INDIANAPOLIS - From 2009 to 2011, Indianapolis Motor Speedway celebrated its centennial era, marking the 100th anniversaries of the track and its iconic event, the Indianapolis 500.
This week, it's celebrating 200 - the record number of cars that will race at Indy as the venerable track employs its 2.5-mile oval and 13-turn road course for the first time on consecutive days.
The four races in three days are being billed as the "Super Weekend at the Brickyard," and there's hope it might salvage the luster that has dwindled along with crowds for stock car racing's annual stop at the world's most famous racetrack.
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"When NASCAR came here (in 1994), it raised the profile of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and introduced it to a whole other (category of) fans," said Chip Ganassi, a former Indy 500-winning owner who is fielding Sprint Cup and Grand-Am entries this weekend. "It just raises the level of the entire sport, having other motor sports be able to participate here.
"It's still the greatest race course in the world in any configuration. It's a magical center of motor sports."
That magic has been missing the past few seasons in the grandstands, though.
Since drawing an estimated 280,000 fans in 2005 for Tony Stewart's first Indy win, crowds have dipped more than 50%. The most precipitous drop came when 60,000 fewer fans attended in 2009 after tire problems turned the 2008 Brickyard 400 into a caution-plagued debacle.
Shortly after last year's race drew an estimated 138,000, the speedway said it would add the Nationwide, Grand-Am and Continental Tire series for 2012.
Stewart, who hails from nearby Columbus, Ind., and has attended the Indy 500 since childhood, said the track will get "a shot in the arm" with the series' debuts.
"I know it's a big deal," he said. "The more people that are in the stands, the more we enjoy it as drivers. The year that we had the tire troubles really made a huge impact on the race. So it's gaining that momentum back."
Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Jeff Belskus said he expected Sunday's Cup crowd will be on par with last year's, which would end four consecutive years of declining attendance. Ticket sales for the sports cars (Grand Am is expecting a crowd that could surpass its premier Rolex 24 at Daytona) and Nationwide events have been strong enough to begin discussions with NASCAR about returning.
"It's still early, but it's off to a great start," Belskus said. "Our expectation is this will be an annual event. Like every racetrack, we're trying to provide value and content, and this is one way to do it."
Given that the economic downturn has affected the gate at many tracks, a six-figure crowd still is impressive on NASCAR's premier circuit. But because Indy's mammoth grandstands hold 257,000 (Bristol Motor Speedway is the No. 2 track for capacity with 160,000), the bare stretches of aluminum are magnified.
"We can lose 50,000 people under our main straightaway and paddock grandstands," Belskus said. "It's a continual battle we fight. There will be a lot of people here this weekend. It's just the size of the facility is so enormous."
The size also can create problems for sight lines at Indy, which doesn't offer views afforded at 1.5-mile ovals prevalent in NASCAR.
"From Day One, it never felt like it was the best fan spectator racetrack if you look at NASCAR," said Jeff Gordon, whose four victories include the inaugural event. "If it's a mile-and-a-half, you can see three-quarters of the track from the grandstands, where at Indy you see them flash by down the front straightaway. If you are in the corner, you see them coming into the corner and going off the corner.
"But (as) a spectacle, and just hype and excitement and energy to be a part of, it's a huge event. For the drivers, it still holds just as much prestige as it ever did."
Gordon said that makes the attendance decline "very disappointing" but added it's not a problem unique to Indy.
"Many different factors weigh in as to why the fans fill the stands at some tracks and don't at others," he said. "I would think Indianapolis would be one of those tracks that a lot of people typically travel to. (With) that many grandstands, it's not just everybody in Indiana filling it up. It's other people traveling from further out, and it's expensive to travel these days with gas prices and hotel prices and everything else."
Said NASCAR President Mike Helton: "It might not be on par with 18 years ago when we first came here, but it certainly has a lot of energy to it. We're excited about the format and thankful for Indy for putting it together. It'll be fun to see how the whole weekend unfolds."