The Brickyard 400 in the Rearview Mirror ~ What happened?
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and a warm “Howdy” as well to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR, cozily ensconced somewhere within the glass confines of the Fan and Media Espionage Center in the lovely Queen’s City of Charlotte, North Carolina. Speaking of Charlotte, how does it speak for NASCAR when the Charlotte Observer, former “home” of such greats as Tom Higgins and David Poole, announces that they will no longer feature a dedicated NASCAR writer? Can the job done by gentlemen of that caliber now be handled by a cub reporter? (Every time I hear that phrase, I think of Jimmy Olsen) We’re going to do a bit of looking back today, but first, we have some unfinished business from last week.
Have no fear; we won’t be staying long at New Hampshire this week, but some will recall that I told you I’d heard from a local resident saying that the track had announced in one of their fan bulletins that SAFER barriers had been installed somewhere on the backstretch. Well, she didn’t get a picture of it, but swears that she saw it, up close and personal, on the inside of the backstretch. It seems that she and her husband won a charity auction, and the “prize” was a ride in the pre-race parade. I didn’t ask how much they had to bid to get that, but if I were riding with Kevin Harvick as he waved to the crowd, I wouldn’t have been thinking about taking pictures either. Oh, and Hubby rode with Danica. Men are all alike!
All right then, enough of New Hampshire, and we’re on to the great Indianapolis Motor Speedway, proud home of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indy 500! First up, we’re going to have a peek at the SAFER map that Jim has so lovingly prepared for us. (Thanks Partner!)
Pardon the expression, but “Ugh!” At first blush, your scribe was more than a little bit heartbroken, that this grand old track, which was the very first to install the newly developed SAFER barriers in 2002, shows this mere token after the ensuing 13 years. However, as we’ve discussed before, things are not always exactly as they appear on Google Earth.
First, I found an announcement from the track dated last March, saying that additional SAFER would be installed before the Indy 500 back in May, and we can only assume that was done. The announcement reads as follows:
“Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials plan to install 1,560 additional feet of SAFER barriers at the 2.5-mile facility before on-track activities commence in May for the Indianapolis 500. IMS, which was the first to install the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction system in 2002, will add protection, track president Doug Boles said, around sections of a curved wall that serves as an emergency vehicle entrance point on the backstretch and in the short chute, to the drivers' left, between Turns 3 and 4.”
According to Mr. Boles, this upgrade was already planned, but was moved ahead on the renovation schedule due to the urgency brought to light by the crash of Kyle Busch at Daytona last February. This is a huge track, with a road course and a golf course among other things, wandering through the infield, so rather than try to identify the exact areas indicated in the statement, I’ll let you figure out approximately where the new SAFER has been installed but not yet showing on our map. Suffice it to say, “It’s not enough, for either NASCAR, IndyCar or anyone else that races at Indy.
And speaking of being at Indy, how many out there remember the very first time that NASCAR raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway? It was 21 years ago gentle readers, and I know some of you are just about that age today. If that’s the case, Happy Birthday, but I doubt you recall much about that race.
The year was 1994, and the sport of stock car racing, sanctioned by NASCAR, was experiencing astronomical gains in popularity, thanks to ever-increasing TV exposure and the second-to-none marketing efforts of series sponsor, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, headed up by a couple of guys named T. Wayne Robertson and Ralph Seagraves. There were still two races each year being run at Darlington, Rockingham and North Wilkesboro, and nowhere on the schedule could one find Chicago, Kansas or Fontana. Already though, the winds of change were softly blowing, but we paid no attention. We were having too much fun!
After much discussion, and I stress “much”, that year found a new race on the schedule, at a new track… new to NASCAR, that is. It was the venerable old track in Speedway, Indiana, built in 1909, and that’s almost 30 years older than I am, just to put it in perspective for you. If we’re really honest about it, we weren’t wanted there, but NASCAR was the series then that fans wanted to see more of and seemingly couldn’t get enough of. IndyCar, known better in those days as CART, was having internal problems that within the next two years would find it torn in two, a split from which it’s still trying to recover today.
Still, its drivers, many of whom had become household names over the years, resented that rowdy, dowdy bunch of “Rednecks” coming to town in their boxy cars with fenders to invade “their track.” Probably the most outspoken among them at the time was Danny Sullivan, who never missed a chance to point out the stereotypes attached to both stock car racing and its fans. Please note though, that all of that resentment did not preclude Danny Boy from qualifying for and running in that first NASCAR race at IMS. He would finish an unremarkable 33rd, 8 laps down to the leaders. (If you thought you might have read a smug little grin into that, you were probably right.)
Having mentioned qualifying, it was like nothing you younger folks have ever seen. Oh, it was the old standard one lap for time style, but try to wrap your mind around the idea that at least 86 drivers signed up to attempt to qualify for that race. “EIGHTY-SIX!” Some of those put back on the trailer for their efforts were some very well-known drivers of the time such as Joe Ruttman, Dick Trickle, Randy LaJoie, Jim Sauter, Steve Girssom, and a whole lot more. With so many potential qualifiers, it truly was “Go fast or go home” and a provisional could only save a couple of regulars. IndyCar regulars that did qualify were the ever irascible A.J. Foyt, Australian driver, Geoff Brabham and the aforementioned Danny Sullivan. Gary Bettenhausen and Davy Jones lost their bids to enter the history-making event.
