(UPDATED: 10:45 p.m.)
It’s not every day that such a monstrously successful enterprise does something so galactically stupid, but NASCAR pulled it off last month.
A race wasn’t just taken away from Atlanta Motor Speedway. A major event was removed from NASCAR’s corporate center and from a track as rich in history as almost any this side of Daytona. Consequently, while AMS will have but one event on the Sprint Cup circuit next season, 13 tracks will have multiple races — including such garden spots as Dover, Del. (where banners cover empty seats).
If NASCAR ran baseball, there would be one team in New York and two in Cleveland.
Tony Stewart and Atlanta came out winners Sunday night. Stewart won a thrilling finish to the Emory Healthcare 500. Atlanta won by filling the stands with over 90,000 fans, one month after NASCAR informed AMS it was taking away one of its races.
Why did Atlanta get dumped on? Because in addition to Sunday’s race, the other race fell during the weather-plagued second week of March. Officials will tell you the race had to go because attendance suffered, and it did. But even the weather excuse is somewhat thin.
“I guess it’s better to have a smaller track with 65,000 seats and sell 60,000 than it is to have 90,000 and sell 75,000,” AMS president Ed Clark said, his words dripping in sarcasm. “In my opinion, it’s better to sell 15,000 more seats. But evidently not.”
He’s still upset. He should be.
Clark will shoot down NASCAR’s excuses for the decision left and right. He’ll choose his words more carefully when it comes to the role of track owner Bruton Smith because, well, duh.
But in NASCAR’s big picture, how can this be good? As Clark noted, “NASCAR has more corporate players headquartered in Atlanta than any other city.”
“Fireball” Roberts won the first race at then-Atlanta International Raceway on July 31, 1960. Fifty years later, that passion for racing was more than evident this weekend.
AMS set a track record for a Nationwide event Saturday, drawing 71,000 fans. An additional 93,200 were in attendance for the Cup race. Add Friday’s qualifying and some 180,000 total were on the grounds. There were fans from 50 states and 11 countries.
Take that, Dover.
With the track’s 50th anniversary, AMS arranged for 15 fans who attended the first race in 1960 to be at the speedway Sunday. One told stories of hiding friends in the trunk when he drove into the lot. Another talked about sticking Atlanta raceway bumper stickers on cars for a penny apiece. One, Michael Greer, said: “I remember the noise and the grime and rain. As an 8-year-old, I loved that stuff.”
Clark has been stopped by fans all week. “People tell me, ‘I’ve been coming here for 33 years,’” Clark said. “It’s more than just an event for some people. It’s a pilgrimage.”
NASCAR is different that way. Fans plan vacations round 500-mile races in remote outposts. Some might have a difficult time relating to that, but there’s an undeniable charm to it.
What happened to the Cup’s schedule is more about politics and circumstances than history or certainly financial sense. NASCAR wanted to rework its schedule. It viewed the Atlanta race in March race as a weak link. Rather than just move the race to another week, NASCAR told track owners: “This is how many races you have. This is how many tracks you own. Work with it.”
Smith owns eight tracks and wanted a Cup event at his track in Kentucky. He decided relocating the Atlanta race was the best option for his little company. (Notable: The Kentucky event will be in July, not March.)
Smith all but absolved himself of any blame for the way this unfolded when asked about it Sunday. Remarkable, considering he’s not shy about saying anything else. He’s pushing for the Cup’s season to finish in Las Vegas (he owns the track) instead of South Florida — which he referred to as “North Cuba.”
Wealthy Neanderthals can still thrive in NASCAR.
Marcus Smith, Bruton’s son and president of SMI, acknowledged dropping an Atlanta race “is not what you would do in an ideal world. But there were a lot of factors.”
There’s always a chance Atlanta will get a second race again one day. But Clark said, “I don’t know the odds of that.” And this still stings.