Sunday, March 8, 2009

Despite Busch Win, Paltry Turnout Could Seal Atlanta's Fate

By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Kurt Busch put on a great show Sunday afternoon, muscling his car and holding off runner-up Jeff Gordon and third-place finisher Carl Edwards to win the Kobalt Tools 500.

It's too bad there were so few race fans on hand to see Busch's heroics in the 100th Sprint Cup race in the history of Atlanta Motor Speedway.

With other tracks like Kentucky Motor Speedway hungrily seeking its first Sprint Cup race, or places like Kansas Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway actively lobbying to earn a second race per season, the legendary AMS was practically a ghost town Sunday compared to last week's sellout in Sin City. And that doesn't bode well for AMS keeping two races going forward from here.

While some media members estimated attendance at up to 75,000, others pegged the number closer to 45,000, which seemed far more realistic. The track seats 125,000.

Sure, the third-turn grandstands were pretty packed, but the frontstretch was half-full, if that. And just before the green flag dropped to start the race, the main parking lot behind the frontstretch was at least two-thirds empty.

I've seen shopping center parking lots with more cars in them. And unless AMS bused or helicoptered in thousands of fans who chose not to drive, the numbers simply weren't there.

"What I find so discouraging (at all the empty seats) is I think this is one of the best race tracks," said Gordon, whose first career Cup start was at Atlanta in the 1992 season finale. "To me, this is some of the best racing we're putting on in the series anywhere we go.

"I know there's a lot of race fans around here. I'm a little baffled by it. I've been hearing that they were going to have some empty seats. It's really hard to say. That's not my job, to figure that out. If I just base it off of the excitement that I see in the fans that I hear, the ones I hear from, my fans, the racing we're putting out there, this place should be packed."

So does that mean the spring race won't be there next year, either? There has been a lot of discussion that Pocono and AMS are the most likely places to lose a race to another track -- if a race date is to be taken away by NASCAR.

Sunday's turnout certainly didn't help AMS's chances, by any stretch.

"This is one of the best, if not the best, race tracks we go to as far as competition, on-track performance and passing and action and things like that," said Edwards, who got his first career Cup victory at AMS in 2005. "It's too bad there aren't more fans in the grandstands."

AMS has suffered through a continual downward trend in ticket sales over the last several years, so Sunday's slim turnout is just a continuation of that slide.

But the global economic crisis might have a lot to do with Sunday's slim turnout as well. Bristol, which typically sells out, still has tickets available for its March 22 race. In better economic times, the track would have been sold out months in advance.

"We are far from immune to what's going on with the economy," Edwards said. "But I feel like my responsibility -- and I'm sure Jeff feels the same way -- is to go out there and race as hard as we can, deliver for our marketing partners and for our fans and do the best we can, and hope that as the economy comes back up, those stands get more full. But there's nothing we can do about it. I'm just glad for the fans that are here."

Those fans who did show up indeed saw a great finish as Busch dominated, leading 234 of the 330 laps (five more than scheduled because of a late caution) and holding off the surge in the last few laps by Gordon, Edwards and Brian Vickers. It was the 19th victory of Busch's career and came on the heels of brother Kyle's win last week at Las Vegas.

"Things were going our way today," said Busch, who has won twice at AMS, having also triumphed there in 2002. "We had everything we needed."

And he might not be done yet. Next up on the schedule, after a one-week break, is Bristol Motor Speedway, where Kurt has had the most success of his career -- five wins in 16 starts, including his first career Cup victory.

The biggest key to the win Sunday was his final pit stop, under caution, which set up a green-white-checker finish. Crew chief Pat Tryson elected to go with four tires and a splash of gas, as did most other contenders except for only a two-tire stop for Carl Edwards.

While Edwards got out of the pits first, Busch's Dodge was simply too strong. The fresh rubber all around stuck perfectly, and he was able to hold off Gordon and get past Edwards and then hold on to the lead.

"We had our hands full, but we had a great race car," Busch said. "Our Dodge Charger was unbelievable. Just from the get-go of the race, I knew that we had something special; it was up to me to protect it.

"We started sliding around midway through the race and had to get back to the old-school 'race the track and don't race the competition.'"

Busch capped off the exciting finish with one of the most unusual victory celebrations that the sport has seen in a long time: He did his victory lap in reverse.

"It was something me and my buddies brewed up after a few too many Miller Lites one night," Busch said. "Can I say that? Is it all right? It just feels like, to me, when you put a car in reverse like that, it lets the car relax and lets it feel like it did a good job. It's kind of like cooling down a horse after a good Kentucky Derby run, so I'm looking forward to many more of those."

Given the paltry crowd, too few saw the unique victory celebration, let alone the race. But perhaps the most unfortunate thing of all: Those who did show up to watch Sunday's race in person might not see another spring race at Atlanta Motor Speedway ever again.


  1. Another great weekend filled with Bonkowski stories. Glad we have this spot to still read one of the greatest NASCAR writer's out there.


  2. I watched the race on my 52" TV and apparently saw a different race than you did. The wayward tire caution jumbled up the field and a couple of Jr. cautions made the race less than exciting. NA$CAR has apparently determined that exciting races mean a green/white/checkered finish is necessary for "exciting" finishes. The talking heads keep telling us how exciting everything is regardless of the actual race. DW commented that Kyle Busch wasns't out of it with 103 laps to go and him 3 laps down. What planet is he on?

