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Posted on Fri. Jul. 27, 2012 - 12:01 am EDT

Brickyard banking on big weekend

With NASCAR interest lagging, 3 circuits to race at Speedway

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FORT WAYNE — These days the trophy sits between his bedroom and the kitchen, because that way he gets to walk past it a dozen times a day. That way he gets to remember, every day, that steaming July afternoon when the checkered flag dipped over the nose of his Chevy, and his life changed forever.

The Brickyard 400?

Don’t tell Paul Menard it doesn’t shine like it used to.

At the slightest urging, or none at all, the son of longtime IndyCar owner John Menard will talk about coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for tire testing, and what a fine thing that was. You could really see the cars, dipping in and out of the corners. You could all but touch them.

“I thought the coolest thing was being that much closer to the cars,” he reminisced this week.

You’ll get much the same thing from two-time Brickyard winner Tony Stewart, who used to come over from Columbus to check out the scene in May. Ditto from four-time winner Jeff Gordon, who used to hang on the fences as a kid hoping to catch a glimpse of his hero, Rick Mears.

Little wonder they all welcome what IMS is calling the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard, three races designed to boost interest in the event that’s been sagging badly since the economy turned sour and Tiregate in 2008 turned the fans even more sour.

“From Day 1, it never felt like it was the best fan-spectator race track,” Gordon said this month. “But, from a spectacle, and just hype and excitement and energy to be a part of, I think it’s a huge event. For the drivers, it still holds just as much prestige as it ever did.”

Stewart agrees. Which is why, much as he hated the idea initially, he’s come to embrace it.

“When I heard about it, my first thought was disappointment, because (Lucas Oil Raceway) was the truck race and the Nationwide race at the same time,” he said this week. “I mean, I was one of those guys that when I watched the first Cup test at Indy, I got pretty upset about it. I was, like, this is the home of the Indy 500 and that’s all that should be here.

“I think most of us in society don’t like change. But after awhile, I started wrapping my arms around it. And then Formula One came and Moto GT, and it was really neat to see so many different disciplines coming here to race.”

And now, three in one weekend: The Rolex Grand-Am series running two races on the road course this afternoon, the NASCAR Nationwide series running a 100-lap event Saturday afternoon, and the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard on Sunday.

“It’s a big deal,” Stewart says. “The more people that are in the stands, the more we enjoy it as drivers.”

People in the stands, of course, are what’s back of all this.

Since Tiregate – when Goodyear brought too hard a compound, turning the race into a series of 10-lap sprints because the tires shredded every 10 laps or so – Brickyard attendance has markedly dwindled, dipping from 250,000 or so to almost half that number the past two years.

And so last year, Speedway officials rolled the dice, announcing that the Brickyard weekend would encompass not one, not two, but three major events in 2012.

Fingers are duly crossed.

“You know, I remember when I was racing go-karts, going to race on the same weekend as the Indianapolis 500,” said Scott Pruett, who’s wheeled IndyCars and NASCAR rides at Indy, and this weekend returned to drive a Rolex car.

“And we all saw where everybody was typically huddled around somebody’s radio car, and the whole pit area would be listening to the race.

“So to go back and race now, just for me, it’s fun and it’s exciting and looks to be an incredible show.”

They can only hope.

bensmith@jg.net


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