Legendary Indy stuck in the past

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – There's plenty of wild NASCAR-esque things to discuss here in the run up to Sunday's Allstate 400 at The Brickyard; just the kind of storylines that drive fan interest and flame media coverage.

You could start with Friday's ruling by a federal appeals court to keep alleged meth-head Jeremy Mayfield off the track. It's just the latest twist in an all-timer of a sports soap opera. Even in NASCAR it's not every day a driver calls his stepmother a "crack whore" while accusing her of both being paid by NASCAR to defame him and of once murdering his dad (it was officially ruled a suicide).

"I mean, wow," Jimmie Johnson said, laughing. "I guess they aren't going to have Thanksgiving dinner together."

You could move on to Johnson and Kurt Busch, who were engaged Friday in a back and forth about not just who keeps crashing into whom lately, but the proper etiquette for apologetic driver text messages. Johnson sent one to Busch, who didn't respond.

"[I] went to the Outer Banks; I didn't have cell service," Busch claimed.

"It can continue on or it can end," Johnson said. "I guess we'll find out."

There are plenty of on-the-track angles, too, such as how Johnson and Tony Stewart have traded the last four Brickyards, setting up a nice showdown. And there's always how Sunday's results might impact the race for the Chase.

There is even how this is the 16th anniversary of NASCAR's historic foray into the heart of open-wheel racing in America, where spinning stock cars around the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway horrified many purists – including no less than Stewart.

"I was one of the people around here that was pretty upset about it at the time," said Stewart, a native of Columbus, Ind.

Despite all of that, the focus is on the aging IMS itself and a race that's being battered from all sides.

Everyone arrived here worried that the tires would fail again, a debacle that ruined last year's "race." Perhaps as a result, plenty of good seats are still available, a far cry from past 250,000-plus sellouts. And it's all but assumed that television ratings will fall, again.

In general, there's the realization that as cool and old and legendary as this place is, it sure wasn't built for stock car racing. Even in the best of circumstances it can be a dull race; no banking slows it down through the sharp turns and passing is nearly impossible in the tight quarters.

Bringing NASCAR here was a grand and bold and highly successful experiment – and one that helped push it past open wheel as America's racing circuit of choice. Yet, as the years go on and the importance of that accomplishment fades, this just isn't much of a race, and no one knows how to change it.

"I don't know if I was going to build a track in this era I'd build it in this shape," Stewart said of the almost square course.

"I don't think the track suits a stock car," Johnson said. "And if you watch the [Indy] 500, it's tough for those guys to pass as well. From a pure race track perspective, there are better tracks out there for us to race and put on a better show.

"But the history of this track and what it means to everyone kicks it back up."

North Carolina is NASCAR's base, but in terms of all the different kinds of racing, the case can easily be made that Indiana is king. If so, this is the castle; a one-of-a-kind facility that still inspires awe.

There's the famed frontstretch that has steep bleachers on both sides. On race day, it forms what Johnson described as a "tunnel of color." There's the 2.5-mile circuit that is so long it originally required 3 million bricks to be "paved." The infield is so vast it holds four holes of a golf course with plenty of room left over for paddocks and parking.

From the outside, there are looming, endless bleachers that tower over surrounding neighborhood streets. There's the skyline of Indianapolis that sprouts up to the east. The start/finish line is still a thin row of bricks. The memories are everywhere; the place celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

"History and prestige," Jeff Gordon said.

From 1919 to 1993, the only race held at the track was the Indy 500. Then NASCAR powered in during the summer of 1994, staking a claim for the surging stock car circuit.

"I sat at home and watched it on television; shocked because no other vehicles had turned laps here," Johnson said.

Gordon won the inaugural event, which he still cherishes. Yet, for all the fanfare, he always thought this was a tough loop for NASCAR.

"It's not an easy place to get around … because it doesn't have banking," Gordon said. "Our cars like banking. That's been the case since the first race, but it doesn't take away from how important this race is."

It's important because it's important, but is that enough?

NASCAR long ago proved its point by making this track its own. The location alone draws in added attention, making it the second-most hyped race of the year – behind only the Daytona 500 – bigger even than any of the 10 races that make up the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

And while everyone is trying to claim that the tires will be fine and fans need to appreciate a "technical" race, there's no denying that as NASCAR deals with sagging television ratings, decreasing fan interest and smaller crowds, it sure could use a little more sizzle out of its signature race of the summer.

It no doubt wished the prerace focus was on the drama of the actual racing. Even feuds and federal cases would be better than talk of tire tests.

"It's important," Johnson said. "You look at major events for any sport. You can't have issues at Wimbledon. You can't have issues at the Masters. You just can't have it."

NASCAR has it. It's cashed in on the history and reputation and uniqueness of this place, but there may not be anything else left in the bank. Coming here remains a brilliant decision; Sunday will still be an awesome, if downsized, spectacle. You just wish they could figure out how to make the future here as storied as the past.