My brain on NASCAR: Milk does a driver good at Indy

It may not be your beverage of choice this time of year, but as TV commercials and magazine ads regularly remind us, milk is good for you. In the NASCAR realm, this nutritional mantra is particularly popular in Indiana.

Nearly a quarter-century ago, the title sponsor of NASCAR’s premier racing series established a million-dollar bonus program based on winning races at three out of four of what, at that time, were considered the most prestigious venues in the sport. These included Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, and Darlington Raceway.

Bill Elliott succeeded in banking that first “Winston Million” in 1985, and the rest, of course, is history.

It’s hard to believe so many years have passed since Elliott celebrated that achievement in Victory Lane at Darlington, while phony dollar bills bearing his likeness fell from the sky like rain. But time goes by. Winston is gone now, replaced by Sprint in the primary sponsor spot. Elliott is threatening to retire but never quite manages to follow through with it. The very fabric of racing has changed, as new drivers have stepped in to fill the seats of those who have gone before, and new racetracks have sprung up right along with them, in metropolitan areas like Chicago and Kansas City.

Another upstart has risen rapidly through the ranks to assume a seat as one of racing’s most coveted prizes. Ironically, this comparatively new kid on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series block is actually one of the oldest and most highly respected venues in racing, period. It is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or, as it is affectionately known, The Brickyard.

History doesn’t whisper to you in this place. It shouts. This track, which hosted its inaugural race in 1909, is so old it was the first facility ever to legally incorporate the word “speedway”. Its first official event was a balloon race, and it has been the home of the Indianapolis 500 since 1911.

The legendary masters of this domain, guys like Mario Andretti, Al Unser and A.J. Foyt, didn’t just race. They defined racing, in the manner of Johnny Unitas in football or boxing’s Muhammad Ali. Their stadium, all 2 1/2 miles and 250,000 grandstand seats of it, carries with it a sense of entitlement.

Eventually, some new names passed through the gates of the fabled speedway. These names were a little less exotic: Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt. Tony Stewart. To legions of stock car racing fans, however, they were the guys who defined motorsports. They ruled racing.

But even though Andretti and Foyt had traveled down to Daytona and managed to win there, for the most part that street ran one way. That all changed in 1994, with the inaugural running of the Brickyard 400.

Racers get it. Both are outstanding achievements, but one is just a little bit harder to accomplish.

NASCAR drivers also know a challenge when they see it. They understand historical significance. They realize the difference between scaling Mount Mitchell and Mount Everest, and they respect that difference. Imagine the reaction of Major League pitchers if Mickey Mantle showed up at spring training. They would be compelled to line up and test their skills against one of the greatest hitters who ever played the game. Who would be the first to strike this legend out?

Indianapolis Motor Speedway didn’t start at the bottom of the NASCAR ladder of prestige and work its way up rung by rung. It aimed high and squarely hit its mark.

It isn’t the biggest deal in stock car racing, but it comes close. Every NASCAR superstar will tell you that the most coveted trophy in the sport is the one presented to the winner of the Daytona 500, but most of them will say that number two on the list is the Brickyard 400.

In NASCAR terms, Indianapolis was a perfectly blank slate, waiting for that first name to be recorded. Many would ultimately win at the Brickyard, but only one could be first — Jeff Gordon, in 1994.

The word “icon” is defined as one thing that is representative of something else of greater significance. Warren Buffett is a financial icon, for example, but that doesn’t make Donald Trump any less rich. Bill Gates may be considered a software and electronics icon. But millions of iPad and iPhone users probably think the late Steve Jobs had more than a little something going for him.

So while Daytona is generally acknowledged as the Mount Olympus of motorsports, a most respectable, and respectful, amount of altitude has been reserved for Indianapolis.

Aviator Charles Lindbergh once posed the question: “How long can men thrive between walls of brick, on asphalt pavements, breathing the fumes of oil, working … with hardly a thought of wind, and sky, and fields of grain, seeing only machine-made beauty…? Huh. I guess Lindbergh wasn’t a race fan. If he had been, he would have known the answer was obvious.

How long can men thrive under these conditions? In the case of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, around 100 years. So far. Once an icon, always as icon.

Victory tastes sweetest, but to the winner of the Brickyard 400 on July 29, that slug of milk on a hot summer day will be an awfully close second.

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