Minter: More Tradition Sent Down The Drain
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
Hampton, Ga. – With all the talk about Atlanta Motor Speedway possibly losing a race date, it was troubling to see Marcy Scott’s phone number pop up on the cell phone Thursday morning.
Scott is the PR manager at AMS. She was calling to inform me of a hastily-called press conference that was going to begin in about an hour.
In situations like this, no news is good news. So a news conference signaled bad news.
And bad it was for people in my corner of the world.
Sure it was a good business decision for Speedway Motorsports, Inc. There’s more money to be made with one Cup race at Atlanta and one at Kentucky Speedway than with two at Atlanta and none at Kentucky.
But that doesn’t sit too well with the home folks, who for up to 50 years have looked upon AMS as if they actually owned a part of it.
As Ed Clark, the track president, stood in a mostly empty room before a bank of cameras and a few reporters and delivered the bad news that the track’s winter race date was being cut, he tried his best to be a good company man and put some positive spin on the situation. But his eyes told another story, one of bitter disappointment. For years, he’s struggled with race dates that lined up perfectly with bitter cold weather, and the crowds reflected that. But to his credit, he wouldn’t blame it all on the weather, as he would have been fully justified in doing.
I found it hard to look him directly in the eye as he worked his way through a terribly difficult situation. After all, it was his boss, Bruton Smith, who ultimately made the call to move the race.
Instead of looking at Clark, l found myself staring out the window toward the backstretch, which was the frontstretch for much of the track’s 50-year history and the center of attention in those days. I thought of all the people who had literally put in blood, sweat and tears to see the track through the tough early years.
I thought about Alf Knight, the long-time track superintendent, and his wife Madaline, who lived on the property and dedicated their lives to the track. And I thought about Alf’s sidekick, Ernie Moore, and about the Chinese Bandits.
The Bandits, Alf’s mostly volunteer work crew, was first pressed into service when the contractors building the speedway back in the late 50’s and early part of 1960 quit working because the financially strapped track wasn’t paying them.
The rag-tag band of workers called themselves the Chinese Bandits, a name taken from the second-string defensive unit of the LSU Tigers of that era. The football Bandits, who played under coach Paul Dietzel, became a part of LSU lore because they made up with determined play what they lacked in God-given talent.
The same is often said of Knight’s Bandits – and a lot of others involved with the new raceway – who worked right up until race time to get the track in presentable condition.
More than a decade later, Knight and his crew had a similar challenge when a tornado struck the track, wrecking the grandstands just days before a Cup race that the track desperately needed to run to keep afloat.
I thought about the local folks who invested in the track in the beginning, most of whom wound up with only a small checkered flag souvenir for their investment. And of the taxpayers and politicians of Georgia and Henry County, who paved roads to the track to help fans get in and out in a more efficient manner.
Those folks, living and dead, are the real losers in this deal.
I recalled a trip to Rockingham after it lost its two Cup races, and how the locals there looked upon the giant rock outside the track as more of a tombstone than a symbol of the track’s glory years.
I thought about a trip I made to Darlington Raceway on the first Labor Day weekend after the Southern 500 was moved to California.
The enduring image that day, which should have been a race day, was the noise made by the flag pole ropes and snaps flapping in the breeze, flag poles that on a race day would have been flying colorful flags amid so much noise the metallic ring would have never been heard.
The silence from the race track that day was eerie.
A person named Aldous Huxley once wrote: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
He was writing in praise of music, but in doing so he also said a lot about silence.
The silence brought about by revered race tracks losing race dates truly is inexpressible.
NASCAR and its power brokers seem intent on gradually taking the sport away from its one-time base in the Old South.
I hope for the sake of all those who have put so much into AMS and the original NASCAR speedways over the years that there will come a day when the decision makers realize a mistake was made and bring a second Cup race back to Atlanta and Darlington, and bring Cup racing of some sort back to Rockingham and North Wilkesboro.
“Never say never,” Clark said. “We could potentially see a second date back here.”
In the meantime, there will be too many silent days at the speedways of the Old South.
– Rick Minter can be reached at email@example.com Comments