This didn’t seem just another Sunday raceday. This was different, bigger, better. This was a raceday at night in the city — well, just south thereof — on a holiday weekend, and the crowd seemed larger and more engaged. Not just another race, this seemed an event.
Ed Clark is the president of Atlanta Motor Speedway, and he took a chance. He opted out of a later race date and a spot in the Chase for a night date on the Sunday before Labor Day. There was reason to think it would work, but also reason to fear it wouldn’t.
The college football season opened in earnest Saturday, and the city was host to two games: One at Georgia Tech and the other under the Georgia Dome. Would folks invest in two (or three) sporting events over one holiday weekend at a time when money’s tight? Would they opt for the Braves instead? Or would they simply sit home and grill burgers in the backyard?
Just eyeballing Sunday’s gathering, the answers were yes, no and no. AMS was jammed in a way it hasn’t been in, Clark estimated, “five or six years at least.” He guessed the turnout for the Pep Boys Auto 500 was “between 110 and 115 or 116,000.” And it wasn’t just about numbers.
The night was a success, Clark said, “because of the anticipation and the enthusiasm … I’d go out in the parking lots, and people would be glad to be here. It’s just an exciting atmosphere. As Bruton Smith [who owns AMS] said: ‘You’re having a state fair and a race is going to break out.’ ”
Tailgating started earlier and lasted longer, and the constituency seemed pleased. “I like it,” said Adam Sapp of Savannah. He’d been in Atlanta since Thursday, having made a holiday weekend of it. (And here we Atlantans figure Savannah is the place to go to get away.)
The Labor Day component? “It’s a great idea,” said Brian Wiscomb of Atlanta. “Just from the timing. It’s cooler [at night]. It’s something new … And the economy is better this time [than for the past two AMS Cup races].”
Said Baris Savas of Gainesville: “I kind of like [night racing]. And it’s nice to do it on a holiday.” He pointed to his 5-year-old son, who’s a kindergartner. “He wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
More than a few folks seemed to have made a weekend of it, giving evidence to the notion that college football wasn’t a race deterrent but a lure. Seen entering AMS: An SUV with soaped windows. “Going to watch Bama [which beat Virginia Tech in the Dome] and bound for the Atlanta race.” (There was also the obligatory P.S.: “Auburn [stinks].”)
A quibble: The lights around the track seemed a bit dim, as if somebody had saved money by using 60-watt bulbs instead of 200-watters. (Full disclosure: The race looked brighter on TV than it did at AMS.)
Said Clark: “To make this work, there’s got to be more than just a good race. You’ve got to give people something beyond that. You’ve got to give them a good time.” Then this: “You don’t become a tradition in one year.”
And that’s true. But think of it this way: Not long ago Clark was defusing rumors that Atlanta was poised to lose one of its NASCAR races. On this holiday weekend, AMS not only held its own but took the first step toward minting an event.