INDIANAPOLIS — Twenty years ago, Jeff Gordon was an up-and-coming young driver locked in a duel with grizzled veteran Ernie Irvan.
It wasn’t just any other race. This was Tony George’s big gamble – breaking 78 years of tradition by bringing another race – and another discipline – to the hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway grounds.
Some called it a desecration – for that matter, some still do. Some said it would soon replace – if it hadn’t already – the Indianapolis 500 as the racetrack’s premier event. That might have been threatened in the late 1990s, but Indy still retains its prestige and draws significantly larger crowds on Memorial Day.
Yet, it didn’t take long for the Brickyard 400 to become an institution, and for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to morph from being “the Indy 500 track” into a premier destination for the top racing series around the world.
“Most of the things that stand out to me was really about just the madness and craziness of how big that event was, how popular it was among fans, not just traditional NASCAR fans but new fans to the sport,” Gordon said. “Even if you go back to the test that we had, the fans were just lined up on the fence around the garage area just wanting to see stock cars race at Indianapolis, and it was much of the same when it came to race day, just so many fans and you just couldn’t walk anywhere without getting mobbed.”
The Brickyard became an institution quickly, and the thought of “one race a year” was quickly gone.
“I think once everybody got over the fact you had the Indy 500, one set of rules, a different set of cars, not trying to compete one-on-one with the Indy 500, which we didn’t do that,” 1997 Brickyard winner Ricky Rudd said in a recent teleconference. “We just went in there and it was our stock car race. It wasn’t the Indy 500, yet it was a big event to be there.”
Two events with one race each became three events, all of which provide multiple races. A road course was added – and then modified a couple of times.
Brickyard weekend morphed into a multi-race event – first, with the addition of the old IROC series, now with the Nationwide Series running a 250-miler on Saturday and the United Sports Car series running two races on the road course Friday. Now, every major motorsports series has run at Indianapolis. Formula One has come and gone. MotoGP has come and stayed. Even the Month of May has three races now, including an IndyCar race on the road course two weekends before the 500.
Without the Brickyard paving the way and being a big event, all of the others are unthinkable. And they’ve enhanced Indianapolis as a motorsports mecca. It’s hard to remember the days when the behemoth track was a one-event pony.
“I was one of them that absolutely thought it was a crime initially. I’m a purist. I’m old school,” said Tony Stewart, the only driver to win both IndyCar and NASCAR national championships, and a two-time Brickyard winner. “I was one of them that didn’t like it at first until I actually got back and saw the replay of the race and saw how much excitement it brought. It was the month of May historically, and all of a sudden it was the month of May and August now, and you had the same historic racetrack and now you had two events instead of one.”
The late-summer race, like its Memorial Day counterpart, can make a driver a household name. Jeff Gordon went from talented young hotshot who grew up in nearby Pittsboro to NASCAR superstar, essentially in one weekend. It lent the kissing of the bricks – something Dale Jarrett did for the first time in 1996 – to the lexicon of Indy traditions.
But more than any other race on the NASCAR tour, the Brickyard 400 also validates driver skill. The winner’s list is a who’s who of NASCAR champions in the last 20 years. Drivers who have won the NASCAR title have won 15 of the 20 Brickyard 400 races. Four drivers – Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jarrett and Tony Stewart have won 12, with Gordon and Johnson winning four times each. Former champions Bill Elliott, Bobby Labonte and Dale Earnhardt Sr. are the other three. Eight times, the winner of the Brickyard also went on to win the NASCAR title.
Indy’s unique setup – two long straights, two short straights, four flat 90-degree curves – highlight driving ability more than any other oval (save maybe Pocono, a similar tri-oval). Having superspeedway length, short-track banking and road course corners tests both driver skill and car setup. Dale Jarrett once described it to me as a “road course with all left turns.”
“(Indy), in my opinion, is the most difficult racetrack they’re ever going to race on,” Jarrett said. “Because you race on nothing like it, have heavy stockcars that have a lot of horsepower, tires that are more narrow than what the IndyCars and others run there, it makes it just difficult as a driver to negotiate this racetrack.”
The Brickyard has gone through some challenges – attendance has been significantly down since a tough economy hit at the same time tire issues marred the 2008 race, and entertainment options have mushroomed. But it is – and remains – an institution, not just in Indianapolis, but in motorsports.
Today: IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge Series race, 2:30 p.m.; IMSA United Sports Car Brickyard Grand Prix, 5:45 p.m. (TV: Fox Sports 1)
Saturday: Nationwide Series qualifying, 12:10 p.m.; Sprint Cup qualifying 2:10 p.m.; Lilly Diabetes 250 Nationwide Series race, 4:50 p.m. (TV: ESPN)
Sunday: Crown Royal Presents the John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard, 1 p.m. (TV: ESPN)