Atlanta race makes Stewart look good, NASCAR look dumb

Pole sitter Denny Hamlin (11) and Ryan Newman (39) kead the field to the green flag to start Sunday's Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (AP photo)

(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.”

Ed Clark wasn't happy with the decision by NASCAR and Bruton Smith (lower left) to take away Atlanta's spring race.

Ed Clark wasn't happy with the decision by NASCAR and Bruton Smith (lower left) to take away Atlanta's spring race.

“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.

176 comments Add your comment

david

September 5th, 2010
7:38 pm

THAT WAS THE MOST AMAZING NATIONAL ANTHEM CEREMONY I HAVE EVER SEEN AT A NASCAR EVENT…. WAY TO GO ATLANTA!

Reid Adair

September 5th, 2010
7:45 pm

You’re exactly right, Jeff. Politics – and politics only – resulted in this decision. It’s a shame.

Bellefay

September 5th, 2010
7:47 pm

When I think NASCAR, I think Jeff Schultz.

Did enjoy the article though. No football or baseball worth watching so I’ll check in on the race today.

It is a shame they took away the March race. Not shocking that the powers that be love to screw up their product in pretty much every sport known to man. Expand the NFL season, NHL lockout, CFB lack of playoff, MLB…well, nothing needs to be said about MLB.

Peachtree Pete

September 5th, 2010
7:52 pm

NASCAR is a shadow of its former self; pity. But they did it to themselves, beginning with the stupid COT.

KnightInATL

September 5th, 2010
7:56 pm

Good article, JS. Its extremely disappointing they took the spring race away. If any race needs to go away, its Fontana. Cali doesn’t know NASCAR.

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
7:57 pm

A guy named Scott Speed is still running last. Go figure.

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
7:59 pm

Through 16 laps, no mishaps or flags — Newman-Hamlin-Kyle Busch.

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
7:59 pm

David — One more song and it the pre-race could’ve been an entire CD.

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
7:59 pm

Reid — Thanks, and welcome.

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
8:00 pm

Bellefay — Thanks. Next week I’ll blog on the Middle East.

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
8:01 pm

KnightInAtl — I can vouch for that. I’m from Cali. The Indy car race and Formula 1 did pretty well out there. Definitely not a NASCAR feel though. Used to do a road race at Riverside.

just a thought

September 5th, 2010
8:02 pm

yeah here is a thought, CLint Bowyer, Kevin Harvice and Jeff Burton sux

just a thought

September 5th, 2010
8:02 pm

Sonny Clusters

September 5th, 2010
8:04 pm

Billy Jeff, we was watching this and noticing we don’t know all that much about it. We believe, though, that the NASCAR crowd will go easier on you than that Georgia bunch. Whew! You was some thick skinned journalist to put up with that. We was reading on Mark’s blog that the little dog got arrested after the game. Was that true? Regards, Sonny Bob Clusters

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
8:06 pm

I know it would be wrong to wish for an accident to break the monotony, so I won’t. … But, ya know …
(Through 30 laps: Hamlin- Newman- KyBusch- Stewart- Kahne)

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
8:08 pm

Sonny — There’s an old saying, “Consider the source.” I do have thick skin. But I also understand that there’s an element of “fans are fans” and they’re going to defend their guy/their team regardless, which is fine. But it doesn’t change my opinion and I can tell you that a significant segment of fan base agreed with me. I received a LOT of email from fans who didn’t blog comments.

Sonny Clusters

September 5th, 2010
8:08 pm

We have been around that track a few times and we can tell you that it is wearing out and needs some new asphalt. We was hoping if you have time you could go down in the infield and say hello to some old Parkview pals of ours. Let us know if that is something you’d be willing to do and we will give you some directions.

jimmymack

September 5th, 2010
8:14 pm

igrew up 2.5 miles from a.i.r now a.m.s i went too see fireball win 1960.i went to the race with with my neighbor wm.n.darsey a gbi agent.since then i have been to various condo’s.but as a mfg rep i got to go with allen kawaucki -i spelling.point i want to know what kind of hostsge or power play that smith is trying to play nascar

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
8:16 pm

Everybody pitting. No major “repairs”. Nobody blowed up — as they say.

KnightInATL

September 5th, 2010
8:16 pm

Absolutely, JS. I’m not knocking Cali, as they definitely have their own unique affinity to auto racing. There are many other series that are very popular out on the left coast (even off road racing). But NASCAR has never caught on over there; and no matter how hard The France Family et. al. tries to shove their sport down the throats of Californians, it won’t take. They can keep their Sonoma road course race. But the Fontana race is an utter joke.

Vicky Hemenway

September 5th, 2010
8:17 pm

I tuned in during the National Anthem and was all goose bumps. I was hoping that I would find out who the group was after they finished but the announcer did not mention their name (s) again. Who are they?

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
8:18 pm

Kyle Busch has been penalized for entering pits too fast and passing the “commitment” line. Has to drive back through pits.

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
8:21 pm

Vicky — You ask, I deliver. “Ernie Haas and Signature Sound.” Not sure if they do weddings and bar mitzvahs.

jimmymack

September 5th, 2010
8:24 pm

jeff with i am sure your budget doesn’t allow you to travel with the team’s like ron hudspeth did but why don’t we get the insider veiw

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
8:24 pm

Random observation: This is first night race I’ve been to since going to sprint car races a couple of times back in the day at Ascot Park in Gardena, Calif. The night element is pretty cool. Could be a little brighter though. Maybe a florescent wall?

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
8:25 pm

Jimmy Mack — I travel on road with Falcons, Braves, etc. You mean NASCAR team?

