Saturday, March 7, 2009

NASCAR Fans: Let's Pitch In To Save Both Races At Atlanta

By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange

HAMPTON, Ga. -- I typically don't do this, but I have a special request for all you NASCAR fans:

If you have a TV, tune in to Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500.

Or, if you live in the Atlanta area and have, say, a few hours of free time and an extra $50 or so for a ticket, head on out to Atlanta Motor Speedway to watch the race in person.

No, I'm not being paid a commission by track owner Bruton Smith or track president Ed Clark for every extra body that passes through the turnstile.

What I'm trying to do is actually two-fold:

* Preserve AMS's place in history as one of the premier racing facilities and give the attendees or viewers the experience of seeing a good, legitimate, competitive race on Sunday.

* Keep the spring race in place at AMS. For if the crowd is only 40,000 or 50,000 instead of a sellout of 90,000-plus, I'm afraid Sunday will be the last spring race to ever be held at AMS.

It's no secret that AMS, the fastest track on the Sprint Cup circuit, has had a huge problem with attendance -- or lack thereof -- in recent years.

And I'm afraid that if we see more empty seats than full ones on Sunday, the annual spring event will go the same way that the Labor Day tradition at Darlington went after nearly 50 years.

Poof, gone, the race date given to another track.

It's no secret that Clark wants to keep both Cup dates. It's also no secret that his boss, Smith, wants a Cup date for his newest toy, Kentucky Speedway, or a second annual race date for one of his other prized possessions, Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

That LVMS was packed to the gills for last week's race doesn't help AMS's chances of keeping its spring event. And while we have a great forecast for Sunday, let's face it: Early March weather in Atlanta is unpredictable at best.

But with temperatures expected to be in the low to mid-70s with lots of sunshine and few clouds likely, there's no reason why true NASCAR fans can't venture over to AMS if they're in the area, or at the very least, watch the race on TV.

I've received tens of thousands of e-mails from fans over the years, and one of the most impressive things that stands out from most of them is their passion and love of the sport. They reminisce with fondness about defunct former Cup tracks like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham. They lament how Darlington lost one date and almost lost its second date before a $20 million renovation once again made The Lady In Black one of the brightest shining lights in the Deep South.

And, oh, how they love Atlanta. How Bill Elliott literally is God there, even to this day, or how the late Dale Earnhardt was so revered.

Let's not forget what probably was the most memorable race in NASCAR history: the season finale in 1992, right here at Atlanta. It was where Alan Kulwicki, perhaps one of the greatest underdogs in NASCAR history, beat Elliott by 10 points to win the then-Winston Cup title. Unfortunately, Kulwicki wouldn't be able to enjoy his championship very long, tragically dying in a plane crash less than six months later outside Bristol, Tenn.

That 1992 race also stands out as the last race ever for The King, Richard Petty, as well as the first race for the skinny kid from Indiana, Jeff Gordon, who would go on to be known as Wonder Boy -- and who would also go on to win 81 races (and counting) and four Winston Cup championships.

Atlanta has seen the best of the best race like no other place. Today, we hear so much grumbling about cookie-cutter tracks and how racing is boring and uncompetitive. But how often does someone make those kinds of disparaging remarks about AMS? Rarely, because this place was built for good racing and is known for good racing. It would be a travesty to see all that good racing and so many good memories go by the wayside -- or be shuffled off to Kentucky or Sin City.

It's a shame that the city of Atlanta hasn't gotten behind saving AMS. Sure, the track sits in Hampton, Ga., about 20 miles from the Atlanta city limits, but this is as much a tradition and attraction as Olympic Park in downtown is.

Atlanta Motor Speedway IS Atlanta. It MEANS Atlanta and it means great racing. It has a spirit that is unflagging. I mean, remember what happened a couple of years ago? A tornado came through Hampton and did millions of dollars of damage to the race track, all but wiping out its condo building of suites. Less than three months later, all the damage was repaired and the place never looked better.

It's that kind of can-do spirit that has marked AMS over the years. It might take a punch and fall, but it always picks itself up.

But this time, it's in the fight of its life. Sure, even if the spring race is taken away, there'll still be the fall race, right? Well, not exactly.

NASCAR shifted the race, traditionally in late October, to Labor Day weekend this year to see if it can help fix that race date's attendance issues as well. We'll have a race under the lights on a holiday weekend. If that doesn't draw fans back, nothing will.

And if the spring race does leave here and the fall-turned-late summer race continues to have problems putting fans in the stands, AMS runs a true risk of going the same route as North Wilkesboro and Rockingham -- right off the NASCAR schedule for good.

