News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Sports

July 13, 2011

TRACKSIDE: Changes come up on Indiana racing scene

INDIANAPOLIS — With the highly anticipated USAC Indiana Sprint Week sprint card on tap at the Terre Haute Action Track tonight and the Tony Hulman/Don Smith Classic and a host of events leading up to the Brickyard 400 looming on the horizon, it would appear that it’s the best of times for Wabash Valley racing buffs.

After all, it doesn’t get much better than USAC sprint-car racing at the Action Track, and NASCAR has long been billed as the hottest ticket in racing.

Behind the scenes, however, the picture doesn’t appear quite as rosy as many would like us to believe. A pair of calls over the past couple days has rightfully drawn the ire of even the most open-minded race fan.

First there was the ill-timed dust debacle of the Sumar Classic at the Action Track then less than 72 hours later fans learned they would be losing a a pair of their most popular short track events in 2012.

The announcement that the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck series events would be leaving Lucas Oil Raceway after this year has ruffled the feathers of long-time supporters of the two events.

A number of fans are wondering out loud whether the decision makers of the sport are putting their own self interests ahead of those of the paying public.

The calls, whether that involving the Sumar Classic or the Brickyard, come at a time when ticket sales for the 400 are sagging and the fortunes of the Sumar are questionable.

The attempt to revive daytime racing at the Wabash Valley Fairgrounds, while legimate, couldn’t have been a bigger disappointment.

Now the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NASCAR are trying to boost sagging Brickyard 400 tickets sales by dangling sports cars and two stock cars races on the same weekend at Indianapolis in 2012 — this coming at the expense of two popular events at Lucas Oil Raceway.

From a competitive standpoint, the Brickyard 400 has struggled in its 17 years to meet the lofty expectations of a dwindling fan base.

Speedway and NASCAR officials offered little consolation to those feeling the disappointment of losing their popular short events at LOR, where the stocks and trucks have had a popular 30-year run.

The changes came with an announcement at Speedway’s yard of bricks from Speedway CEO Jeff Belskus and NASCAR president Mike Helton. Both spoke highly of the working relationship between the IMS and NASCAR.

They see “Super Weekend at the Brickyard” as a way to strengthen their ties and build for the future.

“I think it speaks to the commitment that NASCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway have with each other to better the future of motorsports, to create a world-class event,” Helton said.

“Everyone wants to grow and we’re no different. NASCAR has done a lot of things in the past to assure the future of the sport. Today is a milestone.”

“It’s important for our fans, it’s important for us. We know our fans like different forms of racing. We’re pleased to host it here,” Belskus said.

A few miles to the west, there was a more solemn feel to the day.

Those in charge at LOR were prepared for the bad news. It had been rumored for quite some time.

At Clermont, several members of the media was greeted by LOR senior communication director Scott Smith, who arranged an impromptu interview with track GM Wes Collier.

Collier did his best to hide his disappoinment.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know what the future holds. At the end of the day, it came down to a business decision between NASCAR and IMS. Clearly we’re disappointed,” voiced Collier.

“We’ve got one of the best short-track facilites in the country. We’re going to continue to put on great events out there. We’ve had a lot of different series contact us. We’ve got to reevaluate what we want to do and move on.”

A plus to the announcement was that road racing in the form of the Grand Am series would be added to the 2012 IMS racing calendar.

Valley road-racing fans, who now must travel at great lengths to view their favorite form of racing, will have a first-class event in their own back yard. It will be a welcomed addition to the racing scene.

ISW on tap — If results from the opening three rounds of this year’s USAC Indiana Sprint Weeks are any indication of what fans can expect to see at the Fairgrounds tonight, the twice-delayed season opener at the Action Track should be well worth the wait.

Three different winners have emerged thus far in ISW. Dave Darland, Robert Ballou and Hunter Schuerenberg have all made it to victory circle.

Series results haven’t been as encouraging for the Valley’s only full-time USAC entrant. West Terre Haute’s Blake Fitzpatrick has struggled in his first three races.

A first-lap crash in the semi-feature at Gas City resulted in a DNS in series opener. The following night at Kokomo, Blake won his heat and had to settle for a 16th-place showing in the main. At Lawrenceburg, it was an early departure in the feature.

The likable driver hopes to turn around what has been a slow start in 2011.

“With the exception of my win in the KISS race at Kokomo and then Braylon [younger brother] and I’s one-two finish at Kokomo, it’s not been the year we hoped for. It’s something as a race driver we all go through. We look forward to getting back on a roll. There wouldn’t be a better place or time than at Terre Haute,” said the defending Midwest Sprint Car Series champion.

Joe Buckles can be reached at jbuckles4@frontier.com.

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