Friday, August 13, 2010

2011 Cup dates: The times they are a'changing

With apologies to Bob Dylan who I'm most certain has never attended a NASCAR race...

However, I would love to be a fly on the wall if a conversation ever takes place between Bob Dylan and Ward Burton...

The 2011 Cup schedule hasn't been officially released yet as I type this entry. Yet, many changes have already been announced, tracks have published press releases about their 2011 calendars, and tracks have definitely started separating fans from their wallets for 2011 tickets.

A few thoughts about the changes announced so far.

Are we still in Kansas Toto?

Not only are we still in Kansas Dorothy, but now we're going there TWICE. What? Just two years ago, I dropped by the Kansas City track and the adjoining mall on a non-race weekday while in the area on business. I could find no one having interest in the track or races and NO STORES selling track merch - including the track itself. A security guy wouldn't let me look around, wasn't interested in how long I'd been a fan, had no suggestions on where to get track swag, etc.

The only reasons this track has not only one but now two dates are (1) ISC owns the track (2) Sprint is headquartered in nearby Overland Park and (3) ISC and NASCAR will likely pad their coffers from the casino being built nearby. Otherwise, this track would not have staying power on the schedule.

California Dreaming

Kansas City's gain is California's loss. So now Auto Club Speedway is down to one race, but that's one race too many. The Michigan-cloned track has been received luke-warmly pretty much from the time it opened. To be fair, NASCAR L.A. isn't Hollywood and Vine. Its not Beverly Hills. Its not red carpet. Its the friggin' desert. Its an industrial park.
When Roger Penske built the track, he and NASCAR clearly thought they'd get the eyeballs and consumers of southern California as well as tens of thousands of folks from neighboring southwestern states. NASCAR believed it to be such a can't-miss venture they had their incestuously related company, ISC, buy out the Cap'n. The Daytona brass also thumbed their nose at five decades of tradition by moving the Southern 500 2,500 miles away. What they naively underestimated was A-list movie stars not willing to be caught dead slumming in Fontana, thousands of hard-core traditionalist fans who gave up NASCAR in response to the loss of the Southern 500, and the disinterest of Californians in the track once the bloom was off the rose. So to minimize the damage and salvage something, ACS is back to one date and Kansas gets its second. For the record, the sho-nuff Southern 500 still hasn't returned.

Did Atlanta get burned again?

Atlanta Motor Speedway (originally known as Atlanta International Raceway) has hosted two Grand National/Cup races since opening in 1960. Prior to its opening, the famed Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta hosted an annual race from 1951 through 1959. Several of NASCAR's pioneers were from or lived in Atlanta and nearby areas including Raymond Parks, Red Vogt, Lloyd Seay, Roy Hall, and Tim and Fonty Flock.

Speedway Motorsports and NASCAR announced this week Atlanta will lose a Cup date in 2011. To be honest, this change doesn't bother me greatly for a few reasons. Don't get me wrong - I hate to see the tradition of two races get cut to one. And there's no question Atlanta has had exponentially far more incredible speeds, races, and finishes than tracks such as California, Kansas City, Chicagoland, and Vegas combined. Yet, a few points about their losing a date:
  • When NASCAR and track owners left Wilkesboro and The Rock, folks howled through letters to the editor, t-shirts, posters at races televised on ESPN, etc. Today, we have an endless supply of social media outlets to vent and rant. Yet, I haven't seen a huge hue and cry about the Atlanta to Kentucky swap. Plus, Wilkesboro and Rockingham lost both of their races whereas Atlanta gets to keep at least one of theirs.
  • With NASCAR's expansion from the south to the midwest, Texas, and far west the last 15-20 years, perhaps I'm just immune to the loss of yet another southern race.
  • Rotten weather - frequent rain, unpredictable temperatures, and even snow for their March races and raw autumn cold for their November dates often plagued Atlanta.
  • Reconfiguration of the track - If Bruton Smith built his condos, suites, massive stands, and other infrastructure and amenity improvements while retaining the traditional oval track, I think I'd enjoy Atlanta much more. Clearly the Charlotte-clone design is faster than the original oval - and fastest of all Cup tracks. But its still a clone. Today, we have Dover, Darlington, Martinsville, and New Hampshire as our only remaining pure ovals. If Atlanta went away, I could see similar racing at Charlotte or Texas.
  • Excess seating capacity - Atlanta ramped up its seating for the 1992 Cup season finale. Richard Petty's final race was the 1992 Hooters 500, and everyone wanted to be there. Also, an even more compelling reason existed to buy tickets - a championship battle. Five drivers - Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Kyle Petty, and Harry Gant - all had a mathematical chance of winning the Cup. All of the drivers had a sizable fan following - but none larger than Elliott from nearby Dawsonville, GA - all of whom seemed to be there that day. The track must have had monster revenue that day, and SMI feasted off the NASCAR crest over the next decade during the Earnhardt primetime and Gordon's rise. But the expanded seating, re-designed track, and Atlanta race buzz turned out not be sustainable once Earnhardt was gone and Atlanta no longer the season-ending race.
Kentucky Thunder

Atlanta's loss makes for a Lucky Kentucky. I've driven by Kentucky Speedway on my way home from Cincinnati, and its going to be easily accessible for fans. The enthusiasm shown by fans for the Nationwide races should carry over and expand significantly with the arrival of the Cup haulers.

Darrell Waltrip - who lives in Tennessee but is from Owensboro, KY - has been a tireless (and presumably paid) advocate for the track. He has heavily lobbied for the track as deserving of a Cup date. And say what you will about Bruton Smith. He worked with NASCAR to get a Cup date when the previous ownership group could not.

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride...well there was that one time

With the first significant Cup schedule shuffle in about seven or eight years, Nashville is once again the outside looking in. The once-divorced Nashville remains a perennial bridesmaid, however, rather than a second-time bride.

The blame for Nashville's not having a Cup date can be laid at the feet of one organization - the Metro Nashville fair board for decisions made in the mid 1980s. Those questionable decisions have continued for about another 25 years. Nashville lost both of its Cup dates after 1984 because of back-room, good ol' boy politics and short-sightedness of economics. Because the fair board couldn't see beyond the end of its nose to work with the track's leaseholder/race promoters, the city of Nashville backed NASCAR into a corner. As a result, *poof* the Daytona suits pulled Nashville's two dates.

Once NASCAR left Nashville with a dropped jaw and a mouthful of dust, the sport exploded in popularity. The sport suddenly was flush with new fans, new drivers, new sponsors, and - most important - new races in new markets. Nashville was the forgotten city.

Denis McGlynn and the fine folks from Dover have tried mightily to change NASCAR's opinion about Cup returning to middle Tennessee. Like Kentucky, they built a fine superspeedway near Nashville to replace the aging fairground short track.

But sadly, the ship has sailed. NASCAR has clearly shown its interest in future growth is not in the deep south. Plus, committed passionate Nashville-area NASCAR fans will drive or fly to the races if the races won't come to them. Middle Tennessee fans are heavily represented at Talladega, Atlanta, Daytona, Charlotte, and Bristol. So while I'd love to have a Cup race in my own back yard, I continue to be resigned to the fact it won't happen - or certainly no time soon.


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