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Buzz, buzz, where's the buzz? It's Brickyard 400 weekend, and something's missing....

 The Indy pagoda (Photo: IMS)


   By Mike Mulhern


   You may not believe this:
   Goodyear's tires are once again the focus of some garage area complaints, with some NASCAR crew chiefs – hear this! – now saying Goodyear's tires are just too good this season.
   Goodyear's tires are just too good.

   Of course in a sense they're right. Goodyear engineers have done such a good job with making durable, problem-free tires (unless you use so much brake, like Kyle Busch at New Hampshire, and simply melt the sealing bead), that tires typically aren't part of the pit road strategies much lately.
   Instead, it's track position and gas mileage.
   So Goodyear's tires are too good? Goodyear's Greg Stucker just laughs: "You can never be too safe. And our goal, number one, is to make a safe product.
   "Let's look at the whole season in perspective: We've been to a couple tracks recently where the tire has been pretty durable, and two-tire stops or no-tire stops (instead of four-tire stops) have come into strategy.
   "But that hasn't been the case every week this year. And I don't think you'll be seeing any two-tire stops here this weekend at Indianapolis."
   Then again….remember what happened in this race one year ago:
    Juan Pablo Montoya and Greg Biffle were 1-2 down the stretch, dominating. Then a yellow with 18 to go; Montoya and Biffle both took four tires on the pit stop, while six rivals took only two. Montoya and Biffle got stuck back in traffic and never made it back to the front. Montoya even crashed; Biffle did finish third, behind two-tired Jamie McMurray. A two-tire call, Biffle figures, could have won him the race.
   And the tires here this weekend are essentially the same.

   That's just one issue on the NASCAR docket this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

   Jeff Gordon signing autographs....but maybe this marketing campaign should have begun back in June (Photo: IMS)

   Buzz, buzz, where's the buzz?
   Maybe it's over at 'the short track,' Raceway Park, across town, where the Nationwide series is playing.
   But here at the big track, the question is "Where did everybody go?" as Curt Cavin, the local paper's veteran racing writer, asks in trying to figure out how a track that once sold out, with crowds of 280,000 or so, has stumbled onto such hard times lately.
   Now anywhere else on the tour, a crowd of 100,000 to 150,000 would be Fat City. However this place has 257,000 seats and a vast infield. When only half-filled, it really looks empty. (And for Friday's opening round of practice the track was eerily all-but deserted.)
   Was it really nearly 20 years ago that the stock car world arrived here, amid such controversy and excitement?
   Now it feels like this 400 has become just another stop on the seemingly endless February-to-November tour.
   The basic issues here:
   -- Weather. July is typically too darned hot, and this has been the hottest July since 1936, with the National Weather Service issuing heat advisories.
   -- Boring racing. The straights are too long, the corners too flat, the speeds too high, the racing is usually single-file….and the sight-lines are pretty bad to boot.
   -- Rival tracks have flooded the Midwest racing market: Kentucky Speedway is only two hours south; Chicago, three hours north; Michigan, four hours north. Consider too Iowa Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Nashville, also within easy driving range of here.
   -- A darned poor U.S. economy (and the unemployment rate in NASCAR's North Carolina home base is up again).

   No, this isn't Jimmie Johnson rounding the fourth turn at Martinsville....though the banking at Indianapolis is the same, albeit drivers running 190 mph here (Photo: IMS)

   Another worrisome point for NASCAR men to consider -- the revitalization of the Indy-car series, under new boss Randy Bernard, whose overtures to link to NASCAR have been oddly rebuffed. 
    Where once NASCAR's Brickyard 400 was actually outshining the legendary Indianapolis 500, now it appears that the tide has turned.
   Is it an engineering issue, or a marketing issue?
   Is this track, now without Tony George and Joie Chitwood at the helm anymore, really promoting the Brickyard 400 hard enough?
   Has NASCAR itself become too complacent about the marketing of one of its showcase events? (NASCAR certainly seemed a bit too complacent about Kentucky Speedway's looming traffic issues before that disaster three weeks ago.)
   How many NASCAR stars – if any – have worked this market over the past six or eight weeks to try to generate some buzz about the 400? Is Saturday's curious, huge driver autograph session a late-game admission that this sport simply hasn't been working this market hard enough?
   Remember when NASCAR held early-summer pre-race testing here, and drivers spent three days or so in town, helping pump things up?
   Wandering around this city's vibrant downtown, just five miles from the Speedway, and potential fans are everywhere, and in the 'right' demographic, if seemingly blissfully ignorant of the looming 400. Is there even much of a NASCAR Brickyard presence outside of the track area itself?
   It all seems curious.



