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Minter: Cut The Talk About Cutting An Atlanta Race

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 2 2009
Racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway still makes for a lot of happy campers. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway still makes for a lot of happy campers. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

The NASCAR circuit is back at Atlanta Motor Speedway this week, so that means the home folks have to brace for another round of stories questioning whether the track should lose one of its Cup dates.

The talk doesn’t make sense to them for a variety of reasons. Even with the empty seats on occasion, Atlanta’s crowds dwarf those drawn by tracks in other major markets. Does Chicagoland or Auto Club Speedway ring a bell?

Some complain about AMS’ traffic, but many now say that thanks to some area highway improvement projects Atlanta’s jams aren’t noticeably different from tracks elsewhere. Others argue that the speedway is on the wrong side of Atlanta, away from the more populated counties and further away from the NASCAR-loving Carolinas. But its location also has its pluses, such as easy access to Atlanta’s airport and surrounding hotels and straights shots to major interstates.

From a competitor’s and spectator’s standpoint, AMS is as racy a place as they come.

When it comes to singing the praises of Atlanta, few can carry the tune like Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“Some of the closest finishes in our sport have been at Atlanta,” Earnhardt said. “I think it is one of the top-five better tickets in our sport. I know they’ve had some difficulties proving that point over the last few years, but I love the place.

“I hope it retains its second race date. There are a lot of racing fans in the area, and it has good demographics for us.

“We just have to figure out what the equation is for us to capitalize on that, to get people to come out and enjoy the racing. I want to do what I can to make sure Atlanta is here to stay.”

Atlanta is also one of the few superspeedways that has both multiple grooves and a layout in which most seats offer a good view of most or all of the track.

Richard Petty says that’s a big plus.

“It’s one of our best superspeedways as far as being able to race on it and getting spectators where they can see it,” he said.

There also are business reasons in AMS’ favor. Many of the corporations that support NASCAR, such as Coca-Cola, UPS, NAPA and Home Depot, are headquartered nearby.

And there’s another reason, one that traditionalists – and AMS president Ed Clark – often point out.

“It’s in the South where the sport started and where the traditional fan base is, and moving an event out of this area wouldn’t be in the best interest of NASCAR,” Clark said.

Many old timers around the Atlanta area point to the very beginning of the track, then known as Atlanta International Raceway, when explaining the woes it has suffered over the years.

Rain was the track’s worst enemy early on, causing numerous rainouts, which led to financial difficulties and eventually bankruptcy.  For years, “Atlanta International Rainway” was a household term around the city.

“It got off to a terrible start,” Petty said. “The money just wasn’t there to promote it.”

In recent years, AMS unfortunately has continued its early tradition of battling the weather. Until the recent schedule change, its two races were in proximity on the calendar to Rockingham’s old, cold, rainy dates, and everyone in racing knows how that worked out.

But a night race on a holiday weekend might just give the track a chance to push the re-set button and become the booming success that Earnhardt and others say it should be.

Willie Nelson has a song with lyrics that go, “Turn out the lights. The party’s over.”

In Atlanta this week, they’re singing a different tune – “Turn on the lights. The party’s starting.”

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

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 2 2009
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