No more two races, not even one race. No races. Think about it: How could that happen to what once was one of the crown-jewel facilities of stock car racing?

That's why I encourage all of you on Sunday to show NASCAR that AMS needs to keep both races, but especially the spring event (yes, I know, it's actually still late winter).

On Saturday night, we turn our clocks ahead one hour to take advantage of Daylight Savings Time. The last thing I want to see is that, come Sunday, we turn our attention off of Atlanta Motor Speedway for the last time.

So don't come running to me five years from now, lamenting about what used to be at AMS. For if we fail to support Sunday's race and the late summer race, NASCAR might have no choice but to take one or even both dates away and give them to places that are starved for more racing.

If that happens, we'll have no one else to blame but ourselves -- and don't say I didn't tell you so.


  1. I'd hate to see the races leave. NASCAR is abandoning it's roots and Atlanta may be another casualty.

  2. Its not Nascar "abandoning its roots". Its the fans voting with their dollars where they want to see races.

  3. You are exactly correct when you say "Atlanta Motor Speedway IS Atlanta." It represents Atlanta sports perfectly, which is NOT good - a lack of attendance. The Braves, Falcons, Thrashers and Hawks just don't draw fans. Neither does AMS. I would hate for the track to lose a date, but at the same time, I don't feel sorry for Bruton Smith. And if Darlington can lose Labor Day and be down to one race, any track except for Daytona can.

  4. I would hate to see Atlanta lose a race it a great track and I have no idea why it does not bring in 90,000 plus per event. Bruton could move the spring date to Kentucky but I can't figure how Vegas comes into play they already have a spring race and they can't race there 2 weeks in a row. But maybe if they bring in some Hollywood types and have a concert before the race it might help. That was sarcasm of a previous article you wrote. But keep up the Atlanta cheerleading you are on the right track with this one.

  5. So far, so boring ...... 9 cars on the lead lap at 139 laps. Only 186 to go ... Can't wait for Bristol

  6. one reason for the small number of cars on the lead lap was the idiocy of the pit crew member from the 47 team running out to try and catch a tire that was almost out ot the track! Duh! Well, I tried to do my part, I tuned in via TV all day and I'm planning to go to the Sept. race although I'd like it better if they weren't trying to masquerade it as the Southern 500. That race title belongs to only one track and that would be Darlington. Move the labor day race back to Darlington and run it at night, if they need to -- they'd get the crowd then. Mother's Day has become a must see race! And the racing at Darlington is awesome.

  7. I planned to carry my wife and 13 year old daughter to the race today. The AMS website had tickets advertised for $39 adults and $19 kids. When I logged in to buy them, the only tickets available were $88 and up. I could afford $100 to go, but not $300. Until Na$car realizes that common people can't spend a weeks pay to attend a race, you'll see attendance keep dropping...

  8. NASCAR continues to screw up the sport. Now they are doing their best to ignore the attendance problems. NASCAR's official websit shows the crew member, chasing the tire, but in the background is nothing but empty seats.(I'm sure it will be removed shortly) Sure, the economy has something to do with it but their are many other factors. Everybody has cought on to the fact that there are only five or six teams that actually have a chance to win a race. Rule changes, almost on a weekly basis, doesn't help any. Green-white-checker finishes. Another attempt to shape the finish of a race by NASCAR, not by the drivers. How many green-white-checker races did Richard Petty win? Why not just take the six teams, that have an actual chance to win, and put them out for a green white checker race. You might not sell as many hot dogs and beer as a regular race, but you would get the same results. It must be noted that NASCAR's total lack of attention to tradition, in their continuing effort to increase their profit margin, may be having the opposite results. I hope somethhing is done before NASCAR goes the way of INDY car racing. Ignoring the fans will lead to NASCAR becoming as insignificant as professional bowling.

  9. Hey guys, the pit crew member needs to have his head examined to be sure, but a tire in the infield draws a caution every time. The loose tire caused those guys to go 1, 2, and 3 laps down, not the crew member.

    BTW, I'll bet that pit crewman knows how a deer feels when it tries to cross in front of an 18-wheeler. Does that make a deer strike "one of them racin' deals"?

    The post above that mentions ticket price gouging probably best sums up the problem in NASCAR's attendance woes: we can't afford to pay for seats, food, drinks, souvenirs, parking, gas, lodging, prerace entertainment (they aren't appearing for free!), and purse money; plus subsidize luxury areas that the average fan will never set foot near. If promoters want to fill the seats, they'd better figure out how to trim the trail of financial coattail hangers from their tickets.

    AMS needs to have two dates per year, but it's up to the promoters to make an outing fan-affordable, not the other way around...


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