Kyle Busch: trouble last time time out at New Hampshire...and body-template trouble this weekend in the NASCAR inspection station. What will he have for the 400? (Photo: ISM)


   This square-shaped track, a 1909 design remember, is really unsuitable for great racing, such as on NASCAR's high-banked speedways.
   Getting stock cars around here, though, isn't anything new: NASCAR played for 10 years at old Ontario Motor Speedway, a carbon-copy of this place (except with wider racing lanes and a little banking in the two short-chutes), from 1971 through 1980 when it was torn down to make way for a shopping mall.
   Cars here are going way too fast on the long, unbanked straights into the almost flat (nine degrees) corners.
   But with more than 100 years of history, it's unlikely the design of the track will be modified.
   So how to engineer better racing here?
   Goodyear's Stucker, with a laugh, replies "Hey, you're asking the wrong guy about that. Go find the guy who designs race tracks."



   Gotta love the enthusiasm of some of these fans....(Photo: IMS)

   But listen to Paul Menard's crew chief Slugger Labbe, a veteran in this sport, when asked what suggestions he might have for giving Brickyard 400 fans a little more action out on the track:
   "Yeah, we need to spice it up some…but to me, now Goodyear does a great job with the tires, but sometimes the tires are too good.
   "We haven't had much fall-off (in speed, as tires wear), and we need to get back to that.
   "Now we don't want to get back to where the tires are blowing…but I'd rather see tires where the right-rear burns off. We don't see drivers running sideways like they did on those old bias-ply tires. The COT is really planted in the race track, and if you get sideways it's really hard to spin one out.
   "So I'd like to see Goodyear coming back with a tire that wears a little bit more – like it does at Atlanta, where you've got to get four tires every time you come down pit road.
   "Really the last time we didn't have to worry about 'track position' and would come down pit road to get four tires every time was Atlanta last fall. It's a track that eats tires up.
   "Look at Michigan last month: with 15 to go, there was a caution, and we had (only) 30 laps (50 miles) on our tires, and the top eight or 10 cars got (only) two tires, and the guys who took four tires never got back up there.
   "But now it's important, when you do your pit strategy, that when you do two tires that you have a lot of guys behind you also take two tires, to hold up the guys who take four…so you can get gone. Much like what happened here at Indy last year…."

  Crew chief Slugger Labbe (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    And then listen to Greg Erwin, Biffle's crew chief for last year's Brickyard, and now AJ Allmendinger's crew chief, on Sunday's 400:
   "This race will be for the guys who can qualify in the first four rows….and for the guys who can get at least 4.2 miles per gallon," Erwin predicts.
   "If you don't fall in either of those categories, you're going to have a long day."
   But how to fix the cars to make the action better?
   More downforce, to get through the corners better?
   "It seems like the more downforce we crank into these cars, the more we make these car downforce-dependent, and more single-file," Erwin frets.
   "Let's face it – we've been coming here for a long time (this is the 18th year of the 400), and there is generally just one line around this race track.
   "So you'd probably need to look at (racing) a tire that has more falloff….where pitting was actually worth something again.
   "Even at the extent of 'cording' tires (wearing them into the steel cords). And if you got too greedy on camber on the right-front (and blow it), well guess what – that's no different than engine tuners and engine builders getting too greedy and having engine problems.
   "Or getting too greedy on rear-end gears and having rear-gear problems.
   "But we don't mandate those areas.
    "If we had tires that fell more, like our short-track tires used to, like our racing at the old Darlington, and even Dover and Michigan, then you could get these guys to come to pit road more often. And that would shake things up.
   "But single-file racing, face it, you're not going to fix that. This place has been like that forever. And I don't think there's a rules-package you could put on these cars to make a second groove come in."


