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OPINION: With Nationwide Series' move to the Brickyard, another short track bites the dust

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Kyle Busch leads drivers the NASCAR Nationwide Series Kroger 200 at O'Reilly Raceway Park on July 24, 2010.
Kyle Busch leads drivers the NASCAR Nationwide Series Kroger 200 at O'Reilly Raceway Park on July 24, 2010.

By Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service


Amid all the hoopla surrounding the move of NASCAR's Nationwide Series and Rolex Grand-Am racing to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2012, let's observe a moment of silence for the disappearance of the last traditional standalone short track from the Nationwide schedule.

As far as the Nationwide Series is concerned, you can rearrange the initials for the original name of Lucas Oil Raceway - Indianapolis Raceway Park - from IRP to R.I.P.

With Wednesday's announcement that the Nationwide Series is moving from the raceway to the big track next year, NASCAR has cut the umbilical cord. The scalpel used in the process was the sharp edge of racing economics.

And there are those who might agree with Shakespeare's Marc Antony, that "this was the most unkindest cut of all."

There were rumblings, denied by raceway officials, that a bump in sanction fees was the final blow that priced Lucas Oil Raceway out of the market for a Nationwide event. True or not, it wouldn't be the first time. Hickory Speedway, one of the last Nationwide holdouts in the universe of historic short tracks, lost its traditional Easter weekend Nationwide date in 1999 over the inability to meet increased purse requirements.

Both NASCAR and the Brickyard had a broader purpose in moving the Nationwide race (and, incidentally, deep-sixing the Camping World Truck Series event held at the raceway on Brickyard 400 weekend). Attendance for the Brickyard 400 has declined dramatically in the wake of the 2008 tire fiasco that made it all but impossible for drivers to run more than 12 laps without a caution - and a half-empty Brickyard is an embarrassment to the sport.

To Goodyear's enduring credit, the tire maker spent millions of dollars and thousands of laps making sure that a repeat of 2008 couldn't happen. The tire problem was solved, thoroughly and expertly.

The PR problem wasn't. Goodyear, NASCAR and the speedway lost an opportunity to band together, check egos at the door and guarantee rain checks to any fan who bought a ticket for the 2008 race. All three organizations were complicit in the circumstances that led to the debacle. The combination of the diamond-ground surface at the speedway, a new Sprint Cup racecar introduced by NASCAR and the tire compound Goodyear provided for the race turned out to be a recipe for disaster.

The parties involved chose good funds over good will and, from a long-term perspective, ended up with less of both.

The Brickyard 400 drew an estimated 240,000 fans in 2008, down from peak of 280,000 in 2005 and 2006. Last year's attendance was an estimated 140,000, in part attributable to a sagging economy. The 2010 Nationwide race at Lucas Oil Raceway (then named O'Reilly Raceway Park) drew an estimated 40,000. What better way for the Brickyard to boost attendance than to eliminate the competition and cannibalize those fans.

There's something for everyone in this deal - except perhaps for Lucas Oil Raceway and fans who have enjoyed excellent short-track racing there over the years.

Kevin Harvick, a former winner at the raceway and a Nationwide Series car owner, can see dollar signs in the move.

"From an owner's perspective, it's going to be a lot easier to sell (sponsorship) than it was at the other facility," Harvick told Sporting News on Thursday at Kentucky Speedway. "IRP has been a great part of this series, and, hopefully, as we move forward, there are some opportunities to keep the truck series there or maybe even the Nationwide Series on a different date.

"As far as that particular weekend goes, I think it's going to be good for the Cup cars. I think the fans are going to have something else to watch on Friday and Saturday with the Rolex Series and the Nationwide Series. It just creates more of an active weekend at the big track. But from an owner's perspective, it's going to be a much easier race to sell. That's been a tough race to sell for us in the past."

Yes, the addition of Nationwide and Grand-Am to the Brickyard weekend will add content at the speedway. On the other hand, it may subtract mystique. Heretofore, the Brickyard has been reserved for the elite of the elite, be they IndyCar, Sprint Cup or Formula One drivers. Next year, the Nationwide cars will roll around the 2.5-mile track.

What's next? A summer series featuring Legends Cars and Brickyard Bandoleros?

In the press conference following the announcement of the move, NASCAR president Mike Helton talked of "re-igniting the energy of NASCAR" and "re-energizing the Brickyard 400." Clearly, to Helton and IMS president Jeff Belskus, there was something in dire need of re-igniting and re-energizing-which, translated simply, means putting more butts in seats.

The crosstown competition aside, the Brickyard now has a new rival 130 miles away, a rival perceived as a potential drain on attendance at Indy. Kentucky Speedway, hosting its first Cup race on Saturday night, recently announced a sellout of its 107,000 grandstand seats.

It's no accident that IMS timed its announcement - with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer - to coincide with track owner Bruton Smith's debutante ball at Kentucky. That was just the latest salvo in what is likely to become an ugly turf war.

Sure, it makes economic sense to bolster the program at the Brickyard. The addition of Kentucky to the Cup schedule adds to the existing competition between, Indy, Michigan and Chicagoland and creates some difficult decisions for race fans in the Midwest.

It's just a shame that adding a more robust menu to the Brickyard will mean a much leaner diet at the little track a few miles away.