Perception of sparse Brickyard 400 crowd not necessarily reality

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INDIANAPOLIS – When Sunday’s 21st running of the Brickyard 400 is in the rearview mirror, we’re once again likely to hear significant griping about “did you see all the empty seats at Indy?”

Like they’ve done after the last five editions of the Brickyard, critics and so-called experts will once again lament about the poor crowd, how it was a poor show, how passing is virtually non-existent and how NASCAR doesn’t belong at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – even though Sunday will be the 21st time it’s been there.

Admittedly, since the embarrassing Goodyear tire debacle in the 2008 race, the Brickyard 400 has never been the same, seeing substantial drops in attendance in each subsequent year.

There were probably close to 125,000 fans at that 2008 race when a bad batch of Goodyear tires caused NASCAR to call numerous mandatory competition cautions after every 10 laps or so, allowing teams to switch tires over and over and over.

No matter what NASCAR officials did that day, they were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. They could have cancelled the race, but that would have been a move of last resort, and likely would have been an even bigger mistake than what ultimately transpired. Could you imagine NASCAR and IMS refunding ticket costs to each and every race fan if the race was cancelled?

They could have postponed the race to the next day (Monday) and had a couple truckloads of new tires brought in from the company’s Akron, Ohio headquarters. But you can’t make Sprint Cup tires overnight, and to have enough of the type of compound and quality needed to run on the very gritty pavement at IMS would have taken time to produce – time that NASCAR didn’t have.

NASCAR could also have cut the race short, but that would have been just as bad as canceling it.

So the sanctioning body went ahead and got through the day as best as it could, knowing the outcome could have been a lot worse.

Thousands of fans screamed and booed at the conclusion of the technology-hampered race in 2008. Many, if not most, vowed to never return to Indy for another NASCAR race – and it would appear that the majority have indeed lived up to their word.

The following year, 2009, there were maybe 90,000 fans (IMS and NASCAR never announce exact attendance figures, so reporters are left to best-guess estimates).

And since then, the numbers – at least looking at the stands – have continued to decrease until they’ve leveled off around the 70,000 level the last couple of years.

In addition, the economic downturn over the last six-plus years has also had a major impact on why more fans don’t come to IMS to watch NASCAR. Airplane flights, hotels, rental cars and food costs have just become too prohibitive for many individuals, and even more difficult for families to want to pick up and head to central Indiana — even those who may live in-state.

But the critics and pundits seem to forget one very important thing:

One of the biggest reasons why the Brickyard’s attendance the last several years has been disappointing isn’t necessarily the crowd itself. When you have a facility that holds an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 seats, 70,000 makes the place look only a quarter-full … which is indeed the case.

Put 70,000 fans at Martinsville, and you’ll have standing room only.

Put 70,000 fans at nearby Chicagoland Speedway or Kentucky Speedway and you’ll have a near-sellout.

Put 70,000 fans at Sonoma and you’d likely set track records for road course race attendance.

Put 70,000 in Bristol and it will look half-full – which is still a lot better than IMS looking only a quarter-full.

Attendance at IMS has become a matter of perception over reality. It may look near-empty – when the fact of the matter remains that it’s a bigger crowd than on game day when the NFL’s Colts play a home game.

It’s a bigger crowd typically than the Final Four brings in, a bigger crowd than any World Series game.

So when “fans” start complaining about how empty IMS will be on Sunday, they should take pause and reconsider their assessment.

It’s not necessarily NASCAR’s fault that IMS doesn’t fill up.

Rather, it’s more that the place is just so darn big.

Face it, we’ll never see the 250,000 or so fans that streamed through the gates of IMS for the historic first Brickyard in 1994. It was a unique event at a legendary venue.

It was the place to be if you wanted to be part of NASCAR and motorsports history, the first “foreign” series to race at the fabled IMS in its history.

Sure, while 70,000 or so on Sunday won’t necessarily look all that good on TV, the fact remains that 70,000 filled seats at any professional sports venue is still a big success any way you slice it.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

F1 2017 driver review: Max Verstappen

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Max Verstappen

Team: Red Bull Racing
Car No.: 33
Races: 20
Wins: 2
Podiums (excluding wins): 2
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 1
Points: 168
Laps Led: 133
Championship Position: 6th

Max Verstappen rise as a once-in-a-generation talent continued through the 2017 Formula 1 season, even if reliability issues meant we were made to wait for his best form to arrive.

Verstappen stole the show in a wet-dry Chinese Grand Prix by charging from 16th to seventh in the opening lap before ultimately finishing third for Red Bull, yet he would not grace the podium again until the Malaysian Grand Prix at the start of October.

A combination of power unit problems and on-track clashes saw Verstappen retire from seven of the 12 races in the intermittent period, with incidents in Spain and Austria being avoidable.

Perhaps most embarrassing of all was his stoppage due to a power unit failure in front of a grandstand swathed in orange at the Belgian Grand Prix, a race tens of thousands of Dutch fans had attended to cheer Verstappen on.

But when Verstappen got things right, it was – as he frequently quoted – simply, simply lovely. There was plenty left in the tank, as proven by his sheer domination of the races in Malaysia and Mexico as he took the second and third wins of his career.

Perhaps even more impressive was Verstappen’s victory over Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo in the qualifying head-to-head battle this year, an area the Australian has traditionally been strong in. Verstappen outqualifed his teammate 13-7 – it wasn’t even close…

All in all, Verstappen once again proved that on his day, he is one of the finest talents to grace F1 in recent years. With the right car underneath him next year, a title fight is certainly possible and will be the target – but there is always room for improvement.

And that is the scary part: Verstappen is only going to get better and better.

Season High: Dominating in Malaysia after an early pass on Lewis Hamilton.

Season Low: Crashing out on Lap 1 in Austria.