The short track sits right next to a cornfield, a combination of Indiana institutions if there ever was one, and in the summertime the tall green stalks reach high above the backstretch wall. If anyone ever had the desire to remake the film Field of Dreams from a NASCAR perspective, the facility now known as Lucas Oil Raceway would provide the perfect setting. You can almost picture it, leaves rustling as the sport's late greats push their way out of that sea of green and toward the race track, eager to get behind the wheel one more time.
Mark Aumann looks back at the special bond the Nationwide and Truck series had with the .686-mile short track in Clermont, Ind.
This week, though, will be less about welcoming old friends to Lucas Oil Raceway than saying goodbye to them. The unfortunate byproduct of the Nationwide Series' move to Indianapolis Motor Speedway's "super weekend" beginning next season will be its departure from a short track it's competed on since 1982, typically as part of a Brickyard tripleheader weekend that also involves the U.S. Auto Club's silver crown cars and the Camping World Truck Series. A standalone Truck race isn't practical right now, according to the track, so after Saturday, NASCAR's national divisions will bid this facility goodbye -- at least for the time being.
For fans who love Lucas Oil Raceway -- and there are plenty who do -- it's a sad turn of events. No, it doesn't feature the grandeur and aura of the big speedway, and for Sprint Cup drivers also running Nationwide or Truck events, the logistical hassles of getting back and forth between the facilities can be a bit of a pain (to the point that some no longer do it). But it's always nice to have this dash of down-home, short-track racing in a weekend that's so much about the big track, the big event, and the big golden brick trophy. At .686 miles, Lucas Oil Raceway offers a fender-to-fender reminder of what racing in NASCAR, and racing in Indiana, are supposed to be all about.
Even in a city where the Brickyard casts a long shadow, the raceway -- known to so many still as "IRP," given that it was called Indianapolis Raceway Park for so many years -- has an impressive history all to its own. It seems kind of appropriate that the first race there, a sprint car event in 1961, was won by A.J. Foyt. Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Parnelli Jones, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart -- they all won at IRP, which for hopeful open-wheelers became a stepping stone to the big track over on Georgetown Road. Later, it was a key link in the pipeline that sent so many USAC drivers to NASCAR. Run well in the silver crown race when the Cup boys were in town, and you were bound to get noticed by car owners looking for the next big thing.
Nationwide teams have been coming to the raceway since the first year there was a Nationwide (or then, Busch) Series. Morgan Shepherd won that inaugural event in 1982, and in more recent years Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. reached Victory Lane. The Trucks were added in 1995, also the first year of that circuit, and the winner was almost always a top driver in the thick of the championship hunt. The best racing of Brickyard weekend, some would contend, was over at the short track in Clermont. On Friday and Saturday nights, the fireworks shooting above the raceway could be heard (and on occasion, seen) on the western fringes of Indianapolis.
This weekend, they will echo a melancholy salute. Moving the Nationwide race to Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the linchpin of a plan that will add three support races to the Brickyard 400 in hopes of re-energizing that event. While the raceway has strong support, the crowd maxes out at about 30,000, and that's with temporary grandstands brought in to augment the facility's permanent seats. It can be tough to compete with the potential and promise of Indianapolis. Harvick, who owns cars on the Nationwide tour, said the raceway has some other limitations as well.
"I think when you look at the opportunity to go to the Brickyard with the Nationwide Series, that is an opportunity that probably hasn't been there like it's going to be," he said. "It hasn't been there in the past like it is going to be from an owner's standpoint. You don't have to put somebody else in your car if you aren't racing for a driver's championship. You would love to see it get worked out to have the Truck Series stay there, or have the ARCA series come there. When you have the opportunity to go to the Brickyard ... we can put our normal drivers in there and you can sell the sponsorship. That [race at Lucas Oil] has always been a tough race to sell."
No question this was all very difficult to digest for the raceway, an arrangement made to boost both the Brickyard 400 and the Nationwide Series that appears to leave the short track the odd player out. Clearly, the prospect of a standalone Nationwide event in 2012 would undercut what NASCAR is trying to build at Indianapolis. But the working relationship between NASCAR and the National Hot Rod Association, which owns Lucas Oil Raceway -- there's a drag strip on the property that hosts the NHRA's biggest annual event -- remains positive, and the track isn't closing the door on the possibility of some sort of NASCAR national-series presence there in 2013 or beyond.
"It was a tough decision, because the raceway park has been such an important part of the Nationwide program for so many years," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "Hopefully, we'd like to try to figure out a way to be in their future, and their in ours. But this [Brickyard 400] weekend just presented itself with too much of an opportunity to make a very significant event in the middle of our season."
Right now, though, all that remains certain is that NASCAR's national tours will compete at Lucas Oil Raceway this weekend, and that last celebration on Saturday night will be a bittersweet moment for a track and a series that have meant so much to one another. One consolation is that the raceway is experiencing a strong upturn in ticket sales, particularly for the Nationwide event, not altogether surprising given the occasion. But eventually those fireworks will offer one final tribute and it will be time to bid goodbye to this little track by a cornfield -- but hopefully, just for a little while.
"I understand NASCAR's position that the opportunity to run these cars at Indianapolis is one you can't pass up," said Edwards, who is running both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide tours. "It is a huge opportunity, and will be great for the young drivers and even the veterans to have two shots at a trophy at Indianapolis in one weekend. It will make the raceway park race more special this year, knowing we won't be there next year. I really love racing at raceway park, and I have a feeling it won't be my last race there, even if it is a silver crown race or something in the future."