   Legendary Ned Jarrett, the grand marshall this weekend, on the yard of bricks...where son Dale created the Indy hallmark of the victors kissing the bricks (Photo: IMS)

   How to engineer more exciting racing here? Jeff Burton concedes "This is a challenging track, with the (flat) corners, the width of the track, the banking.
   "Honestly, the better the cars handle, the better the opportunity for good racing. So the better the tire that Goodyear can bring, the more downforce the cars can make, the more latitude the teams have in making the cars drive good, the better the racing is going to be.
   "When cars don't handle well, the cars get strung out. So purely from making the racing better, make the cars drive well…and have a lot of restarts."
   Ah, yes, those double-file restarts…
   But, hey, about really changing things up here – like running this 400 at night under the lights?
   "Anything we can do to improve the fans' experience we have to be willing to do," Burton says. "Ultimately it's what do the fans want. And if we could have a Saturday night race here, and that's what the fans want, I'd be up for that.
   Dale Earnhardt Jr., on night racing at the Brickyard: "Night races are really unique…it would probably sell more tickets being at night."
   And NASCAR history buffs will easily recall what has happened to other July day races: Atlanta, moved, and now under the lights. Bristol, moved, and now under the lights. Daytona, now under the lights. Kentucky, under the lights. Talladega, moved to the fall.
   Putting the Brickyard 400 on the calendar in late July merely to give ESPN a good launching point may be part of the problem.


   Geoff Bodine: some interesting ideas (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   How about a look at the bigger picture. 
    Let's listen to Geoff Bodine….
   Geoff Bodine -- remember those great battles with the late Dale Earnhardt, and that Daytona 500 victory, and that surprise Watkins Glen win? – has been doing this a while now. Longer actually than anyone else in the Brickyard 400 garage.
   He's here in Tommy Baldwin's car for the Brickyard, and Bodine was musing the other day about how to make the racing more exciting at this track.
   Bodine, after watching Bristol's asphalt turns tear up into ruts every time NASCAR came to town, once had the then-novel idea of redoing that track in concrete. Boy, did the other drivers have a field day with that suggestion. He was all but hooted out of the garage.
   Of course the rest of the story is Bristol is now indeed concrete, and so is Dover, and so is Nashville, and Bodine has had the last laugh.
   So what about this place? What would Bodine recommend to improve the racing here?
   "I have been doing this a long time," Bodine says with a laugh. "And the number one thing that controls racing…..
   "Now some people say it's the young drivers, that they're not as good as the old drivers. But that has nothing to do with it.
   "And a lot of people blame this (new) car, and say it's not as easy to drive as the old car. But that has nothing to do with it. They should have driven the cars from the 1980s and early 1990s.

Easy to tell this guy's pick (Photo: IMS)


"Those things are not, in my opinion, what really changed the look of racing – to where there is not as much side-by-side racing…with drivers and cars side-by-side, sideways through the corners, smoking the tires," Bodine says.
   "That's the thing – the (newer) tires have taken that ability away from the drivers to do those things.
   "Consequently you don't see as much side-by-side racing, because there's not as much 'side-bite' in these type of tires.
   "So if you want to fix racing, if you think something is broken…
    "But now I think it's pretty good, though at times it's single-file.
   "And there's another reason why it's single-file and nobody's racing out there – because the (Cup) races are too long. Look at the Truck races; they are shorter and there is more action throughout. These (Cup) races need to be shortened up to where drivers have to race – at least three-quarters of the race…where now they're only racing one-quarter: a little bit in the beginning, and then again at the end.
   "It's like basketball – they don't play until the end of the game, because they don't have to, so they just swap baskets back and forth. It's the same in NASCAR, just swap it back and forth, and try to maintain, and then at the end you go racing.
    "That's one reason the racing gets boring.


