Friday, July 27, 2012

Day Two: The Silent Tears Of IRP

Update: Leaving this up as the lead story on Friday, got some great comments and feedback. There seems to be a lot of emotion about IRP and also about what NASCAR is currently doing at the Brickyard.

Built in 1960 on farmland seven miles down the road from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the motorsports complex known to veteran fans as Indianapolis Raceway Park (IRP) is legendary. The facility contains a drag strip, a road course and a flat oval track with the famous length of .686 of a mile.

On Labor Day weekend, the NHRA holds a celebration of speed known as "The Big Go." Just before the IndyCars race at the Brickyard, the USAC midgets stage "The Night Before The 500" race. When NASCAR comes to town in late July, the Kroger Speedfest gets underway with three nights of racing.

Designed as a companion event to the Brickyard 400, Speedfest became a mandatory destination for fans. Three classes of USAC and the ARCA series raced on Thursday. The Camping World Trucks raced on Friday and the Nationwide Series was the star of the show racing on Saturday night. It truly was short-track heaven.

The grandstands were full, the drivers loved it and watching the trucks and Nationwide Series battle it out at the bull-ring made for great TV. It was the perfect lead-in to the Brickyard 400 and the spectacle of the Sprint Cup Series teams racing on a track made famous by the IndyCars.

One year ago, ESPN.com's open-wheel reporter John Oreovicz reported news of a change in plans. Click here to read his story. In order to deal with sluggish ticket sales at the Brickyard, NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) were expanding the racing being offered on that weekend.

Two of NASCAR's in-house properties, the Rolex Grand-Am and Nationwide Series, would start racing on the Brickyard 400 weekend at the big track. In order to make sure the fans focused on IMS, NASCAR also cancelled the Camping World Truck Series race that weekend. Just like that, it was over for IRP.

"It was a complete shock and obviously we're pretty disappointed by it," IRP general manager Wes Collier told Oreovicz. "This was pretty much NASCAR's decision and there wasn't a thing we could do about it. We were willing to do whatever it took to keep the event here. But it was a business decision between NASCAR and IMS that left us on the outside looking in."

The new pitch for the Brickyard 400 weekend is three races for fans to see. The Grand-Am cars race on the infield road course Friday, the Nationwide Series on Saturday and the Sprint Cup Series on Sunday. What is left of Speedfest at IRP is the ARCA series and three classes of USAC open-wheelers.

The current title sponsor at IRP is Lucas Oil. Company founder Forrest Lucas is not happy about the change. "They're going to give up a really good race where the fans love the racing," Lucas told CompetitionPlus.com. "It's good television and the fans can watch it. There are some races that are better to watch on a short track. They might make that weekend bigger to have all three classes there, but I can't see 'em having any fans."

"I hate to see it move," ESPN NASCAR analyst Dale Jarrett told Oreovicz. "Races like that one that are separate from Cup races helped give the series its own identity and I think they need more of those." There are currently seven Sprint Cup Series drivers who will cross-over and race on Saturday at the Brickyard.

NASCAR's goal is to elevate the relocated Nationwide Series race to high-profile status. The race gets ESPN exposure on Saturday with the network using all the special TV equipment brought in for the Sunday event. It's also important for ESPN to pull-out all the stops for another reason.

During the Nationwide Series pre-race show, ABC journalist Katie Couric will interview Danica Patrick in a pre-produced feature as the centerpiece of the program. The ability to promote a media star like Patrick on a big stage is what ESPN does best. The ultimate script for NASCAR, IMS and ESPN would be for Patrick to finally get her Indy win in the inaugural Nationwide Series race at the Brickyard.

Meanwhile, over at the small track the beat goes on. The loss of the two NASCAR races will not sink the facility. In fact, Lucas Oil is staying on as title sponsor and there will be over one hundred events on the calendar this year alone.

Change is certainly a constant in life, but after 30 years of NASCAR racing with more than 15 in support of the Brickyard 400, the silent tears of IRP are easy to understand.

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