The Atlanta Motor Speedway folks were concerned. The Kobalt Tools 500 was their first Sprint Cup race in this era of belt-tightening, and NASCAR is different from other sports in that it has so many seats to fill. Ticket sales had lagged all fall and most of the winter, and there were days when Ed Clark didn’t know if March 8 would be a televised embarrassment.
It wasn’t. Even with empty seats conspicuous in the stands above the start-finish line, the Speedway president considered the day a victory “given what it could have been.”
AMS has never been blessed among sites. It was strafed by a tornado in July 2005, and its races have long been hampered by bad weather and worse traffic. It has been relegated to playing little brother to Daytona and Talladega and Charlotte, and some believe Atlanta could be reduced to one NASCAR event per year.
“I keep hearing that question: ‘Are we going to lose a race?’ ” Clark said. “We’re not. There are so many corporate sponsors based here, and this is a critical market. But it’s a tough market. Look what happened with the Braves in the playoffs.”
Unsold postseason seats at Turner Field became a national talking point, and many in the media were chattering Sunday about the possibility of a similar sight. A grim pre-race estimate on ESPN.com guessed the crowd would be 40,000, or one-third of track capacity.
“I won’t know [official attendance] until Tuesday,” Clark said, “but this is the first time in six or seven years the Elliott Grandstand [overlooking Turn 3] has been full. Those were our $39 tickets, and you could buy a student ticket for $19. Those sold extremely well. It was in the Earnhardt Grandstand [overlooking the straightaway] and the suites that we were lacking in sales.”
With money tight, cheaper is better. And sunshine never hurts an outdoor event. Larrie Hostetler of Suwanee bought his ticket in the past week “after I saw what the weather looked like.” And Hostetler’s estimation of the gathering: “About a half-hour before the start, it was pretty light. But it filled in.”
Chris Carlisle of Ocala, Fla., wasn’t a walk-up sale. He arrived Thursday, one of 10 folks bundled into two campers. “It’s really a pretty economic venue,” he said. And the crowd? “It was a little better than I thought. I figured it would be pretty sparse.”
Said Clark: “I credit the weather. Tickets sold well [this week] … When I got here today at 10:30, there were people lined up. That hasn’t always been the case. Most Cup races, we wouldn’t sell more than 1,000 tickets on race day.”
The Kobalt itself was nothing special. Kurt Busch led 234 of the 330 laps and flew past Carl Edwards after a green-white-checker restart. Afterward Edwards said: “We’re not immune to what’s happening in our economy … It’s the best racetrack we go to in terms of competition … It’s too bad there aren’t more fans in the grandstand.”
But there’s a difference between not full and nearly empty. The official NASCAR estimate of Sunday’s gathering was 94,400, and a more jaded press-box appraisal put it at 70,000. “We worked hard to sell two seats and four seats,” Clark said. “We had to start to think a little differently [for this race], and I enjoy that. It’s fun.”
And now AMS can relax for 24 hours. Then preparation begins for the PepBoys Auto 500, which will be held Sept. 6. It’s an event Clark has longed to stage – the first time NASCAR will run at night in Atlanta. “This is a great launching pad for Labor Day,” Clark said of this sunny Sunday, which closed with a sigh of relief.