Whenever Jeff Gordon flies into Indianapolis, he scans the horizon outside his aircraft's window, eager to catch his initial glimpse of the big rectangular race track below. It's been that way since he was 10 years old and coming to the city for the first time to compete in quarter-midget cars. It's still that way today.
"Even though I have the chance to race here and we've won here four times," he said Saturday at the Brickyard, "it's just a very special place."
Nearly to a man, his competitors are in agreement. There's no other place on the NASCAR circuit that looks like this, that feels like this, that's capable of making the hair on your arms stand up each time you drive through one of the six tunnels that connect the most famous race track on the planet to the outside world. There's no place that's quite this unique, that's quite this difficult, that's quite as capable of defining greatness and cementing a legacy all at the same time. No restrictor plates, no banking in the corners, no frills. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a flat, straightforward two and half miles that comes down to the most fundamental of elements -- horsepower and nerve.
Those things have all remained constant, through the unbridled craziness that accompanied NASCAR's first visit to the Brickyard almost 20 years ago, through one race marred by tire failures and another determined by fuel mileage, through track management overhauls and schedule shuffles, and despite the challenges the venue faces today. Yes, they tore up the old brick track and put down asphalt years ago, and renovated the infield facilities, and added a road course. But the beauty of Indianapolis is that it's experienced relatively so little change, and Sprint Cup drivers are tested by essentially the same layout that confronted Rick Mears and Dale Earnhardt and Mario Andretti.
"I like coming here," said history buff Dale Earnhardt Jr. "I like the history of the race track. It's just incredible, all the way back to when it was shut down during the war, and how they had to renovate the place and bring it back, and just how it was able to survive. Lot of things like that, and here we are racing on it today. Just incredible."
Indeed it is, and walking the grounds gives you a strong sense of all those intangibles that just don't translate through the televisionand endure regardless of the product on the race track. But not even venerable Indianapolis is immune to the challenges so many facilities face today, the need to energize the ticket-buying public in a difficult economic climate. The response is the biggest change NASCAR has experienced in its 18 years here, the construction of a "Super Weekend" around the Sprint Cup 400-miler that included a pair of Grand-Am sports-car events here Friday and the inaugural Nationwide race at the Brickyard on Saturday.
These are not minor tweaks. This marks the first time that Indianapolis has run events on the oval and the road course on the same weekend, an undertaking that required a 12-hour effort to move approximately 40 concrete barriers and 2,000 tires into road-course configuration following opening Nationwide practices Thursday. Afterward, the same 40-man crew needed another 12 hours to shift the track back into oval mode. In between, there were some unusual sights -- sports cars running with headlights burning and windshield wipers flying through intermittent rain Friday, and vehicles like hatchbacks and Mini Coopers racing around Indianapolis Motor Speedway during one support event. In all, there were more than 200 cars on site this weekend, which was expanded to four days to accommodate them all.
As a result the Sprint Cup schedule was compressed down to two days, despite the Brickyard's status as one of the biggest events of the season. "We could have used a little more time in between practice," Greg Biffle said. "Maybe a Friday afternoon practice or something would have been good." But at least the teams from NASCAR's premier series got to move into the Formula One garages behind pit road, spacious stalls featuring about as much square footage as a Manhattan apartment, with plenty of room for tool boxes and monitors and engineers. Their more cramped former digs were turned over to teams in the Nationwide Series.
"I love it. It's awesome," Gordon raved. "Every guy in the garage area is thankful. There's a breeze moving through there. This place can get very hot. Those other garage stalls are so tight, it just makes it so convenient. Yeah, it's a long walk from the hauler. You kind of have to make camp out there. The only thing is, I didn't see a bathroom anywhere nearby, so that's a long haul. But other than that, I love it. I think it's very cool. I wish we'd have started sooner."
Chalk up one to the Super Weekend. Time will tell whether the concept will pan out as the speedway hopes, with all those cars and all those events and all those days of racing adding some additional energy and enthusiasm to Brickyard weekend. Admittedly, it was somewhat jarring to see sports-car drivers kissing the yard of bricks that serves as the track's start-finish line. There were also plenty of folks sympathizing for the one real casualty of this experiment, Lucas Oil Raceway, the short track in nearby Clermont that had hosted Nationwide events while the Sprint Cup cars were at the speedway. And yet, no single group more reveres Indy than drivers, who are all race fans at heart, and among them discouraging words about the Super Weekend were about as rare as poorly-cooked steaks downtown.
"I think today, in today's world, with ticket prices and people not bring able to travel, this gives them a real bang for their buck to have this many different styles of racing and cars going on at the track," said Nationwide points leader Elliott Sadler, who said even owners and sponsors in his series were jacked about their first appearance at the Brickyard. "I know it's a lot of work on the race track, I know it's a lot of work on us because the schedule is so different ... But I think it's a good idea, and I think it's neat. I think it's big for the speedway to have all these cars at one time. I think it's good for the fans. They can make a weekend out of it and see a lot of different forms of racing."
Ray Evernham, who won the first NASCAR race here as crew chief for Gordon, went a step further: "It's moving in a direction we need to move with the sport," he said. No question, this is a track that built its reputation on holding very few events each season -- for years, just the Indianapolis 500 -- and the exclusivity of competing at the Brickyard became its calling card. But that began to change long before the events of the Super Weekend, with support events added for the defunct Formula One race and the Moto GP event, and now even for the Indy 500. Though the purists may shift uncomfortably, these races added in support of the Brickyard are only following a pattern that's been unfolding at Indianapolis for years.
"When I walked into this place [Friday], there was a tremendous amount of energy from the people walking around, and there was a lot going on," said former Brickyard winner Kevin Harvick. "I think people spending money coming to the race track want to have things to do. And I think when you look at the amount of on-track activity we've had in the past, it's obviously not what it has been this weekend. I think things have changed. They race a lower series here before the Indy 500 as well. I think it gives fans more to do, and it adds a new element to the race weekend."
Those extra races don't alter the fact that this place remains the domain of luminaries like Mears, Gordon, and A.J. Foyt. "To me, it doesn't matter," three-time Brickyard champion Jimmie Johnson said. "When I first heard, my mind immediately went to how great of an opportunity this is for those series, for the drivers competing, and really for the winners. In most cases you have up-and-coming drivers and teams, in a tough economy in a tough sport trying to raise notoriety for themselves. So my mind instantly went to, what an opportunity. It wasn't about how it was going to affect the history. It was about what an opportunity for a lot of people."
So yes, they're remaking Brickyard weekend, trying to reposition this event and this track in the hope that it gains a little more momentum, particularly in its home market. None of that, though, changes what has happened here before. For plenty of people, a trip to Indianapolis has always been a super weekend. Gordon found time to sneak away to the basement of Indy's wonderful museum and glimpse cars and items that aren't on public display. Earnhardt remembered the race between his father and Rusty Wallace to be the first one on the track during the inaugural test here in 1992. Carl Edwards and his brother Kenny were geeked up enough to sneak a golf cart out on the race track, pulling off only when they saw a police car.
"My brother's like, 'Man, those cops are patrolling.' I said, 'Kenny, they're doing the same thing were doing. They out there going, man, we're on the race track at Indianapolis,'" Edwards said, laughing. "I think we all know how special this place is, and it would be very cool to win."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.