Friday, March 06, 2015

The Issue Of Atlanta International Raceway

MRN racecaster Dave Moody has a good piece about Atlanta Motor Speedway and the conundrum NASCAR has faced with regard to where it belongs on its schedule.   The piece has drawn the usual responses one would expect of race fans who wish to blame something other than fan neglect for the track's present issues.

The issue warrants examination because it illustrates the problem that exists where race fans need to accept some level of accountability.

Atlanta International Raceway has been a NASCAR staple since it opened in 1960, yet it has been inconsistent as far as attendances over the years.  Initially built as a pure oval - two half-mile turns bracketing two quarter-mile straights - with relatively small seating capacity, its capacity had grown rather quickly in the 1960s - the inaugural race drew 25,000; the 1964 Dixie 400 won by Ned Jarrett drew 40,000, the 1967 Atlanta 500 hit 70,000 - before dropping (45,000 for the 1974 Atlanta 500), to where backstretch grandstands were torn down by the mid-1970s only to be reinstated by 1981.   The track underwent several ownership changes; LG DeWitt, who won the 1973 Cup title as Benny Parsons' tram owner, purchased the speedway to go with his ownership of North Carolina Motor Speedway; when he passed away in 1990 Bruton Smith purchased the speedway, radically expanded the seating, and reconfigured it to quad-oval status.

Yet it draws only 75% capacity now, even with the backstretch grandstands long gone (replaced by a nice-looking RV area) and even as it sees some of the better non-restrictor plate racing on the tour; the Truck Series in particular has put on some spirited battles up front in recent races there. 

The Atlanta sports market has long been among the weakest in the nation; twice now Atlanta NHL teams - the Flames (now in Calgary) and later the Thrashers (now the new version of the Winnipeg Jets) - did not successfully take root; the Falcons have regularly needed gameday walk-up ticket sales to sell out their home games; the Falcons famously lied on the pregame injury report for their 2005 game against the Patriots to entice ticket buyers to think Michael Vick would play that day when there was never any chance of it; the Braves and Hawks are spotty in attendances.   The speedway overall drew well before the capacity was overexpanded after 1990, and contrary to the myth perpetuated in some fan circles the weather for its dates didn't stop anyone from going in the past - late March and early-November dates worked, even with snow delays in 1991 and 1993 for the Atlanta 500.

Atlanta's issue is compounded because Bruton Smith wants a second date at Las Vegas - itself a questionable sports market despite good attendances at the Vegas speedway - and NASCAR has not admitted that it should cancel its two non-points races (especially the All-Star Race at Bruton's Charlotte track, a race that stopped being all that worthwhile years ago) and thus free up dates for two extra points-paying races such as a second Vegas date.

The demise and brief revival of North Carolina Motor Speedway illustrates Atlanta's issue.   When Bruton and NASCAR settled on a second Texas Motor Speedway date, Rockingham was shut down.  In 2007 Andy Hillinberg purchased the speedway, tore down over half the seating, and secured races for ARCA and the Trucks as well as local hobby stocks, and the dates were favorable weather-wise - yet despite some good crowds the track couldn't sell out its races, and its future is now in doubt again.

The reality is while fan apathy is not the only issue, it nonetheless warrants admission.   Fans should go to Atlanta races and support the track, just as they should support local tracks and their local sports teams.

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