Everyone played nice after the checkers finally fell on the Boreyard 400. Drivers commended NASCAR for erring on the side of safety, NASCAR commended drivers for using their heads, and Goodyear officials apologized and thanked everyone for their patience. But one group was not shy about calling Sunday's race exactly as they saw it.
"That was a damn embarrassment."
That's the first email that appeared via my ESPN.com address, from a guy named Jimmy in Peoria, Illinois. His words landed in my inbox at 5:48 pm. The race ended at 5:46.
"I've been watching NASCAR since I was ten years old," Jimmy continued. "I'm 60 now. If they'd run that race down here at the half-mile Peoria Speedway I would have stormed the box office and asked for my twelve bucks back. Then again, most of those guys don't run Goodyears, so that would never happen."
Unfortunately, anyone who attended Sunday's race paid a hell of a lot more than a dozen dollars. Any event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway draws fans from all over the country. They faithfully shell out four-plus bucks per gallon for gas, escalated hotel room rates, triple digits for a ticket, and inflated concession prices.
Like Linda H. of Council Bluffs, Iowa, who sent the tenth email of the night via Blackberry: "My husband and I are sitting in traffic after sitting through that mess. We spent about $1500 and took three days of vacation to be here this weekend. Next year we'll be going to the beach."
I called down to my favorite smoky NASCAR bar, the Finish Line Grill in Little River, SC to gauge the reaction there and the guy that answered the phone told me that people stood up and started booing the TV by the race's halfway point and at least two guys fell asleep. One woman declared that she was going to take the Goodyear tires off of her truck and walk home. "That's okay," he added. "She didn't need to be driving home anyway."
At 7:00 pm PRN Radio's "Sunday Drive" hit the air, and the first caller to the last blasted everyone from the track (unfair) to NASCAR (pretty fair) to Goodyear (BINGO!), and they weren't nearly as kind as Linda H.
At 9:00, Speed Channel's "Wind Tunnel", hosted by our former ESPN colleague Dave Despain, began with a caller named Jeff from Indiana who declared, "Goodyear didn't do their homework and embarrassed the greatest racetrack in the world with a worthless race."
Other callers invoked the memories of the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix, also held at Indy, when all but six cars pulled off the track before the green flag over concerns that Michelin's race tire wouldn't hold up.
"That was the worst race of all time," one radio caller declared. "Until today."
At 9:05, my main man Terry Blount posted his excellent column on ESPN.com. The very first post on the ESPN Conversation was from a user named Noodles Cold who referred to the event as "a joke of a race", followed by Zreet who stated "Hey ESPN … be sure to remind NASCAR about this fiasco when they set the rates for your coverage next year."
The post that followed was the kind of fan declaration that stings all the way down to Daytona, from a guy named Hoosiers1: "The Indianapolis 500 didn't have any tire problems with Firestone. So, if you want to see an exciting race that is the race to go to. NASCAR and Goodyear definitely lost a lot of fans today … "
And that's what should scare NASCAR most about the debacle we just witnessed. Americans are already on edge. What they want on Sunday afternoon is an escape from the tension, a chance to drink a cold beverage and be entertained. Allowing a corporate partner—in this case, Goodyear—to hand them a disaster like this is as good as handing them a gold-embossed card that reads, "Don't worry, there's other racing you can watch … and football will be here soon."
NASCAR's Director of Competition Robin Pemberton is a former crew chief and a man who can certainly empathize with the pain of the men up and down pit road after Sunday's obstacle course. After spending all day running up and down pit road himself, he looked exhausted, irritated, embarrassed, and had the look of a man who had already prepared his speech for Goodyear.
"If you're a good fan, it's OK to be disappointed. Not every race is a barn burner, but I've not seen this in a long time. We try to put on the best race we can and we do a damn good job most of the time … It's safe to say we won't do the same thing next year. We have to make sure this doesn't happen again."
Yes they do, even if it means finding another tire supplier.