    The COT has made it so that whoever is in front can stay there and get far ahead of the other cars.

    We will be very tired of the 1.5 mile cookie cutter tracks before November.

  3. Its sad to see such a small crowd at AMS. But I think the two dates will stay on the schedule. With so many corporate HQs located in the Atlanta area, these races provide NASCAR and the teams one of their best B2B venues.

  4. I have to agree with anonymous, very boring race, and yes, with the COT's, seems those up front are easily to stay up front. A long time nascar fan friend of mine said, AMS races are always boring. I did not notice it until this week. Between all the rules now, and the COT's do you think that contributes to empty seats in Atlanta? TG I found Jerry and his online live chat!!!

  5. Good post. Good to have you back in circulation. I've always tried to be an optimist, but yesterday's race was a real disappointment. I've seen more excitement on the Home Shopping Network.
    At least we had SOME excitement at the end, and it's nice to see someone other than the same three guys in victory lane, but man....thank God Bristol is up next.

  6. The track said 94,000 was there.

  7. Have you ever tried to get out of the Atlanta track after a Cup race?

    It takes 2-3 hours just to get out of the parking lot next to the track!

  8. Atlanta Speedway

    Cheeseburger $5, Fries $4, Drink $4 = $13.00, the last time I went in 2006.

    That's ROBBERY!!!

    I'll NEVER go back!

  9. It's Obama's FAULT!!!

  10. I was there and I think the race was a good one, whether it's a cot car or not, it all comes down to who is prepared the best, all 43 drivers are some of the best in the world and yes money does have a lot to do with the result. But that doesn't detract from all the drivers trying their best every race. Boring, not in my eyes, with only a few cautions the cream comes to the top! As far as the size of the crowd, the economy has a lot to do with that, BUT the biggest deterent is the price you have to pay to attend any NASCAR race is just too steep. I spent approximately $400 for, seat, motor home spot, plus having to pay to get into the infield, this is rediculous. Well anyway my driver Reutimann didn't do so well anyway, so I got sour grapes anyway. lol. The bottom line is too expensive for the owners and attendies. It's just grown too big and too expensive for the average person.

  11. 1. Mikey and MWR is coming along nicely.
    2. Somebody needs to run over Digger.
    3. It doenn't matter where the race is held just as long as the France family gets their $$$

  12. AMS is as great as it ever was. Why do so many personalities in NASCAR seem to think that NASCAR can be successful if boring drivers, driving identical cars, manage to finish close to each other?

    Their cars are boring now. I’m happy the drivers have safer cars to drive. Keep the safety. But, NASCAR used COT as an excuse to micromanage out all of the interesting differences between cars. Car performance this year seem to be more about who can micro-tune their set up best throughout the race. Bill Elliot stirred us fans because his thunderbird was a dominant car. No one could touch it. Absolutely zero chance of a car dominating like that amongst today’s heavily template cars.

    Their drivers are boring now. There may be 3 mildly interesting personalities in the top 12 drivers this year. Matt Kennseth and Kurt Bush do not give interesting interviews. Ever. Off track antics that get my attention – zero. They are meek and mild. No hot tempers. No cocky bravado. No dominating gravitas. Nice guys and fine drivers, but boring. Jeff Gordon used to be entertaining to follow. But that was mostly because he was a young, brash protagonist to Earnhardt’s bullying dominance. Now that Earnhardt is gone, there isn’t much to make Gordon interesting. Jimmy Johnson is almost interesting because he runs errorless races and wins fairly often. But, I need an extra beer just to make it through any of his media. None of these guys are like us. They are all as bunch of church mice. NASCARS heavy handed driver comportment rules make them an even grayer bunch.

    NASCAR rocked when it was a 3 day red neck party capped off with guys racing who were liable to do anything if someone pissed them off. We need to get back to our roots. Brash, colorful characters driving cars that look like I could just possibly have wrenched it in my buddies garage. Then, teach our new western NASCAR fan brothers how to party without your shirt on. Rebuild the personal relationship we fans had with our favorite drivers.

    Until then, NASCAR is going to continue to go the way of Indy. The economy will come back, but NASCAR won’t,

    Jimmy in Atlanta

  13. Let me tell you something about atlanta motor speedway..I walked up to the ticket booth sunday morning and asked for a ticket in winners section,lower lever and away from the crowd since half of the seats were gonna be unsold..The ticket lady said no problem and I paid my 95.oo bucks and went to my seat..It seemed like there was nobody in the grandstands till the driver introductions started and the only section I saw filling up was the one I was in..What happened was the speedway was trying to fill up that section because it was the last section before going into turns 1 and 2 and it would look real good on tv by being full..I wound up moving 2 sections down where there was not a single person sitting in a seat from row 1 to row 18..What gets me is I asked for a ticket in a isolated area but I get sold one to fill up a certain section..I will never buy another ticket from atlanta motor speedway again..Tickets can be bought in the parking lot and at the highway for 20 bucks..AMS..The next time a hardcore NASCAR fan walks up to the ticket booth to buy a ticket just to help the track out because of the race not even being half-sold out I suggest you try to accomodate that fan.


What do you think? Leave Your Comment Here:

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.