Stocks are rising at the Brickyard

There is no more hallowed racing turf in the United States than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, writes Jon McClintock.

Stocks are rising at the Brickyard

That it sat for decades mainly unused after "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing", the Indy 500, had taken place each May failed to diminish the reputation of the historic 2.5-mile, box-shaped track on whose surface fame, fortune, death and immortality was achieved. If nothing else, IMS ranked all the more sacred in motorsports for its one-off, half-million fan turnout each year.

Little changed at this tradition-drenched track until seven-years ago, when NASCAR and the IMS's owners agreed that stock car racing was worthy of sharing the pristine but treacherous surface. Since that first "Brickyard 400" in 1994, everything about IMS has slipped into a fast-forward pace.

This sleepy Midwest venue is so steeped in tradition that it seems by design it took 22 years before the Indianapolis 500 saw a repeat victor. But going into this weekend's event, two NASCAR drivers already have repeat wins (Jeff Gordon in 1994 and '98 and Dale Jarrett in 1996 and'99). Now, on race eve with a half-dozen stock car races in the books, IMS is nearly ready to welcome the return of the United States Grand Prix to America.

The Brickyard - and only the Brickyard - holds enough motorsports cachet that it can serenely welcome the advent of the appearance of two more sanctioning body's landmark events in less than a decade.

NASCAR likes to talk about driver paydays and it's conceivable - even likely - that the winner of the 2000 event will earn over US$1 million. Jeff Gordon's US$3.1 million has already moved him to 7th on the all-time Indy earnings list. The worst finisher here will receive more than US$80,000, higher than most winner's earnings at almost every NASCAR event in 1990. As part of its US$6-million payday, the Brickyard offers money for each of 160 laps led and NASCAR has a US$190,000 Winston Leader Bonus if the winning driver is also the championship points leader.

Current points leader Bobby Labonte can boast top-three finishes in each of the last three years. But he has no lock on the Leader Bonus claim, as Jarrett trails him by only 53 points and '95 race winner Dale Earnhardt is just another 54 points back.

Indianapolis is the only NASCAR track that plans a rain date. Just like the May 500-classic, IMS schedules the 400 on a Saturday to accommodate crowds of fans from around the world - estimated at the high end of 400,000 people. The flexibility available in having a second weekend day spares traffic jams and travel woes that defy description.

The 20th race of the season enjoys a prestige that parallels the first - the Daytona 500. It scores no more points and, putting aside its immense payout for competitors, is no different at season's end than a hot night at the 0.533 mile Bristol Speedway. It is, however, an opportunity to drive at speed at the same motorsports palace once reserved for the elite (and, at one time, more expensive) hot cars piloted by such names as Penske, Andretti, Unser and Foyt.

Just ask an Andretti, who, along with Tony Stewart, feels a special kinship to the track.

"My whole life has been the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," said Mario's nephew John. "I think I take it more personally then any other driver in the garage. You take a look around at guys like Stewart and Robby Gordon - their goal was probably the Indy 500, but the Brickyard was there too by the time they came up the ranks. To me, my whole family has focused on it since I was a little kid."

Stewart, a two-time IRL champion, agrees there's a distinction between the Indy 500 and this race. Still...

"I want to win every race I run anyway," he said, "but if I had to say I'd trade Loudon (NHIS, where he won July 9th) for this, I'd do it in a heartbeat! I definitely want to win this race, being a hometown hero."

Roger Penske will be here, as well as A.J. Foyt - but as team owners for drivers Rusty Wallace and Rick Mast.

The legends will watch the newest generation of drivers, like Dale Earnhardt Jr, who see Saturday in a refreshingly larger - and ironic - perspective.

"Our cars are so big," said young Earnhardt, "that compared to the Formula 1 cars we must look like cavemen with 'Flintstone cars'. The track has such a great tradition, but I don't think this race has been around long enough to have the same impact or sense of history for me personally that Daytona does."

Perhaps he shouldn't so quickly dismiss his "caveman" ride. Chassis and engine specialists have gone to school on this dinosaur track. Rick Mast's 1994 pole speed of 172.414 mph wouldn't have earned him a spot in last year's race. Just one second separated the 43-car starting field. The slowest qualifier posted a 51:01 second lap. After testing last month, we may see the 50-second barrier fall to a full-bodied stock car. That would hoist the average speed above the 180 mph mark.

A fitting challenge laid down before Formula 1 mania reignites in the heartland of America.

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