Gentle readers, you have to understand; Indy then wasn’t like what we see today. Everything that year was geared toward the Brickyard 400, coming on August 6, 1994… race #19 of the 31 scheduled to be run that year. This was something new! This was Indy, home of the famed Indianapolis 500, long billed as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” This was NASCAR, coming of age, bringing its fendered stock cars and blue-collar drivers to the historical old track for the first time ever! You know what? I don’t suppose in truth that the racing then was any better than what stockers can produce today on the huge platter-flat track, but it was so new, so neat to think about, that everyone, drivers and fans alike, wanted to be some part of it. It was what you’d call a big deal! It was NASCAR at Indianapolis, and for those of us that can remember, it’s still a big deal… a really big deal!
After the long, arduous 2-day qualifying was done, it would be Virginian Rick Mast on the pole, unexpectedly, to be sure, but he was the fastest for one lap on that given day. To his outside would be Dale Earnhardt, but Rick still managed to lead 2 laps that day, and that would be all that Dale could muster as well. Poor Rick’s moment of glory didn’t last past that second lap, as that was when he reported that his car had dropped a cylinder, which eventually made for a long afternoon, finishing in 21st place, one lap down to the leaders.
One of the strongest cars of that day looked to be the #7 of Geoff Bodine, but on a restart at lap 100, Brother Brett decided that the wrong Bodine was out front and clearly… and without remorse… punted big brother into the unforgiving concrete wall of Indy’s turn 4. That would end the day for both Geoff and Dale Jarrett, who was swept up in the mess. Brother Brett would go on to finish second on the day… the last top-5 he would ever score in a NASCAR event, unless we’re counting the Pace Car. (Insert sarcasm font where needed) The two were not on speaking terms for several years following that race. It was Indy, and Indy mattered that much!
The laps wound down, and with 5 to go, we watched a young Jeff Gordon, who’d had a strong car throughout the race, take the lead from an also fast Ernie Irvan, but that wasn’t the story. They’d battled back and forth like that for some time, but this time, Ernie slowed and headed for his pit crew to replace a flat tire. “The thrill of Victory and the agony of Defeat.” It was all right there as we watched Jeff Gordon take the first checkered flag for a stock car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. No bricks were kissed that year. That wouldn’t come about for another 2 years, when Dale Jarrett took the win and had the brainstorm to kiss the famous “Yard of Bricks” at the Brickyard. Instead, Jeff drank the milk that has for decades been the custom of winners of the Indy 500.
So, gentle readers, what happened between then and now? The crowd for the Brickyard 400 in 1994 was said to be in excess of 350,000, making it the largest crowd ever assembled for a Cup race anywhere in any year. Tickets for that race sold out within 5 days of becoming available, and it was estimated that they could have sold again as many, but even at Indy, seating runs out at some point. Below is a shot of the crowd in the main grandstand as the drivers and dignitaries pose on the track for the camera. It was SRO and every inch was filled with humanity.
That’s a tough act to follow, but here’s a shot of last year’s Brickyard 400, also won by Jeff Gordon.
Pace Laps 2014 Brickyard 400
I think I’ll just let those photos speak for themselves. What happened? My suggestion would be to ask Brian Z. France. He’s steering this sinking ship.
Time now for our Classic Country Closeout, and as long as we’re talking of “big deals”, I thought we’d listen to a few songs that were indeed just that in their day… some of the biggest hits from the biggest singers. Let’s start with one of the biggest singers ever to sing a Country song, Hank Williams. This time I’ve chosen “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Last time I played Hank, it was “Lovesick Blues” and I was told several times over that this one outsold that one. It really doesn’t matter. It’s all Hank, and it’s all good!
And while we’re talking of Hank… my brother Mike always described my taste in music as, “Anybody named Hank” and he wasn’t that far off. Next up is one of the top hits of all times on the Country charts, though it’s actually two separate songs. Here first is Hank Thompson with his smash hit, “Wild Side of Life” Hank is followed, just as he was in 1952, by the singer of another smash hit, Miss Kitty Wells singing the answer to Hank’s song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.”
Going one more time with the Hank theme, this Hank undoubtedly had more huge hits than Hank Williams, mostly because he lived much longer. This is Hank Snow doing his signature song, if indeed he has just one, “I’m Movin’ On.”
Oh my, when you get me “Back in the 50s Tonight” I could just play and listen all day and night, but we’ll have to settle for one more out of oh, so many! Just from my memory of nickels dropped in jukeboxes and 45s I owned, this had to be one of the biggest, though it’s vintage is 1941 for the first recording. I’m giving your ears a break and playing a newer version of this winner from Ernest Tubb, “Walkin’ the Floor Over You.”
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!