Atlanta Motor Speedway sees its glass as more than half-full

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.

35 comments Add your comment

Dr Henry / Augusta

March 8th, 2009
9:05 pm

Good column MB…I’ve always been amazed at why this event isnt more popular with the paying fans? Its a great track and usually presents an interesting race but soooo many empty seats?? The traffic problems have been addressed and is much better now…The weather was great today. On Friday of this week I decided to take my son and his girlfriend….Got online at ams.com and went thru several different scenarios to purchase 3 tickets together…Should be a cinch, right?? However, there was no way that I could purchase those 3 tickets together with the selections they had… The website wouldn’t let me…This was Friday 03-06…I proceeded to call the 1-877 number they posted and went thru the most complicated auto phone system in history…I still couldn’t purchase 3 tickets together for this race. I have no trouble doing this at Daytona or Darlington and picking the tickets up at the window before the race….When attempting to speak with an honest real life person I was promptly disconnected therefore we stayed home and watched the race on Fox…..Sorry to sound off on you MB but hopefully someone from AMS will read this blog….I’ll try again Labor Day.

Mark Windsor

March 8th, 2009
10:07 pm

I think NASCAR has priced itself out of the market almost , I meanI love to watch race well only if Im in the infield on top of a RV otherwise hey My 46 ” TV is great with a comfy of home and friends…I mean seats are stone for 39.00 in the grandstand Its high dollar for having such a limited seeing area..Nascar needs to remember who its Fans are…

mbradley1445

March 8th, 2009
10:41 pm

Dr. Henry, I quoted Ed Clark above as saying the track worked hard to sell “two tickets, four tickets.” Maybe AMS should figure a way to sell three tickets, too.

mbradley1445

March 8th, 2009
10:44 pm

And you’re right about the traffic: It has gotten better. Clark said they’ve been clearing the property — that means cars and vehicles off the lots — within 90 to 105 minutes after races now, which is a marked improvement.

Then again, you wonder if the smaller crowds have something to do with the lightening of traffic.

scottbravesfan

March 8th, 2009
11:10 pm

Atlanta is just an awful sports town. I don’t blame them for not going to the NASCAR races because they are expensive and better on TV to me but Atlanta doesn’t support baseball and football which are by far the two most popular sports in the country. Braves, Falcons, Tech, Hawks, Thrashers, all have to work to get fans into the stadiums. It’s so weird that 5 million people living in the same metro area and yet none of them are really into sports. Even if they are all transient and fans of other teams if you like sports you go to the games no matter who is playing. I know I would go watch any baseball game. I’ve been to a ton of minor league baseball and college baseball games. It’s just odd to me that Atlanta as a city is so not into sports.

Sam Clemens

March 8th, 2009
11:16 pm

Maybe Atlantans and Georgians are sick and tired of NASCAR.

AMS needs an IndyCar race!

Mark Bradley

March 9th, 2009
12:05 am

As Ed Clark said, “It’s a tough market.”

Kevin Lee

March 9th, 2009
12:14 am

ZZZZZZZZzZzzzzzz! What a shnorfest AMS is. The track is way too big and the race is too long. Let’s just be honest here. A night race on Labor Day sounds nice, they just need to get maybe like 80 cars in the field for some excitement.

Mark Bradley

March 9th, 2009
12:18 am

I wouldn’t complain if they shaved 100 miles off the race. Any race.

jw

March 9th, 2009
6:29 am

Sam, you don’t know your Indy Racing history very well – Atlanta put lights in, did all the stuff and hosted IRL races – the Craftsman/Camping World Truck Series drew more fans. The last race had less than 30,000 fans – and that was with EVERYONE sitting in the frontstretch. I think Atlanta needs to tier the pricing in the frontstretch a little bit more. They have it right in the East Turn, but need to work on the frontstretch. Also, the ‘winner’s circle’ seats need price reductions.

Jim K.

March 9th, 2009
6:42 am

It never ceases to amaze me that so much attention is given to AMS and virtually none to Road Atlanta. The past three years at the Petit Le Mans, well over 90,000 fans (capacity) have attended the 10 hour event. A $75 ticket ($90?) gets you an entire weekend of racing and access to the Paddock (garage area) throughout the race. The best thing about the Petit? You can actually tell the difference in the cars and the drivers have to turn left and go up and down hills!

The AJC has never given Road Atlanta the coverage it deserves. Maybe this year will be different.