Sonny Clusters

September 5th, 2010
8:25 pm

It’s the WIntes family. They are the ones with the Budweiser sign on their RV.

Sonny Clusters

September 5th, 2010
8:26 pm

You think you have problems . . . that new rug in the White House has a mistake on it. Thank goodness for Sharpies!

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
8:28 pm

Kyle Busch back in the pits. He’s already a lap down.

Bruton Smith sucks

September 5th, 2010
8:29 pm

For as many people are in the Atlanta area, there is no reason for that track not to sell out. Same with Charlotte. If they can take away the Southern 500 on Labor Day from Darlington Raceway (in a town with all of 7,000 people) and leave that historical track with just one race, they can take away a race from Atlanta. Instead of Ed Clark whining, he should make the best of it.

And AMS losing a race is Bruton Smith’s fault. If that crappy track in Kentucky didn’t get a race, AMS would still have two.

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
8:36 pm

No “incidents” yet. This is usually about the time a mysterious yellow flag emerges to tighten up the field . . .

Powerbuzz

September 5th, 2010
8:37 pm

Ernie Haase and Signature Sound are a Christian group. There is already a YouTube of it. It will make goose bumps. Singing the Anthem like it is wrote. Gotta love it!!

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
8:42 pm

Via NASCAR: Lap 92
David Reutimann’s crew has requested a black flag on the No. 00. Kurt Busch on pit road for a wedge adjustment.

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
8:43 pm

All leaders pitting

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
8:47 pm

So far 3 cars are off the track: Mike Bliss (55), Joe Nemechek (87) and Kevin Conway (7)

Sonny Clusters

September 5th, 2010
8:54 pm

Billy Jeff, it is amazing how fast they can change a set of tars. You seem to be real comfortable with this now so we are going on to the Dairy Queen. Good night.

Debby

September 5th, 2010
9:03 pm

I don’t know about anyone else, but when you have a Big screen tv, and you see the race at times in a small window box while they are showing the changing of tires in a large window box, it gets me VERY upset. What is up with that? I would rather see the RACE people, not the people changing the tires. Anyone else have a problem with this or is it just me?

Chief Wiggum

September 5th, 2010
9:05 pm

Bruton Smith is an idiot, with his comments. This was his doing, to move a race to yet another of his tracks. Tradition does not matter, politics does. NASCAR desperately wants to move away from the sport’s southeast roots, to make it more fan-friendly to the minivan moms of the midwest.

Urinal Cake

September 5th, 2010
9:08 pm

It’s a hillbilly circus.
The cars and technology are outdated.
The safety is a joke
The most popular driver has not won a race in forever.
The collective mentality of the fan base is just below mental retardation.

Jeff Schultz

September 5th, 2010
9:12 pm

Sorry. Major technical problems in pressbox. Wireless needs to be black-flagged. Meanwhile had first yellow in race at lap 133. Caution benefits Dale Jr who was “lucky dog” and therefore not a lap down.

rick s

September 5th, 2010
9:12 pm

How is the attendance?

Harry Hogge

September 5th, 2010
9:15 pm

It is too dark – Instead of a florescent, maybe they could use them thar glowing neon lights under the cars.

TW

September 5th, 2010
9:18 pm

no skin in the game here, but went to the first race in Ky and the track itself from the stands as a fan Everyseat is far superior to Atlanta ! been to atlanta many time (Bruton Smith sucks) doesnt have a clue just blowing smoke must be a democrat?

Ted Striker

September 5th, 2010
9:19 pm

Jeff — How did Rodney Ho score that interview with Erin Andrews at AMS on Thursday rather than you? In that suit she was wearing, she looks to be at least as good a driver as Danica Patrick. Wouldn’t mind seeing that mini-catfight on pit row. Talk about giving new meaning to the phrase “rubbing’s racing.”

p.s. Was an excellent interview by R. Ho.

NRBQ

September 5th, 2010
9:22 pm

Jeff:

The greed of the France family has nearly killed the golden goose.

Fans were happy, and the Frances were making money hand-over-fist through old-fashioned, cut-throat power-company politics through the 70’s. But greed knows no horizon, so we have tracks in Arizona, Illinois and New-Friggin’-Hampshire.

In parallel, you had the networks falling all over themselves to get a piece of the pie. So the announcers who get hired are motor-mouths who add nothing but hype, much like the football doofuses on ESPN.

My dad raced in the first 500-miler in Darlington, 1950. Naturally, I was a die-hard, race-attending fan for years, and watched or taped every race I missed.

In the last few years, I’d as soon watch Oprah with my wife. (almost)

TW

September 5th, 2010
9:26 pm

Fred

September 5th, 2010
9:26 pm

NASCAR hates Atlanta for some reason. Atlanta came up with the idea of a Hall of Fame and then NASCAR played us to get extra money out of Charlotte. They took a race away from Atlanta when they have publicized for years that the largest concentration of fans is here. As you pointed out, the largest concentration of corporate sponsors is here. Their great plans with the COT and race juggling and all of the other “advances” has resulted in fewer race fans attending races overall and TV viewers. It sure seems like they are successful in spite of themselves!

NRBQ

September 5th, 2010
9:27 pm

Jeff:
Your posts sounds like you’re having your teeth pulled.

I sympathize (see previous post), but I remember when the AJ & C had two full-time NASCAR correspondents.

You in someone’s doghouse?

TW

September 5th, 2010
9:27 pm

didnt last long

JSS

September 5th, 2010
9:29 pm

@ Jeff Schultz…
You need wireless mobile connect in S. Clayton/N. Spaulding by the way…
Oh yeah, the Dream is one step from my prediction come true by the way too… BIG SINISTER LAUGH!!! They won tonight!