Monday, July 27, 2015

Solitude's child

So now the Great Hypothetical has an answer, almost: What if they threw a NASCAR race and nobody came?

Oh, there were somebodies Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, several somebodies, scattered here and there among that immense sprawl of seating like the first settlers staking their claim in Dan'l Boone's Kantuckee lands. But the 22nd Brickyard 400 played mostly to a whole lot of  big empty. It's not a new story -- attendance has been shriveling since Tiregate in 2008 -- but it perhaps has never been driven home more starkly than it was yesterday.

The aerial shots revealed entire sections of seating, primarily in the third turn and north chute, that hadn't even been opened, the Speedway deciding instead to turn them into vast advertising billboards. In the other short chute, there appeared to be only tiny clumps of fans here and there. Ditto the seating behind the pits.

I'm just spitballing here. But the eye test tells me this had to be by far the most sparsely attended Brickyard ever. It was ... sad.

Until yesterday, I had covered every Brickyard 400. So I remember those first few years when the stands were an immense carpet of humans wrapping itself around the old place. People were actually saying the Brickyard would eventually outshine the Indianapolis 500 itself as the Speedway's premier event.

Of course, there were people who thought New Coke would be the rage, too.

What happened, of course, is that after the initial rush of seeing stock cars at Indy, it quickly became  apparent that stock cars at Indy were blander than oatmeal. The straightaways were too long, the corners too flat and tight, the groove too small. Once the leader got out in clean air, he was gone, and everyone behind him became parade floats.

I can't remember the last time there was a dramatic finish in the Brickyard, a Hornish-overtaking-Marco, Montoya-Power-Dixon duke-out. Yesterday, in front of almost no one, might have come closest to that, ironically. It came down to one last restart on a green-white-checker, and Kyle Busch, who may never lose another race this season the way he's going, beat Joey Logano to turn one off the green.

And that, of course, was that.  Whoever won the restart was going to win, because, well, it's NASCAR at Indy. No one passes anyone for the lead except off restarts -- which were pretty wild yesterday, and the only real thrilling moments of the 22nd Brickyard,

And so Busch won his third straight Cup race and fourth in the last five, and that was nice, but it was also not ... momentous. The race that would one day outshine the Indy 500 is now, sadly, just another NASCAR show playing to half-empty venues. It might as well be Kansas or Pocono.

NBC thought so little of its drawing power Sunday, in fact, it bumped it off the main feed to its sports network. Taking its place on the Big Channel: Rally cross racing.

That's not quite like ESPN shunting you into the wee-hours programming alongside monster trucks. But it's damn close.

All I know is, the place where I went to watch it also had baseball and golf on its multiple big-screen TVs, and there was a scattering of people there on a summery afternoon. Most of them were watching the Canadian Open, which is not exactly what you'd call a major. A few were watching the Reds game. I might have been the only one in the joint watching the race.

"Not much sports going on right now,"  the gentleman sitting next to me commented.

I pointed past his shoulder at the TV I was watching.

"Well, the Brickyard 400's wrapping up," I said.

He looked at the screen, blinking.

"Oh. Yeah," he said. "Forgot that was today."

He wasn't the only one.


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