Big Apple Banquet Bites?

This time every year a debate rages among the NASCAR community - the drivers, team owners and the fans - about whether the Winston Cup banquet should be held in New York or elsewhere.

Fact is, earlier this week, 42 percent of the several thousand respondents to a RacingOne.com poll said the banquet should be held in Daytona. Another 36 percent said the event should take place in Charlotte.

New York got only 19 percent, or a little more than half the votes of Charlotte.

Well folks, I'm here to tell you that those picking Charlotte or Daytona are wrong… waaaaay wrong.

Take the event out of New York and you have no event.

Admit it, I'm right and you anti-New Yorkers are wrong. Write me off as a damn Yankee if you want. I'm still right.

Without New York in the picture, there's little or no national exposure for the champion, the sport or its sponsors.

On Tuesday, Bobby Labonte appeared on "Live with Regis," a nationally-syndicated show that is among the most-watched in daytime.

While here, Labonte has talked with the nationally-distributed cable news channels MSNBC and the Fox News Channel. He spoke to the New York Daily News and New York Times. Heck, at lunch he sat next to a correspondent from People magazine.

I'm sorry folks, but the facts are the facts.

Stage the banquet in Charlotte, one of the nicest cities on the Eastern side of the country (I'm the first to admit I love Southern accents), and you've got nothing more than a fancy dinner party.

Certainly some of the interviews with national publications could be done over the phone or by satellite remotes. Yet, in those cases, it becomes a project for the media outlets and one to easily pass on.

Bring the champion to New York and there are countless ways from which to promote the sport.

Now, I'm not for a moment downplaying the impact the event has on the winning driver, his team, or their families, because getting that trophy really is a life-changing experience. And the Winston Cup banquet is a full-fledged grand event.

However, a sport that thrives on media attention for its various parts craves national exposure. And in Charlotte, it's just not going to happen.

Radio-show hosts John Boy & Billy are big in the Piedmont, but no matter how you slice it, they're not Regis Philbin.

And in Daytona? Forget it. Nothing. The dinner would be a blip on a few die-hards' radar screens.

Going to New York is a big deal for a lot of folks. It's the media capitol of the world. It's the financial center of the United States. The list of superlatives goes on endlessly.

"I've got mixed emotions on that," says Labonte's crew chief Jimmy Makar of the debate. "It takes a lot of our guys, people in our sport, out of their element, which is a lot more casual, a lot more laid back. But it’s a neat thing.

"Once you get here, you realize how big things are," he adds. "In events like this, your meeting the national media, you're talking to people you normally don't get a chance see. It helps give the guys a different perspective of what they do. You stay in the shop day-in and day-out and your world gets smaller. The guys who don't normally get out and about, this is going to be, really, an eye-opening experience for them to see the magnitude of what they do back home is really all about."

This isn’t to say there wouldn't be some upside to having the event in either Charlotte or Daytona.

Charlotte, of course, is the undisputed hub of the stock-car racing world. Most of the teams are located nearby, fans are abundant, and it wouldn't be so dang costly for teams to participate.

Daytona would require travel for teams and sponsors attending, although it is the undisputed birthplace for the sport.

Yet, neither place would make it easy for NASCAR or the champion to get any national attention. Regis just isn't going to hop a jet to Florida for a few minutes of interview time.

NASCAR holds only one banquet in New York. The others are spread out all over the country. Nice affairs all. Still, none get noticed outside of the immediate area staging the gathering.

To that end, NASCAR needs to keep the banquet in New York for financial reasons. There's an old adage in the business that nothing happens until it happens where the corporate honchos on Madison Ave. can see it. That's why NASCAR is so hungry for a track in the metropolitan area.

It's not about feeding a fan base; it's about luring the big bucks from the guys selling soap - the guys on Madison Ave.

Each year, the champion is photographed in Times Square, the crossroads of the world. Folks would be hard-pressed to find such a dramatic backdrop in Charlotte or Daytona.

And despite the annual talk about whether New York is right or not, the event has now grown to enormous proportions.

When NASCAR first held the banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria in the early 1980s, it took place in the relatively small Starlight Room. It later moved to the Grand Ballroom, a massive, floor banquet hall with three balconies overlooking the main area, all decked out in true New York City fashion.

When the banquet was moved out of the Starlight Room, it became the venue for the annual press conference. A couple years ago, the press conference outgrew the Starlight. This season, some 400 people will be credentialed for the press conferences.

When it comes to where the event should be held, frankly, I don't care what the polls say. NASCAR should keep the banquet where it is and use New York as a tool to promote the sport to the world… because the world isn't going to Charlotte.

If you have questions, comments or ideas you'd like to send to Richard Huff, you may do so at RichMHuff@cs.com

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2000

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