A long-running rumor became sobering reality Thursday: Atlanta Motor Speedway has lost one of its Sprint Cup events for 2011. The track that has played host to two NASCAR events for half a century — NASCAR itself is only 63 years old — has seen its allotment halved. This is not good news.
To his credit, AMS president Ed Clark didn’t try to pretend it was. “It’s got a little sting to it,” he said. “The tough part was telling the staff. They deserved to be the first to know. But every one of them said they have a commitment to building the Labor Day weekend race into the biggest event in the state.”
The cold reality is that the Speedway has no choice. No longer does it have two races to market, two sets of tickets to sell. It’s down to one.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a great thing,” said Clark, meaning losing one race. “But there’s opportunity in it.”
And there is. The Labor Day weekend Sunday night race came into being last year and will be known as the Emory Healthcare 500 this September. AMS was so hot to have the night race that it ceded its place in the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup, and the first go-round left Clark and his folks hugely encouraged.
Even when the track was playing host to two events, it was clear AMS saw Labor Day as the greater of the two. “No doubt about it,” Clark said. “It’s a holiday weekend at a more favorable time of the year … It’s tough to do an outdoor event here in March. Even if it’s 60 degrees for the race, it’s cold for the [overnight] campers.”
That said … no speedway wants to see one of its races go elsewhere. (Speculation is that the Atlanta spring race will fall to the Kentucky Speedway, which is a corporate brother of AMS. Small world.) There’s a stigma to losing anything, and AMS has long seen itself as one of the pillars of NASCAR.
Atlanta wasn’t quite Daytona or Talladega or Charlotte on the circuit, but it was a big Southern city with two annual races, and the fall event was the prestigious season-ender. But then NASCAR sought to get bigger and wider, and tracks outside the deep South were handed Cup events and AMS was dislodged by Homestead, Fla., as the site of the season’s final race, and soon Atlanta was fighting to keep up.
The loss of the spring race marks another annual sporting event gone from the local calendar, taking its place on the dusty shelf of golf tournaments and tennis events — though the Atlanta Tennis Championships made a reappearance last month — and the Tour de Georgia. It’s a reflection of a crowded marketplace and shrinking pocketbooks and sponsorships, sure, but the absence of any event marks another rip in the fabric of civic life.
This doesn’t, however, mean that Atlanta has become a NASCAR ghost town. The Labor Day race has real potential, and it falls at a sweet spot in the sporting schedule: On a holiday weekend, flush with the beginning of college football, a week before the NFL commences.
“We’re going to maximize the opportunity,” said Clark, who’s a salesman of the first rank. “We’ve expanded our [Labor Day] schedule from two days to four.” There’ll be a Drivin’ N Cryin’ concert on Friday night, and the morning after the race the speedway will serve free breakfast to its campers.
“That’s our focus,” Clark said. “We’re throwing every effort toward that one weekend.”
Moral of our story: When NASCAR hands you a lemon, you make lemonade. You sell the heck out of the one race you have left.