Sam Clemens

March 9th, 2009
7:34 am

jw I know the history very well.

Atlanta metro has 1 million more people than 10 years ago.

IndyCar deserves another look. Watch the IndyCar race at Texas Motor Speedway , and you will see how great it is.

Yes IndyCar racing has diversity, something Nascar does Not.

Zero and mean No Marketing and advertising was done by AMS when they had the race last time.

Jim K is right. the Petit Le Mans is now the bigest race weekend in Georgia. and ALMS puts on better races also.

I know AJC is in love with NASCAR. but PLEASE give some more coverage of racing in ALMS and IndyCar.

ps people,forgive my grammar errors.

MC28

March 9th, 2009
9:02 am

It’s not “rocket science” Mr. Clark. The $39 area was sold out. The $135
area was half sold out. I took 4 college students and my wife and it cost me $175. In the good seats it would have cost me $810. People won’t do that in this economy. Adjust the prices, Sir.

Terrible Truth

March 9th, 2009
9:07 am

I guess the rednecks used the warm weather to finally crawl under that Camaro that has been sitting in the yard with two flats, three hubcaps and covered in dirt and doody all winter long.

I heard Obama was going to attend but instead he took a trip to a Landover, Md. Dollar Tree store to stock up on gifts for future visiting European dignitaries.

Mark Bradley

March 9th, 2009
9:10 am

I say it again: When money’s tight, cheaper is better.

Then again, didn’t the Falcons just raise ticket prices?

Paul

March 9th, 2009
9:58 am

It was a shame to see so may empty seats in the stands yesterday as I watched some of the race on TV. It puzzles me why NASCAR (Mr. France & Mr. Helton) can’t seem to understand that why would someone pay $85.00 to $135.00 to go to a race…….it’s a race for goodness sake. You guys have GOT to lower ticket prices, period. It’s not rocket science. Lower your damn tickets! One more thing, the racing at AMS is just plain boring. When will you dorks wake up and listen to the damn fans.

toyota turns me off

March 9th, 2009
10:27 am

Seems to me NASCAR should be flying the foriegners in from overseas to fill all of their seats since they and most of the country have sold out to them.

Mark Bradley

March 9th, 2009
10:33 am

Paul, it was fascinating to hear so many drivers talk about how much they love AMS and the quality of racing it spawns. Because, to be frank, I didn’t think Sunday’s Kobalt was much of a race. Kurt Busch was clearly the best.

YAD

March 9th, 2009
10:54 am

It surely doesn’t help NASCAR that it’s biggest star struggles to finish in the Top 10 and can hardly be counted on to actually win a race any more. I did like Junior’s threat to whack his crew in the head with a hammer if his wheel came off. THAT was good tv!

YAD

March 9th, 2009
10:56 am

And yes, that race was somewhat less than exciting. Drivers and fans don’t always enjoy the same things.

Mark Bradley

March 9th, 2009
10:57 am

Back when Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t winning at DEI, it was thought he was too good for the place. What’s the explanation today?

Cahill

March 9th, 2009
11:58 am

As a Southern Californian, Atlantans can no longer say anything about the Fontana race being too long & boring & empty. I guess ya’ll were busy under the seats shopping too!

BlueOvalLover

March 9th, 2009
1:27 pm

Mark, Jr. is just a name; I’ve said this since, day one. In Busch, he had superior equipment, but in Cup where there is more Mechanical parity, and the driver counts for more and more, See Kyle Busch… Jr. can blame it on his crew, his tires, his equipment or his spotter, but at the end of the day, he’s not in the same class as the elite drivers in go fast turn left. 88 fans can hawk all they want, Jr. will NEVER win a championship.

Mark Bradley

March 9th, 2009
1:29 pm

I wouldn’t disagree, BlueOval.

Disgruntled Fan

March 9th, 2009
2:29 pm

Glad I watched this snooze fest at home. I am proud to have such a great facility so close but I am going to Talladega in April. Most likely we won’t see one driver lead over 78% of the laps (IIRC). This track needs to be repaved or Good Year needs to bring a tire that allows some better racing. Most of the drivers were hanging on for dear life. By the way Petit LeMans allows you to get right next to the racecars and drivers with the free paddock admission but AMS charges $100. Once again please lower the ticket prices ASAP.

