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Ben Smith

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Brickyard no longer has same magic feeling

– It’s the little boy I remember now, 20 years of blare along. It was some baking August day early in Indy’s infatuation with NASCAR, the heat turning all those acres of pavement into a giant griddle, and here was this boy, name of Mitch. He was 3 years old.

“Dale Earnhardt!” Mitch squealed, as the black No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy rumbled past.

“Ernie Irvan!”

“Johnny Benson!”

“Ricky Rudd! Ricky Rudd!”

And there went the Tide Ride, No. 10, and it was magic, this marriage of NASCAR and Indianapolis, sheer magic.

Three hundred-thousand people, or very nearly, showed up at the first Brickyard 400 in 1994, and it came down to Ernie Irvan and the quasi-hometown boy, Jeff Gordon, and suddenly it was just Gordon. Irvan had a tire go down with five laps to run, and Gordon breezed under him, and that was that.

Gordon, who grew up 16 miles west of the Speedway, won the first Brickyard. He was 23 years old then, and that was the win that launched him into the stratosphere.

Now he’s 42, and his star is fading. And so is the Brickyard’s, as we come up on the 20th running.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it started to go from a happening to just another stop on the hamster wheel that is the Sprint Cup season, but 2008 probably works as well as anything. The economy had crashed by then, and it crashed hardest for the very working class that had long been NASCAR’s money constituency.

Suddenly you could find tickets, and then Goodyear brought a gooey tire that tended to shred like parmesan cheese, and disaster ensued.

Jimmie Johnson wound up winning that year, but it was no kind of race.

The tire issues forced NASCAR to bring out mandatory yellows every 10 laps or so, turning the Brickyard 400 into the Brickyard 25 Plus 25 Plus 25. And so on and so forth.

Fast forward five years, and the days of 300,000 are long gone. Now they struggle to put 150,000 in the cavernous old place for the Brickyard, and the blare echoes off vast swatches of empty seats, and it’s gotten so bad that last year, the Speedway brought the Nationwide race over from Lucas Oil Raceway Park and invited the Grand Am Rolex Sports Car series to run on the road course. The clear message: The Brickyard alone could no longer carry a whole weekend.

And that’s a shame. Because NASCAR’s had its moments here, even though the layout of the place – long straightaways, narrow corners – tends to turn racing here into the Tournament of Roses parade, minus the It’s A Small World After All float.

There was Gordon winning the very first one, a bit of serendipity too perfect to be believed. There was Earnhardt winning in the twilight hour the next year, outrunning sunset after the remnants of Hurricane Erin delayed the start until nearly 4:30 p.m. And there was Tony Stewart, who burned to win at Indy the way any native Hoosier would, finally winning in 2004 and then talking on and on in the postrace, an outpouring of emotion that gave the lie to his hard-ass image.

Because, yeah, it meant something, winning on the most hallowed ground in motorsport. It still does now, of course, but it’s not the same, not the same as it was for Stewart in 2004 or little Mitch and everyone else back when the whole thing was new.

“It’s our biggest race of the year, and it’s one everybody wants to win,” Ken Schrader said in ’95, on NASCAR’s second go-around at Indy. “Nobody knew what the Daytona 500 was going to be in 1959 when they started it, and they sure didn’t know what Indianapolis was going to be when they started it. But they knew what (the Brickyard) was going to be like last year.”

Which was magic, of course. Sheer magic.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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