SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- At heart, Jeff Gordon is an Indianapolis purist. Growing up in a town just outside the city and racing sprint cars at the local short track, the four-time NASCAR champion was one of many who yearned to compete in the 500. Even now, with four stock-car victories at the Brickyard to his credit, he doesn't view himself in the same class as someone like his boyhood hero Rick Mears.
"It's just a different race," he said Friday of the Indianapolis 500, "and it should be held to a different standard."
But NASCAR's annual event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which Sunday will be contested for the 20th time, hasn't so much fallen in line with tradition as it has broken from it. When stock cars first arrived here in 1994, they were the first vehicles besides the open-wheel machines to run here in decades. The creation of the "Super Weekend" last year brought Grand-Am and Nationwide Series cars to the big track.
Now, NASCAR at Indianapolis could be on the brink of another revolutionary change -- lights that would at least open the possibility to the Sprint Cup Series running around this 2.5-mile oval at night.
At least, that's the vision shown earlier this year to Indiana state legislators, who in February viewed a presentation from speedway officials that included a rendering of stock cars competing on the famed track at night. In April, the state legislature approved creation of a special taxation district that would raise enough funds to provide the speedway with a $100 million loan, $20 million of which would be used for a lighting system, and the rest for other improvements such as new video boards. Gov. Mike Pence signed the bill in May.
Although no noticeable changes are expected until 2015 at the earliest, the idea of lights for NASCAR at the Brickyard now seems more a possibility than ever. "Boy, you're going to need nuclear power to light this place," Clint Bowyer said. "You're going to have to shut down downtown to have enough power to light this track. It's huge."
"That would be something," agreed former Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. "It's a lot of area to light up, and I don't know exactly how it would all pan out, but I guarantee you it would probably make for a better Sprint Cup race here. Just because generally when we come here, it's so hot. The sun is beating down on the track, it makes everything slick. And having that opportunity, a lot of times when you run these night races you get cooler temperatures and more grip on the car, more downforce, all that good stuff. The more of that you get, the more competitive the races seem to be."
That would certainly be a side benefit of an improvement project designed to make 104-year-old Indianapolis more competitive with newer tracks in the region, which were built with more spectator comforts in mind. Gordon, who was raised in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., and broke out as a racer at the track locals still call Indianapolis Raceway Park, is all for the idea of lights at the Brickyard -- with one caveat.
"I think it would be awesome to race here at night," he said. "This goes back to the history about the Indy 500 and the history of racing here. Yes, there's tradition with the Brickyard 400, but it's not the tradition of the Indy 500. I would never want to see the Indy 500 run under the lights. But the Brickyard 400 beaks traditions. It always has, by being the first stock-car race to ever happen here. ? So why not change it up? This race has had some different scenarios in the days that it's run here, so why not let's have a night race? I think that would be awesome."
As would be the effort to light the 2.5-mile facility. Hornish remembers flying over the city several years ago and seeing the area around the speedway all lit up -- save for the dark outline of the track. "You can see the perfect outline of just utter blackness where the speedway's at," he said. "? To think of how much it would take to light this place up, it's a big undertaking."
Indianapolis has become less resistant to change over time, beginning 20 years ago with an inaugural NASCAR race many thought would remain a fantasy. "I felt like the door was always closed to stock cars racing here. I felt like that was one thing that would never happen," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. Now, after one major renovation project and the addition of still more racing circuits to the Brickyard, lights seem just the natural next step in the evolution.
Of course, that doesn't mean the idea of night racing at Indianapolis isn't polarizing, even within the garage of a NASCAR series that started ushering in all that change 20 years ago.
"It's always been a day race," Bowyer said of an event that began as the Brickyard 400. "I don't see why it shouldn't be. Grip level would be really well in a night race. I think, at least in a day race on Sunday, you slip and slide around quite a bit here and create some exciting racing. So I'm happy with a day race here."
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