   Juan Pablo Montoya: a dominant car the last two Brickyards, but no trophy. And this weekend he's got a new crew chief, in a strange move by team owner Chip Ganassi (Photo: IMS)

   "Another big factor," Bodine continues, "is that the tires don't allow drivers to run side-by-side like they used to, and hang it out, and lean on that right-rear and get a little sideways, and get a little (tire) smoke going.
    "I've run this style (radial) tire, and I've also run other style tires in other series where believe me you can get sideways, you can hang it out, you can abuse it, and keep on going without crashing.
   "Those are the two big reasons I see why the racing is like it is – the races are too long, and the tires don't allow the drivers to do things.
   "But it isn't Goodyear's fault, to have this type of tire. NASCAR wants a safe tire and no problems, and so do we. But anytime you push the limit, of anything, you're susceptible to having problems.
   "So I don't blame them one bit. But it hasn't helped us in what we're trying to do, and that's go out there and race side-by-side and make it exciting for the fans."

    All things to consider, as we await Sunday's 1 p.m. ET start.
    However you look at things, the bottom line here seems simple: All in all, the Brickyard 400 has become just another race.


A vintage car show during the Brickyard weekend. Wonder how one of these Superbirds would have handled the corners at this track? Richard Petty of course could tell us, because he raced 'em at Ontario Motor Speedway back when....(Photo: IMS)



Hey Mon, I could not agree

Hey Mon, I could not agree more. NASCAR has made a joke out of Cup racing. I like the double file restarts but the mystery cautions are getting old. The production of the broadcast puts way to much speculation into the mix who needs two hour pre race shows? A half hour is enough! Give me more post race interviews! The "dumbed down" explanations are not winning any fans and certain peoples english gets worse when paired with another redneck. The move to AB should be a giant step in the right direction and Ricky Craven shines with his easy transition to the booth. Some of these so called expert talents are so over done it is tough to listen to, last weeks comment that the tires are round had me about to fall off the chair. I really enjoy your column and the way you approach this sport, It must get difficult at times, but the "new" fans who are leaving in large numbers were never really race fans to begin with! The races are too long and why are they only building tracks a mile and a half and not a mile or less? Stadium style seating is the way to go like Bristol. The next thing will be a three mile oval, the reason the road courses do not excite the fans is because you can not see the entire track. Stewarts WoO victory was quite a way to showcase his versatility and the negative press from Kahnes flip a the Grove should never have been a "NASCAR driver should only race in NASCAR" issue. They just do not get it and never will. Enjoy the races and life, Jim

Good stuff, Mike. Bodine and

Good stuff, Mike. Bodine and others hit the nail on the head. The radial tires changed Cup racing forever. You can't get the little "extra" out of these tires. If your setup is off, then the driver can't make it up like in the old days with shear ability and hanging it out on the bias ply tires. NASCAR says they made the change for "safety", but I think it also was a move to get rid of Hoosier and put an end to the tire wars. I would love to see NASCAR get some onions and go back to bias ply, and I'm sure GoodYear could come up with a safer bias ply tire than what was formerly used in the early 90's.
As for Bodine's suggestion about making the races shorter, I couldn't agree more. Make them shorter and either add heat races, or a companion event to run ahead of the feature. Making the races shorter will improve the racing some, but it's not going to make the drivers hungrier. Back in the days when Bodine drove, winning was what mattered. They made decent money, but the real money went to the winner. Drivers didn't get out of their cars and say "it was a good points day". They elite didn't live in mega-mansions back then like the backmarkers do now. Now with all of the seat money drivers make, what fuels their ambition? What's going to make them push it to the limit to try to get the win instead of settling for a Top 5 or Top 10? NASCAR wants the stars to have guaranteed spots in each race, and that's not going to make them drive hard to win. Get rid of the Top 35 rule, and overhaul the qualifying. Let's get some of those drivers out of their comfort zones and actually make them race. Things have gotten to comfy in the million dollar motorhome park.

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