MRM

March 9th, 2009
2:51 pm

I made my first trip to AMS in 30 years. I had been a season ticket holder at Bristol for 12 years, but decided not to renew because even tickets there are easy to come by. And I was tired of losing big money on Nationwide tickets that came in my package. So when AMS offered some of their reduced prices, I jumped on it since I had been wanting to come back for the last several years.

It was easy to see where the best deals were for this race because those sections were the ones that had the most people in them. I didn’t understand why AMS didn’t offer discounts for their premium seating as well. We were in the lower area of the Winners Grandstand and there may have been 150 people in the upper area (chari back seats) directly behind us. If AMS decides to offer discounted tickets for the Labor Day weekend race, they need to discount ALL the tickets.

HugeAtlantaFan

March 9th, 2009
3:29 pm

I see all the complaints about the racing here. The racing, actual racing is pretty good here. Its the “wrecking” that is the problem. People think that if there isn’t a good crash’em up, then the race is boring. Sure Kurt Busch put a whoopin on everyone, but boring…it was not.

I think ticket prices are an issue. We sit in the Winners (because my wife and I don’t want people creeping into our seats)and they are BY far the best seats at AMS. They are a little pricey, but our comfort is worth a little more.

If you have problems with ANYTHING at AMS you should shoot Ed Clark an e-mail. He will respond and ibet he takes the economy into consideration for the Labor Day weekend event!

Mark Bradley

March 9th, 2009
3:49 pm

I believe the AMS folks are sincere in their desire to make things work for their patrons. Whether or not that means discounting all tickets … well, I can’t say.

rooster43

March 9th, 2009
10:34 pm

started going to atlanta race track in 1977 for many years twice a year. quit going in 1994. went once in 1999 family of four,over $450 for tickets-boring -boring race.. went again in 2007 family of 3 ,over $475 for tickets-BORING-BORING-BORING, now I go ride my bike and watch race highlights on news..BORING-EXSPENSIVE-NO THANKS NO MORE WASTED TIME ON NASCAR!!!!!!

Sam Clemens

March 10th, 2009
11:14 pm

“If you have problems with ANYTHING at AMS you should shoot Ed Clark an e-mail. He will respond and ibet he takes the economy into consideration for the Labor Day weekend event!”

I don’t see it listed on the Website. What is it ?

I don’t think moving the October date to Sunday Night Labor Day weekend was such a good idea.

Georgia Tech Football kicks off that Saturday.
Georgia usually kicks off that at home that weekend, but will be at Ok St. this year.

And many many families go on vacation to Florida, and lakes, and vacation homes for the last trip before autumn starts.

And I fimly believe NASCAR has out priced the vast majority of its fan base.

AMS need aditional events like : bicycle races, Karting races, 5k, 10k fun runs , concerts, circus, IndyCar races.

nascargoodolboy

March 12th, 2009
12:43 pm

Let me tell you something about atlanta motor speedway..I walked up to the ticket booth sunday morning and asked for a ticket in winners section,lower lever and away from the crowd since half of the seats were gonna be unsold..The ticket lady said no problem and I paid my 95.oo bucks and went to my seat..It seemed like there was nobody in the grandstands till the driver introductions started and the only section I saw filling up was the one I was in..What happened was the speedway was trying to fill up that section because it was the last section before going into turns 1 and 2 and it would look real good on tv by being full..I wound up moving 2 sections down where there was not a single person sitting in a seat from row 1 to row 18..What gets me is I asked for a ticket in a isolated area but I get sold one to fill up a certain section..I will never buy another ticket from atlanta motor speedway again..Tickets can be bought in the parking lot and at the highway for 20 bucks..AMS..The next time a hardcore NASCAR fan walks up to the ticket booth to buy a ticket just to help the track out because of the race not even being half-sold out I suggest you try to accomodate that fan.

Jim

March 17th, 2009
10:46 pm

Has anyone heard of David Ragan doing a test run at AMS for a Neil Young project called Lincvolt?Thanks in advance.Jim

Mark Bradley

March 18th, 2009
12:16 am

Isn’t Neil’s new album supposed to concern LincVolt?

Jim

March 20th, 2009
5:49 pm

Bill Littlejohn

September 27th, 2009
12:02 pm

Shame on the Constitution. Georgia had one of the best road races in the country this weekend and there was little or no coverage other than what was produced by the Road Atlanta web site. This was a fan friendly event with some fantastic international cars and drivers. Get with it Constitution!