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Minter: ‘Big Event’ Feel Is What Races Are Missing

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 5 2011

Putting the starting field for the Labor Day weekend race at Atlanta on display contributed to the big event feel. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

The Christmas/New Year’s holidays are times for reflection, and as I’ve listened to NASCAR radio shows and read stories on the Internet where “experts” weigh on what NASCAR needs to do to reinvigorate its fan base, I keep thinking back to an interview I did a couple of years ago with Ed Clark, the Atlanta Motor Speedway president.

As Clark and I talked that January day, during a tire test at his speedway, I came to realize just what it was that I really enjoyed about attending NASCAR races as a fan, long before I was going to races to write about them.

When I was just a teenager tagging along with some of my neighbors who were die-hard racing fans, going to a NASCAR race was much like going to the old Southeastern Fair in Atlanta. Races had a “big event” feel, and a good race was the topping on the cake. Things like the points standings didn’t really matter to me back then.

Going to races was even more special when the race was part of a holiday celebration, like Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte and Labor Day at Darlington or the Fourth of July at Daytona.

Now AMS has that Labor Day date, and it didn’t take long for AMS to begin feeling like Darlington once did on the first weekend of September.

That first Labor Day race at AMS, Clark saw a change long before the race car haulers arrived from Charlotte.

“The campers showed up way earlier than normal,” he said. “They came early, stayed late and had a big time.”

And as he mingled with the crowd, something Clark does at his track and at others too, he

The sun went down about the same time the green flag did on Labor Day weekend in Atlanta. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

discovered that much of excitement wasn’t directly related to the events on the track.

“The fans brought a lot of fun activities themselves,” Clark said. “Bruton (Smith, head of track-owner Speedway Motorsports Inc.) and I were riding around looking at stuff on Saturday, and he said, ‘You’ve got a state fair here, and a race is about to break out.’”

I suggested to Clark that he add to the state fair feel by building a chair lift over the speedway, so fans could ride high above the track while the cars were circling below. He laughed and said that wasn’t the first time that idea had been discussed.

It may happen some day. In fact, not lot after that Clark attended the State Fair of Texas, which not surprisingly is billed as the nation’s biggest, to gather ideas that could be incorporated at NASCAR venues.

“I don’t plan to do the exact same things they were doing, but it planted a seed for me,” Clark said of his research trip to Dallas.

Many a NASCAR promoter these days seems to be relying on things like the Chase and “Have at it, boys” to lure fans to their tracks. But even a couple of years ago, before TV ratings and track attendance really started to tumble, Clark had a good idea of what really makes fans want to book tickets to a race. And it doesn’t necessarily involve Kyle Busch or Jimmie Johnson, or even Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“The race is critical, but unless something unbelievably outstanding happens during the race,

Tony Stewart in pits and fans in stands at Atlanta last September. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

what you’re going to remember is who you went with, and some of the weird things that happened and the overall fun you had,” Clark said.

For me, the most memorable race experience ever at AMS involved the designated driver’s idea to take a post-race detour across a recently cleared field in an attempt to beat the traffic.

As we bounced across that field, the left front tire of the truck hit a root, which bounced up and broke the fuel pump housing.

The most enterprising mechanic in the party figured out that we could use the truck’s floor mat and a wood wedge to jam the fuel pump back up against the engine block so it would pump just enough gas to get us home.

Ed Clark wouldn’t be surprised to know that I have no idea who won that race.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 5 2011
6 Comments

6 Comments »

  • Mr. Tony Geinzer says:

    Rick, I feel bugged that some of these races are losing their shine and I feel that more tracks could be like Indy or Texas as it grinds on me that this Video Game Technology is a dull, Post-Avatarian Slant and I feel that I want to bring my family to the 500, Indy Version and Texas and Charlotte if I had the means because I find that have Saturday Night Big Races not just because or even remark the Big Money Dates on tour so that different guys can try to qualify.

  • Charles says:

    Rick

    You are correct that the old races had a big event feel!

    Thats the problem with todays Nascar I think, in that they over hype the Chase and it demotes the race!

    When I started going to races in the 1960s, winning the Southern 500 OR Daytona 500 was the main thing! The point title was a afterthought!

    Nascar would be better served if they started making Raceday more important than the Chase!!!Giving incentive, paying points or laps money to make passing or exchanging the lead on raceday is what is need to spice up the usaully boring mid portains of a race!

    Having all the money at the end of the season just creates a stradgety session among the drivers and teams!

    Just ask youself two simple quetions when going to a Nascar Event or watch on Tv!

    Am I here to see a good race?

    or

    Am i here to see who wins the Chase?

  • Andrew Giangola says:

    Rick – Couldn’t agree more with the premise of the importance of “big event” nature in NASCAR. In fact, it’s the core theme of a new NASCAR Library Collection book, “THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY.”
    We called it that because, as you know, fans start descending upon the infield and campgrounds on Wednesday. Although, one fan in Michigan grabbed me by the shirt and said, “No you’ve got it wrong, the weekend starts on Monday.” Indeed, she and her husband had arrived then, set up a tiki bar in the infield, and held court for the next week. They packed it up the following Monday.
    In the book, Mario Batali says NASCAR races are “Woodstock meets the Super Bowl meets the Iowa state fair.” It’s a great quote, and true. When you talk to fans, you don’t hear this feeling of attending a big excitign event dissipating. Sure, attendance has softened a bit in the worst economy since men were selling apples on street corners. But NASCAR still has the most sporting events drawing more than 100,000 fans. Many feel as if the races are family reunions. Old friendships are rekindled. New ones are made. Tava Miyata at Auto Club Speedway was offered an upgrade to a better campsite. She declined…didn’t want “to leave the neighborhood.”
    Fans like Tava are in part coming to be part of the spectacle, or watch others doing a heckuva job of creating their own attractions, whether it’s Bob’s Party Bus, Tireman, or The Fathead Guy (yeah, you can read their stories in the book!).
    As superfan Mike Wright told me over a crackling late-night fire at his campsite at Bristol, “This is my lazy boy chair. I’m home here. When I sit and hear the ‘Gentlemen start your engines’ command, I forget everything. Nothing else matters. I’m a kid again.”

  • Terry says:

    I am in complete agreement….
    I had more fun going to Bristol with a $10 dollar bill in my pocket and just enough gas to get back to Knoxville.
    Given you didn’t die a flaming death on Bl**DY 11W HWY…..
    We drank on the cheap and yes some of it was eco friendly Mason jar mind eraser from a relative.
    We ate on the cheap but it tasted so good….better than the Big Time I would be eating today.
    And we actually watched the race…..because they were trying to WIN and NOT just collecting points.
    Racing was clean ….girls were pretty and LIFE WAS GOOD.

  • SB says:

    Many of the races had that “big event” feel because each race was important in it’s own right. Now, the emphasis is all being place on ‘the chase’, the first 26 races barely count for anything anymore. Hard to get excited about going to see a race that doesn’t even give the leader at the end of 26 races the lead going into the not-a-playoff. Big whoop. Even Bristol has lost it’s usual luster. That’s when you know how bad things have gotten.

  • Terry says:

    I am in complete agreement…….
    I had more fun going to Bristol (long long ago ) with damnear no money and just enough gas to get back to Knoxville.
    Given you didn’t die a firey death on BLOODY 11W…….
    We drank on the cheap…and yes some was eco friendly Mason Jar mind eraser from a relative.
    We ate cheap but it tasted better than the BIG TIME I do now.
    And we actually watched the race.
    Racing was clean ….girls were pretty and LIFE WAS GOOD…..