Perception of sparse Brickyard 400 crowd not necessarily reality

7 Comments

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

Scott McLaughlin will make IndyCar debut for Team Penske at St. Pete

Scott McLaughlin IndyCar debut
Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Two-time defending Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin will make his NTT IndyCar Series debut with Team Penske in the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida.

McLaughlin, 27, drove for Penske in preseason IndyCar testing at Circuit of the Americas, Sebring International Raceway (in a rookie evaluation) and Texas Motor Speedway, and he was announced Feb. 5 as making his debut with the team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic delayed the start of the season.

Travel restrictions also made it difficult for the New Zealand native to leave Australia, where he leads the points for DJR Team Penske in the Virgin Australia Supercars series with three races remaining. He set a Supercars record last season with 18 victories.

The Supercars season will conclude Oct. 18 with the prestigious 24 Hours of Bathurst. McLaughlin then will head directly to the States to drive the No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet at St. Pete as a teammate of Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud.

“This is something I haven’t stopped thinking about, but I wanted to ensure my focus was on winning our third-straight Supercars championship for DJR Team Penske and all our partners in Australia,” McLaughlin, who also has won at Barber and Indianapolis while unofficially finishing first in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, said in a release. “We are still laser-focused on that and have three more rounds to get it done, but I’m equally as excited to finally get the chance and make my IndyCar debut.”

McLaughlin, whose wife, Karly, is from New York, said he has discussed racing in America with car owner Roger Penske since he was hired by the team for the 2017 season.

“I’ve always said I’d love to have a crack at something else,” McLaughlin told reporters in February during the preseason test at Austin, Texas. “My goal was always to win the championship in Bathurst and Australia. I ticked those boxes, and then opportunities arise over time. The conversation between me and Roger was pretty short. ‘Would you be interested in IndyCar?’ I’d literally drive a wheelbarrow with a Team Penske sticker on it. I’d race anything that comes with the opportunity.

“I’ve always intended I’d love to get America one day potentially if I’ve done my goals in Australia. I’ve always said whether it’s now or 30 years down the track, I’d love to finish up (in America). I’ve promised Karly that we would come back here eventually. She’s not pushing me by any means, but I’ve always had a passion for American motorsport and certainly would love the opportunity.”

McLaughlin also has indicated a desire to try racing in NASCAR for Team Penske. He discussed his comfort with stock cars during a 2017 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast (click on the link below to hear it).

Here’s the release from Team Penske:

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (September 17, 2020) – Team Penske announced today that Scott McLaughlin, the current Virgin Australia Supercars Championship points leader, is scheduled to make his long-awaited NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut in the series’ 2020 season finale on the Streets of St. Petersburg on Sunday, October 25.

The two-time and defending Supercars Champion for DJR Team Penske (DJRTP) was set to compete in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES race earlier this year on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course before the COVID-19 global pandemic forced several delays and postponements on racing schedules, along with international travel restrictions. Before the pandemic shutdown, McLaughlin participated in the INDYCAR SERIES preseason open test at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, where he ran consistently well and posted the third-fastest time of the test session. The 27-year-old native of New Zealand also competed in separate tests at the Sebring International Raceway road course and the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway oval.

“This is something I haven’t stopped thinking about, but I wanted to ensure my focus was on winning our third-straight Supercars championship for DJR Team Penske and all our partners in Australia,” said McLaughlin. “We are still laser-focused on that and have three more rounds to get it done, but I’m equally as excited to finally get the chance and make my INDYCAR debut. I’ve been doing everything I can to keep up with the series this year, from watching as many races as I can on TV to even talking to the drivers and some of the engineers back at the Team Penske shop. I never knew if I would be able to get behind the wheel of one of these cars this year due to all the COVID-19 restrictions, but I wanted to be ready if it became an opportunity.”

McLaughlin currently leads the Supercars point standings with just three rounds of competition remaining on the 2020 schedule. McLaughlin has produced a series-best 10 wins and 10 poles and holds a 143-point lead over Jamie Whincup entering this weekend’s race at The Bend. Over the course of his Supercars career, McLaughlin has won an impressive 53 races and 71 poles, while helping DJRTP claim team championships in 2017 and 2019 and winning the driver’s title in each of the last two seasons. He also earned his first win in the legendary Bathurst 1000 race in 2019 with co-driver Alex Premat. Though he is in just his fourth season competing for Team Penske, McLaughlin already ranks third on the organization’s all-time wins list, trailing only Brad Keselowski and Mark Donohue.

Earlier this year, McLaughlin made his “virtual” INDYCAR debut, competing in the series’ iRacing Challenge and winning two races among the full field of current NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers that were competing against each other while traditional racing was put on hold.

“Our plan has always been for Scott to run a race in the INDYCAR SERIES this season, but we never wanted to take the focus away from the main goal, which is winning another Supercars Championship,” said Team Penske President Tim Cindric. “COVID-19 certainly altered those plans early on, but with the way the schedules have lined up at the end of this season, St. Pete became an available option and we remain committed to getting him some INDYCAR seat time. We know Scott is ready for this challenge and this should add even more excitement to the 2020 season finale in St. Petersburg.”

McLaughlin will pilot the No. 3 Shell V-Power Nitro+ Dallara/Chevrolet at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which was postponed from its original date in March and will now take place on Sunday, October 25. The race on the 1.8-mile street circuit will be seen live at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, with radio coverage on the Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network and SIRIUS XM.