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.