Monday, July 25, 2016

The sad sound of crickets

It's so hard to watch this now. The past keeps intruding, those vast cliffs of roaring humanity. The memories of the good days -- 1994, 1995, on and on -- crowd close. It's the sour flip side of having seen so much in 38 years as a sportswriter in Indiana, the price you pay for the overwhelming abundance of good stuff.

And so I sat in a Buffalo Wild Wings and watched the Brickyard 400 yesterday, and I mourned the essential death of what used to be an Event. Now it's not even an event, small "e." It's just another NASCAR race -- which is why I was watching it in a B-Dubs, because the Brickyard 400 was on NBCSN, no longer deemed worthy of network TV.

Just another vast-wasteland cable entity now, like, say The Flash on the CW. That's what's become of one of NASCAR's crown jewels. That's the Event that drew 250,000 Dale Earnhardt-shirt-wearin' yahoos to Indianapolis once upon a glorious time. And now?

Now it's a ghost town. Now it plays to mostly empty seats, judging by the overhead shots that showed small clumps of fans here and there, huddled in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's sea of grandstands like the first settlers in an untracked wilderness.

Maybe 50,000, that was the estimate. Maybe. And if part of that was because it was a brutally hot day, part of it was also an unmistakable verdict on the not-even-small-"e" event. Why go sit out in 93-degree heat to watch a parade?

Because, frankly, that's all the Brickyard is, and the fans have figured that out. Yesterday was perhaps the starkest example yet of that; polesitter Kyle Busch led 149 laps, including the last 109. I got onto the broadcast approximately halfway through the race. I never saw a pass for the lead -- even on the restarts, when Busch simply drove away from everyone again.

Not that NASCAR didn't try to gin things up, throwing a bogus debris yellow with 12 or so laps to run for a piece of trash that was clear up by the wall and well out of the racing groove. That forced one last restart, which led to a big crash, which led to a red flag and another crash on another restart ... which led to Busch driving away from everyone again on the final restart.

Game over. Although everyone left in attendance knew it had been over for some time.

And, again, so hard to watch, for someone who was there for the inaugural Brickyard in '94, who remembers the buzz around NASCAR at Indy, who remembers when the sport was so big it briefly indulged the illusion that it was America's fourth major sport. But then it came back to reality, and the Brickyard came with it. The tire fiasco in 2008, coupled with the Wall Street crash, was the beginning of the end; crowds and national interest have dwindled every year since.

Now it's not the Brickyard anymore, really. It's only an echo of the Brickyard.

Sad. So sad.

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