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Ingram: Parting Such Bittersweet Sorrow In Atlanta

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 6 2010

Tony Stewart is surrounded by the smiling faces of Carl Edwards, left, and Ryan Newman after winning Sunday's Sprint Cup race in Atlanta. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

Hampton, Ga. – It was readily apparent that the quality of racing has little influence on decisions about the calendar and the schedule in the Sprint Cup in the current era. There was a time, of course, when the show made a difference.

Predictably, this year’s Labor Day weekend race produced another belly-to-the-ground, flat-out scramble that would have made Fireball Roberts, the first winner on the high banks of the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1960, proud. But a racer’s track that has produced more than its fair share of close finishes over the last 50 years without plates on the carburetors has lost its spring date on next year’s calendar.

There’s plenty of blame to go around on this one.

Fans didn’t support the spring race well enough once the track was built – some would say overbuilt – to its current capacity. The owner, Bruton Smith, elected to move one of his Atlanta dates to Kentucky, a track he bought at a discount. The owners of NASCAR, who also own the nearby competing tracks of Daytona and Talladega, refused to consider changing the spring date in Atlanta to more predictable weather, the kind that fans could bank on.

A calendar change, of course, could have been done years ago, among other things, by moving the Phoenix race located in the Arizona desert ahead of Atlanta on the calendar. This is the same Phoenix race that was, in fact, moved to February for the 2011 season. That’s too late to push back Atlanta’s predictably cold and wet – and sometimes snowy – early March date.

Just over a decade ago, in the very first year that realignment was announced during the NASCAR Media Tour, a gruff and pointed Bill France Jr., at the time the chairman of both NASCAR and the International Speedway Corporation, singled out Atlanta as a good candidate to lose a date. “From what I hear, they’re not selling enough tickets in Atlanta,” he said in extraordinary off-the-cuff remarks in front of the entire media corps – after interupting son Brian France – during a visit to the NASCAR Research and Development facility.

So the vision has come to pass. On next year’s schedule, the ISC track in Daytona will have three Sprint Cup dates, including the Bud Shootout exhibition and Talladega continues with two. Smith’s track in Charlotte, also within easy driving distance of Atlanta, maintains three Sprint Cup dates, including the Sprint All-Star non-points race.

In effect, the flagship tracks of Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and ISC have survived the realignment with all their dates intact and the other tracks within those areas in the Deep South have either lost both dates (North Wilkesboro and Rockingham) or one date (Darlington and Atlanta).

The irony, of course, is the fact that the builders of the track now known as the Kentucky Motor Speedway took a questionable legal route while pursuing a Sprint Cup date and lost in court. Then they lost the track to Smith. Could the former owners of the Kentucky track have chosen a better path in pursuing the question of monopoly practices by SMI and ISC?

Another irony concerns the fact Atlanta is home to more Fortune 500 companies involved in NASCAR than any other locale hosting Sprint Cup events. But Cincinnati, relatively close to the Kentucky track, can be seen as the home to more potential candidates for sponsorship.

While we’re at it, the sponsors and TV folks should also be mentioned as culprits in the deconstructing and rearrangement of stock car racing’s privately-owned major league. The major national sponsors want exposure in a variety of markets and a schedule that is not necessarily saturated in the southeast. The TV networks who pay 10-figure sums for the rights to telecast events also want to see NASCAR expand into more major metropolitan areas, which theoretically helps expand the number of TV viewers.

As any observer can tell you, none of these grand schemes are working very well at present. NASCAR and ISC were rebuffed in the state of Washington and in the city of New York when it came to building new tracks. The cookie cutter 1.5-mile track in Chicagoland was moved into the first Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup date to help boost attendance – as well as attention to the Chase. The date moved from Rockingham to the Inland Empire near Los Angeles and the Auto Club Speedway in 2001, will move next year to Kansas City – which has yet to prove it can handle a second date. It remains to be seen if the Texas Motor Speedway can take full advantage of a second date during the Chase.

The changes on and off the track concern trying to engage a different kind of fan and expand the fan base beyond the current loyal following. The idea seems to be to bring in fans who are not necessarily attracted by drivers cheating death and more interested in a family-oriented sport that doesn’t promote violence or foul language. Nobody can argue with a strategy like this in principle.

If major league stock car racing was all image, smoke and mirrors, maybe this would make complete sense. But if the people in charge of these decisions recognized the values of honor, courage, independence, bravery, defiance, hard work, loyalty and sacrifice that built the tracks in the southeast, perhaps they’d understand how to promote the sport in other climes where surely such values would be appreciated.

So far, they’ve stumbled badly in terms of ticket sales and TV figures. If they’re going to take stock car racing out of the South, at least they could figure out what is that they’re moving, not the least of which is door-to-door racing. Just recently there was an announcement about the reorganization of NASCAR’s communications department. The announcement was so full of jargon it was almost impossible to comprehend. Taking dates from great race tracks doesn’t make much sense, either.

Quotes of the Week: “This has been kind of a heartbreak race for these fans in Atlanta, knowing they’re going to lose a race next year. But man, I’ve never been so happy to win a race in my life.”

– Tony Stewart, who broke a 31-race winless streak in the Emory Healthcare 500

“When Jimmie (Johnson) and Kasey (Kahne)  and I were racing two and three-wide for the lead there for a few laps, there’s one point where I was laughing going down the front straightaway. It was just fun.”

– Carl Edwards, the runner-up in Atlanta

“There are so many lanes here we can find clean air. You had Carl (Edwards) on the bottom, I was in the middle and Kasey (Kahne) was on top and our cars were equal and there was enough room to race side-by-side. Some of the mile and a half (tracks), there’s really only one lane and when you’re behind someone and don’t have clean air you’re at such a disadvantage. You can’t get up alongside of the guy. I think we put on a good show.”

– Jimmy Johnson, who finished third after a late-race battle for the lead

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 6 2010
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