Nascars Helton Considers Schedule Tracks And Cities

March Madness. It had a different meaning in NASCAR.

While the NCAA's top college hoops teams were dwindling down to the final four, there was already talk in the NASCAR garage as to which tracks will or won't be invited to the big dance in 2001.

Currently, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule consists of 34 points races and two all-star events, the Bud Shootout and The Winston. Now NASCAR must decide whether to add dates to the 2001 line-up to accommodate races at Kansas City and Joliet, Ill., or take an event away from an existing facility.

NASCAR senior vice president and chief operating officer, Mike Helton, sees Kansas City and Chicago on the sanctioning body's radar screen and appreciates the value of expanding into the New York market.

"The two real opportunities that look to be coming out of the ground are Kansas City and Chicago," Helton said. "We're very much aware of the conversations going on with ISC (International Speedway Corporation), that are going on with New York, to put a racetrack up there."

Helton is the first person to admit that the busy schedule is limited and NASCAR must carefully consider its growth of the schedule and weigh various options.

"Once you get Chicago, New York and the Bay Area -- San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, Dallas -- Fort Worth on the schedule and have all those markets covered, then we have to step back and take a look. We just have to take things one step at a time and see what opportunities present themselves.

"In the meantime, we have to be very pragmatic before we make a decision and just rush to put another weekend on the schedule. It needs to make sense and that means adding new opportunities in new markets."

If the schedule is not expanded, several scenarios have been discussed as to where to acquire and delete dates. Both North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham and Darlington Raceway have been mentioned as sacrificial lambs. Neither track came close to selling out its Winston Cup events. In fact, the estimated attendance for the Busch Series event at Bristol Motor Speedway was double what the gates were at Darlington or Rockingham.

When poor weather and lack of reasonably-priced hotel rooms for the fans are factored in, the practicality of continuing to run spring races at these tracks diminishes significantly.

One way to open up two weeks would be to schedule the Bud Shootout and The Winston the same week as their companion events, the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600. Helton said that NASCAR has considered combining the spring events at Lowe’s Motor Speedway for a number of reasons.

"It could open that up for another date and we have looked in that direction," Helton said. "But that doesn't mean we would go back a second time somewhere. If there was another opportunity that opened up, we might look at that as an opportunity in a market we're not in now, if it existed. That doesn't mean that it's a given for Texas, but it would open up a second date, it might make sense to move Atlanta out of March into that weekend."

What about Texas? After all, it is the seventh-largest market in the United States. Does it deserve a second race?

Bruton Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports believes Texas Motor Speedway should be given a second date. Smith assumed the date would be granted for this year's tour, but feels confident the Winston Cup Series will be racing twice at the speedway in 2001.

"When that date is announced for the second date in Texas, we'll set off some fireworks," Smith said. "You'll see some bombs."

Has there been a guarantee from NASCAR that Smith will receive a second date?

"No," Smith said. "But you know it's coming. I haven't talk to Mike (Helton) about it, but I have talked to (NASCAR senior vice president of marketing) Brian (France) and other people. Brian knows we need to be there. It's been proven to be the biggest market in NASCAR. They've been promising me over and over and over.

"When I built Charlotte I moved two dates there. They have never ever, ever given me a date. Everyone needs to look at what is good for the sport. I'm leaning toward what's right."

According to Smith, discussions are held between track executives at the May event at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, where they are able to offer their opinions regarding the upcoming schedule. Although Helton acknowledges this summit may exist, he insists that NASCAR has the ultimate decision.

"NASCAR decides what the schedule will be," Helton said. "We go on the road and work on the sanctioning agreements and how the schedule will look. We currently are in the mindset that we will take advantage of new opportunities before we go back some place on a second race.

"Although it may be just one race in Los Angeles, or one race in Dallas-Fort Worth or Phoenix or Las Vegas -- at least we're there racing."

Team owner Jack Roush agrees specific markets should be added to the schedule in order to grow the sport.

"The drivers need to be where the (top) markets are, what creates the greatest overall awareness and the enthusiasm for our sport in the broader population," Roush said. "To go into the New York City market and Chicago, ultimately, and Kansas City, that's what we need to do because that gets us exposure to the portions of the populations that are otherwise starved for it."

As far as facilities currently on the Winston Cup Series schedule, Roush says his needs are very simple.

"If they have enough bathrooms, I'm almost happy," Roush said with a chuckle.

But seriously Jack, are there certain tracks that you favor over others?

"California, the Fontana group, coach Les Richter has done a fantastic job with the Penske crew of laying that place out. Michigan has improved in terms of the ability of getting in and out. Las Vegas was much better," Roush indicated.

"Bristol is just horrific, it's your worst nightmare. And Texas is not showing the kind of improvement I was hoping for. From a competitor's point of view, 34, 35, 36 times a year, you expose yourself to excruciating frustration in trying to deal with the infrastructure that exists. There's no doubt that the schedule will expand, but I'm for whatever is good for the sport."

So once NASCAR establishes a presence in Chicago, Kansas City and New York, are there additional markets the sanctioning body might be considering?

"There are others, but I'm reluctant to mention them because they become a competitive issue," Helton said. "People would say, 'this is where I need to build a racetrack, because Mike Helton says this is a popular place to look at.' The areas that we're missing in have a lot to do with climate. Take the Portland, Ore. market area or

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