knocking each other over for position when the guard opened the gate and said, "Go."
There's no sense of urgency on this day. There aren't more than a dozen other campsites in this lush 70 acres that in past years was packed with 1,500 or so fans. Those here aren't worried about finding space on the hill for the ARCA race scheduled to begin around 9 p.m.
It is sad.
This is what "Super Weekend at the Brickyard" -- as it is being billed -- has done to the "Little Track," otherwise known as Lucas Oil Raceway, previously known as O'Reilly Raceway Park and before that Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Because Indianapolis Motor Speedway was struggling to fill half of its 257,000 seats for a Sprint Cup race, because the race weekend had lost some of its allure, IMS and NASCAR ended the 30-year tradition of the Nationwide Series at LOR for the sake of giving fans more bang for their weekend buck at the big track.
They killed the Truck Series race in town altogether.
It felt wrong when they made the announcement last year that this was coming. It feels even more wrong after visiting LOR and hearing stories typically reserved for a wake.
Progress is great. But this isn't progress. This is another slap at the roots of NASCAR.
The governing body has taken away one of the best shows of the Nationwide Series, classic short-track battles on this .686-mile track about seven miles from its big brother, for what likely will be a snoozer if recent Cup races at the 2.5-mile IMS are a good indication.
The 30,000-plus fans that packed LOR, which brought in temporary bleachers between Turns 1 and 2 and in Turn 4 to handle the demand, will look like nothing in cavernous IMS.
And they will see hardly any of the action. Outside of people in the blimp, nobody does at the Brickyard.
At LOR, you can see everything from practically every seat.
"That's what I don't like about most of these big tracks," says Brad Keselowski, who won last year's Nationwide race at LOR. "You can't see the whole damn track. Why would you watch a race if you can't see the whole track? Would you watch a football game if you couldn't see the whole field?"
The answer is simple: No.
Keselowski has a love of LOR that runs deeper than most. He fell head over heels for the track the first time he came here as an 11-year-old in 1995, and it became stronger the first time he competed here in 2005. He's been to at least one race here, either as a spectator or a competitor, ever since.
He was there to watch the USAC race on Friday night, his baseball cap pulled tightly over his head and his belly full of a powdery elephant ear, loving every minute of it.
"I like sugary, powdery substances," Keselowski said with a smile.
He loves LOR.
"It does a great job of balancing the short-track feel from an excitement level to the way it races with an area that is enthused by racing and has some room to actually work," Keselowski said. "Most short tracks that are really cool to watch a race are sh--holes. [LOR] is not a sh--hole."
LOR is all things that are good about racing.
"It has a Field of Dreams feel to it," Keselowski said as he recalls looking out over the cornfields and large oil tanks that surround the track. A romantic quality.
"But I love [IMS], too, because I feel like I'm in the city. I wish there were more tracks in the city."
There's no denying the grandeur of IMS. You feel the history and tradition when you drive through the tunnel. It has, as LOR general manager Wes Collier admits, "all the bells and whistles" that make it a magical place.
That doesn't make it right for the Nationwide Series. That doesn't mean a driver from the second-tier series should get a free ticket into the sport's Augusta National for the sake of selling more tickets.
And LOR has a charm about it that IMS never will, with its grass infield, hillside seating and a small fish pond in Turn 4. LOR also has a style of racing that IMS can't duplicate, indeed, that few tracks can.
"You will not see an on-track pass for the lead under green that is legit," Keselowski said as he anticipates Saturday's race at IMS.
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Hopefully, he's wrong. But at LOR you were guaranteed side-by-side racing, beating and banging, passing. It's a race fan's and driver's dream.
"The racing at Lucas Oil Raceway is second to none for a short track, and we all know that," Nationwide Series points leader Elliott Sadler said. "And it's a great atmosphere. I wish we could do both. I wish we could come back, like during the Indy 500 weekend and race there.
"But there's something about this big track that just creates a different atmosphere when you come through the tunnel."
Sponsors and Nationwide teams love the spotlight IMS gives them. So does NASCAR. When the decision was made to go there, president Mike Helton said it was almost impossible to pass up.
"We'd like to think that we're going to stay in [their] future and them in ours," he said of LOR. "But this weekend just presented too much of an opportunity."
Time will tell. Collier has gotten no indication that NASCAR will add a Nationwide or Truck race to his schedule in the near future. He feels like 30 years of making greatness was thrown away for greed.
What is lost in all of this is NASCAR may have never come to IMS if it weren't for the "Little Track" that could and did. Eileen and her late husband Bob Daniels brought stock cars to Indianapolis in 1982 when they convinced founder Bill France Sr. to put a Nationwide race at their track.
They brought on Kroger, which eventually surpassed Winston as the sport's long-running sponsor.
"[IMS] watched all that was going on and decided that was a pretty good deal," Eileen said. "Then they went after the Sprint Cup. To see what they've done now, I'm very, very sad. I will watch with interest what happens at IMS, but it can't be as good as what we had at LOR."
When Eileen says watch, she means from afar. For the first time since NASCAR started coming to Indianapolis she will not be in attendance. She's staying put in her Leesburg, Fla., home.
"It's not a boycott," the 77-year-old said. "But my heart was at Raceway Park. It wouldn't be the same. And I used to go to all the stuff at IMS, the Indianapolis 500, the Brickyard 400.
"My heart is not in it now."
Told of the campground scene with Broge, her voice cracks.
"It's so sad," she says.
It is sad.
Maybe one day NASCAR will see the ills of this decision and at least put a race back at LOR. Roots are important to all sports, and LOR has been a big part of this one.
"Preferably we could find a way to do both," Keselowski said. "If we had to decide between the two, I would stick to our roots. But it looks like we're in a position where we have to decide between the two."
There's no decision for Broge. He'll keep coming back to LOR, even if it means spending lonely days in a near-empty campground.
He'll keep sitting on the grassy hill and recalling the great memories of seeing 43 Nationwide cars or trucks pass so close you can almost reach out and touch them.
"All the dirt and grime," he said. "You can feel the rubber hitting you. It's like thunder. It's hard to believe that's all gone."
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