At one time, the thought of staging an IndyCar Series race just 40 miles from the NASCAR icon known as Talladega Superspeedway would have seemed like a ludicrous idea.
After all, Talladega is the site of the Redneck High Holy Days where denizens of derelicts from all over the United States descend on the area for a weekend of drunken debauchery.
That was then; this is now and the past weekend at Barber Motorsports Park was spectacular for the IZOD IndyCar Series, even if the on-track racing was not.
The estimated three-day total attendance for the inaugural event exceeded the goals of race promoter Zoom Motorsports, which estimated more than 86,000 fans attended the three days of racing at Barber Motorsports Park, including an estimated record crowd of 53,555 fans Sunday.
“The attendance more than doubled the largest event ever held here previously at Barber Motorsports Park,” said Gene Hallman, president and CEO of Zoom Motorsports. “The Indy Racing League product is a fast-growing and very demographically-dialed product for consumers in this market. Being the only race on the calendar in the Deep South, we were able to draw a lot of IndyCar fans into Birmingham, which helped us from a tourism perspective. The Indy Racing League is a tremendous partner and helped us immensely in this first year.”
The beautiful setting made this look even more like a golf tournament than an auto racing event. As thousands of fans lined the lush hillsides, the trees in the background could have been the back drop for “Amen Corner” at Augusta National — site of The Masters golf tournament.
This was a European-style road course and the level of enthusiasm by the local community was more than IndyCar could have hoped for.
In two weeks, NASCAR fans will return to Talladega for their twice-a-year-pilgrimage to the grim spectacle where drivers cheat death in a ridiculous form of racing known as “restrictor-plate” where the hazards are increased exponentially with the speeding cars running in one tight pack.
By contrast, Sunday’s race was more “follow-the-leader” because of the tight nature of the race course.
But the setting was much more pastoral as they watched Marco Andretti run away from the field only to give up the lead eight laps from the finish in order to have enough fuel to make it to the checkered flag.
That allowed Helio Castroneves to claim his 17th IndyCar Series victory and the 23rd of his career.
The fans came early and stayed late and that made this first-time event a big hit among the IndyCar drivers.
“As I said, then it would be spectacular,” said driver Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. “To be here today and see the crowd, if you see that crowd, it was bloody amazing. That was pretty cool.”
Franchitti’s teammate Scott Dixon was equally impressed by the support of the Alabama race fans.
“I think you could say from the get-go when we had the first open test here, we had over 10,000 people,” Dixon said. “We get normally two or three to a test. You know, obviously the open test we get a few more on weekends. But when we test privately, you can probably count two or three people. Just to see they had the enthusiasm to come out. Today, I went over to the back section to do a thing for Firestone and over in the fan part over there it was packed. It was fantastic to see.
“I think the whole liveliness, to be honest, in the pits before the race and everybody getting ready to go, you could hardly walk through there. You couldn’t drive your scooter through there. So there are not too many races that we go to that are like that at this point in time. It has been in the past, but it was a big day for Alabama and obviously for all of us. We loved to see it. It was fantastic.”