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.