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USA TODAY Sports’ Brant James looks ahead to some of the top story lines fans should keep an eye on at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis this Sunday.
USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS — Can the Brickyard 400 be saved? Sure it can. Just not by Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Don’t misunderstand. What IMS President Boles and his staff are doing this month is beyond commendable. They’ve come up with everything possible to reinvigorate a struggling race. They’re putting on concerts with hot young acts like The Chainsmokers and country star Brantley Gilbert. They’ve thoughtfully reached out to Indianapolis’ young motor sports audience by requesting rising star Chase Elliott to promote the race rather than one who will be gone soon such as Dale Earnhardt Jr.

They are amping up their efforts for the Hauler Parade, packing more and more entertainment into a tighter schedule and engaging the Indianapolis community in new and interesting ways.

But ticket sales have not increased from what was reported to be a record-low crowd last year.

Boles and company aren’t done. They convinced NASCAR to move the race back to September next year so they could address what Boles says is the fans’ No. 1 complaint: sweltering July heat.

There’s just one problem with that. It simply can’t be true.

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Yes, it’s cooler in September — 11.1 degrees cooler on average from the last five Brickyards and the second Sunday in September the same year, according to wunderground.com.

But fans used to flock to IMS by the hundreds of thousands two decades ago. It wasn’t hot back then? Of course it was. The average temperature for the last five Brickyard 400s was 85.8 degrees, that’s just two degrees warmer than the average temperature of the first 18. It’s always been hot.

While fans might have complained, it didn’t stop them from coming. Three hundred thousand of them came when it was 93 degrees in 2002.

What has stopped them from coming is the Brickyard 400 became a terrible race. Or maybe it was always a terrible race and the novelty of stock cars driving in an open-wheel mecca wore off. Five-time Brickyard champion Jeff Gordon contends the early versions of the race were entertaining; others disagree.

Doesn’t really matter. The point is: The race stinks. Especially compared to the Indianapolis 500, which has seen incredible racing and heart-stopping finishes recently. Then two months later, 40 stocks cars lumber around the track.

There’s no passing. There’s no drafting. There’s no fun. Last year, Kyle Busch practically went coast to coast, sitting on pole and leading 149 of 170 laps.

“We appreciate Kyle Busch, we love that Kyle has interest in running the 500, so I don’t want to tick off Kyle Busch,” Boles said with a chuckle, “but man, I wish he’d let some other folks run up front.”

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Boles said that with a smile, but he knows very well he’s the head promoter of a broken race that can’t go on like this much longer. Attendance dipped for the 10th consecutive time for last year’s joy-less ride, with estimates around 60,000, a dip of 220,000 fans from 2006. Boles and IMS aren’t expecting sellouts but the attendance can’t continue to drop at its current rate.

So that leaves NASCAR with two options:

  • Start racing on the road course.
  • Or figure out how to create more intrigue on the oval.

(Sure, a Saturday night race would be fun, but it would be massively expensive for IMS and that novelty would surely wear off after a couple years, too.)

The first option — the road course — should be a last resort. The magic of IMS is the oval. That’s where 108 years of history reside, and that’s where Boles and NASCAR drivers would rather be.

“At the end of the day,” Boles told The Indianapolis Star recently, “our brand is about the oval. And the drivers view it as such. They want to win on the race track Ray Harroun won on, A.J. Foyt won on, Mario Andretti won on. And NASCAR’s brand is oval, really.”

Driver David Ragan added: “I grew up watching the Indy 500, so I’m kind of an oval guy.”

That means the only option NASCAR has is to fix the race. Can it be done? Gordon thinks so. The retired superstar told The Star on Thursday that stage racing could help some, but what he’s most intrigued by is the changes the Xfinity Series is adopting for its race Saturday.

According to reports from earlier this year, NASCAR believes it has developed a package that will increase competition on the 2.5-mile speedway. The series plans to use that package, which includes a restrictor plate, a taller rear spoiler and splitter package, as well as aero ducts on the lower front bumper area, on Saturday.

“Our belief is that we will create a situation where they can pass on the straightaways,” Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development, told NASCAR.com. “That’s been done analytically, it’s been done with three cars. The question is when we turn 40 cars loose on the track can that still manifest itself and that’s still what we’re hoping will happen.”

A challenge of the move to September is putting the race head-to-head with the Colts season opener. Boles has asked the Colts and NFL to open next season on the road but what happens in 2019?

“We can promote together,” Boles said. “Honestly there are far more advantages to racing in September than the big offset of running into the Colts.”

Perhaps. Another benefit of moving the Brickyard to September is that it will serve as the final race on the calendar before the 16-driver playoff begins. 

If NASCAR can start implementing changes for the Cup Series next year and deliver a regular-season finale fans deserve, the Brickyard has a chance. But if it doesn’t work, all Boles and his staff can do is continue fighting a battle they can’t win.

Ayello writes for The Indianapolis Star, part of the USA TODAY Network.

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