Nationwide To Indy In 2012: Short-Track Tradition Takes A Hit
Lucas Oil Raceway, which was known as Indianapolis Raceway Park when it opened in 1961, will play host to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this Friday and the Nationwide Series on Saturday – for the last time.
Next year, the Nationwide Series will move to nearby Indianapolis Motor Speedway as companion event to Sprint Cup’s Brickyard 400.
Regardless of the reasons for the change of venue, that it is going to happen is another step toward the demise of a NASCAR tradition – perhaps even an era - for the Nationwide Series.
The series, considered as a feeder circuit for the elite Sprint Cup tour (and often called the hackneyed “Triple A league of stock car racing”), has, by one name or another, been in existence almost as long as NASCAR.
And for so many years it competed primarily on short tracks. Its schedule consisted of many stand-alone events, seldom anything that could be considered a supporting show.
After this year, when the 0.686-mile IRP (we’ll stick with the name most familiar to fans), drops from the schedule, it will mean the Nationwide Series loses another half-mile facility which once formed the circuit’s backbone.
What is now the Nationwide Series began in 1950, when it was known as the NASCAR Sportsman division.
By 1968 it became the Late Model Sportsman tour and it really hit its stride during the 13 years it went by that name.
Drivers who competed on the LMS tour didn’t necessarily do so because they wanted to advance their careers. Rather, they found it a relatively inexpensive tour on which to compete. They could make a living – something they knew they couldn’t do in the costly world of what became known as Winston Cup competition.
These drivers raced among themselves for several years, built up rivalries and became familiar to fans, which, as fans will do, chose their heroes and villains.
Competitors like Butch Lindley, L.D. Ottinger, Sam Ard, Jack Ingram, Tommy Houston, Bosco Lowe and several others were LMS stalwarts who never strayed from the circuit.
In 1982, Anheuser-Busch was signed as a sponsor and two years later the tour became known as the Busch Grand National Series.
That name lasted 10 years before it was changed to Busch Series, Grand National Division and then, in 2004, simply the Busch Series.
All Nationwide Series records today are traced back to 1982, the year decreed as the beginning of the circuit’s “modern era.”
But things began to change. Younger drivers with ambitions – Dale Earnhardt, Geoff Bodine, Phil Parsons, Dale Jarrett and others, began to join the ranks.
In time others accompanied them. Soon the “newcomers” began to win all the championships. The number of series regulars dwindled.
Most likely because NASCAR wanted to give Busch, and its series, maximum exposure in front of thousands of fans at large venues, races were more often conducted as companion events at established superspeedways.
Even so, the short tracks remained the circuit’s foundation. When Anheuser-Busch first came on as a sponsor in ‘82, 23 of the 29 races run that year were on short tracks.
They included such relatively unheralded speedways as South Boston, Orange County, Hickory, Caraway and Asheville. Half-milers already part of the Winston Cup circuit were also in the mix, including Martinsville, Bristol and Nashville.
Not to mention IRP, which staged its first Busch Series race in 1982, won by Morgan Shepherd, who had been a regular for almost a decade.
As time passed and NASCAR’s top circuit began to add races at new tracks in large markets from coast to coast, the short tracks began to fall by the wayside for the Busch Series.
It just made good business sense for NASCAR to present its products in its largest markets with its largest crowds and the added maximum television exposure.
Even so, IRP remained. There had to be a reason why. Maybe it was because Nationwide Series events always drew good, enthusiastic crowds. I know that was especially the case after the first Brickyard 400 came to Indy in 1994.
Many members of the media stayed at what was then the Howard Johnson Motel on High School Road, not far from the 2.5-mile Indy track.
Early Saturday night a few left the motel for dinner. They were amazed to see bumper-to-bumper traffic on the road in front of them.
They were told folks were inching their way to IRP for the Busch Series race. It was a rare sight, indeed.
Where one might think nearly three decades of established tradition and fan appreciation might be good enough to keep the Nationwide Series at IRP, that’s not the case.
I understand that the track is, in many ways, sub-standard in terms of fan, competitor and media amenities. It could use a repaving, among many other things.
It’s representative of how many – not all – short tracks once were. Progress has been slight and the past has seemingly held ground. That’s no longer good enough for NASCAR.
And I also understand the move to Indy on the weekend of the Brickyard 400. It’s on to bigger and better things. It’s progress with the idea that if a Nationwide Series can draw 40,000 to IRP it might double for Indy.
It’s also a move to provide more hype for Indy’s racing weekend; more fodder for marketing, promotion and ticket sales, which, they tell us, have been slumping for the Brickyard 400. It’s designed to regain what has been lost.
That might be, but I suspect fans are going to see a much different style of Nationwide Series racing in 2012. There will be more speed, sure, but forget all about short-track beating, banging, rubbing and gouging.
I’d be willing to bet many fans are going to truly miss that.
For many years now NASCAR has attempted to keep a balance between expansion to bigger tracks in bigger venues and its short-track roots and traditions.
But in 2010, of 32 Nationwide Series races, only six were held on short tracks.
Kinda makes you think tradition is losing.
Next year there will be one less short track on the Nationwide Series schedule. Tradition takes another blow.