When NASCAR and INDYCAR announced a mutual date at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) next year, it cemented the knowledge that NASCAR, in particular, is changing how it approaches its standing at the pinnacle of American motorsports.
The NASCAR Cup Series has been the most popular of all US-based racing series for decades, helped by the heroic driving of, in particular its three seven-time champions: Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson. In different eras, these three racers stood above their peers, primarily racing on paved oval circuits. And rarely sharing space with any other series as the Cup series grew in popularity.
That changes in 2021 and, by far one of the bigger changes in Cup Series scheduling are the moving of the legendary Brickyard 400 from IMS’ historic 2.5-mile oval to the 2.439-mile infield/oval road course where Formula 1, MotoGP, INDYCAR and the NASCAR Xfinity Series have all performed. NASCAR’s Cup Series will, as the Xfinity Series did this July 4th, share the race weekend with the NTT INDYCAR Series.
This announcement was part of NASCAR’s 2021 scheduling updates, which removes both Kentucky and Chicagoland’s speedways from the touring schedule, includes six road racing venues (including IMS and the debut of Circuit of the Americas) and even places a clay covering on Bristol Motor Speedway’s bowl of an oval to see Cup cars racing on dirt for the first time in 50 years. Bristol’s dirt race is set for March 28th; the Circuit of the Americas contest marks the first road race of the year and occurs on May 23rd.
NASCAR will be different in 2021; no doubt of that.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway showed its excitement at the prospect of having The Brickyard Weekend filled with open- and closed-wheel competition August 13-14 of next year, following the sharing of the Brickyard’s two major circuits during the July 4th weekend this year, as both INDYCAR and NASCAR aimed to revive fortunes following the COVID-19 shutdown. The shift to the road course in 2021 marks the first time, after 27 consecutive years on the oval, that NASCAR’s top tier turns left and right in central Indiana.
Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Graham Rahal were on-hand to help IMS president J. Douglas Boles introduce this new race format for NASCAR’s 28th Cup Series race at the Brickyard, and its first in tandem with the track’s original occupant, INDYCAR.
For Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the decision to put Cup cars on the road courses made easier after the July 4th weekend that had both INDYCAR and Xfinity on the 14-corner circuit. “I do think it was an easier decision when we saw how well the Xfinity cars raced on the road course, and I think the Cup cars will race really well there,” Boles said. For those drivers that have always preferred the 2.5-mile oval, the good news is that they will “start and finish on those Yard of Bricks, and they’re racing across the same front stretch that we’ve raced here since 1909.”
Logano, who was on-site but didn’t race during July’s Xfinity race acknowledged that he, like most NASCAR Cup Series regulars was “glued to our TVs” watching the Xfinity race. He recognizes that tire wear will play a large part: “Our cars were slipping and sliding, which as a driver that’s a lot of fun. You want to see tire wear. You want to see the penalty of running too hard, that strategy [that] comes into it, especially on road courses, what are tires worth, and it’s challenging to get through the field.”
Winning this inaugural road race at IMS would be special for Logano. “If you can win the first Cup race on the road course that would mean a lot. Any win means a lot,” he said, “but doing that would be something that you’d remember forever.”
Rahal, who’s been runner-up twice on Indy’s road course since the speedway began running Indy cars in 2014, believes it’s “a tremendous thing for everybody to race together. It’s great for the Speedway; it’s great for NASCAR; it’s great for INDYCAR; it’s great for the fans.” Rahal recognizes that many in the Cup garage are good road racers, citing Jimmie Johnson’s desire to work with competitor Chip Ganassi Racing once his Cup Series ends at the close of this season. But others have raced successfully at Daytona International Speedway in the IMSA-sanctioned Rolex 24 at Daytona, so the adjustment won’t be too difficult for many.
“These sports,” Rahal said, “can help lift motorsports together, and hopefully that can happen. A weekend like this is a great opportunity to do so.” Logano piped in: “A racer is a racer, as Graham said. We all want to be in the car as much as possible. We kind of want to know [what] each other’s
car feels like. it’s funny, “Logano mused. “When I talk to the iNDYCAR guys at Team Penske, they all want to know what a Cup car drives like. And all of us Cup guys are like, I want to know what all that grip feels like and how hard they can drive into the corner.”
Boles noted the fans who were unable to watch in-person for all IMS races held thus far (some fans will be allowed during this weekend’s INDYCAR Harvest GP doubleheader) will be able to witness two very different disciplines on the same track. This event might lead to cross-pollination for fans as well as drivers. And some of the biggest fans on site for these two August races could easily be the drivers, who will get to see how the other series works on the same circuit. “The biggest win is the fans,” Rahal said. “People that want to come and see both and have really dreamt about that opportunity are going to have it. It should be a great weekend for everybody involved.”