If It Isnt Broke

Every couple years, as if by magic, word starts to circulate that The Winston might be moved out of Charlotte. As absurd as that might sound …

The annual all-star race fits Lowe’s Motor Speedway – and more specifically, its renowned showman and president, H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler – perfectly.

Yes, The Winston was originally devised as a rotating event. The first time it rotated, to Atlanta Motor Speedway (as it is now known), the result was somewhat less than desirable. It returned to Charlotte where, for most of two decades, it has prospered.

Charlotte is the area where most of the teams are located. It is the center of the sport, even though NASCAR is headquartered in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Wheeler, in concert with officials of RJR’s Sports Marketing Enterprises, has turned The Winston into a constantly evolving, never stale, always exciting celebration of stock-car racing. It is a superspeedway race with a short-track attitude. It brings new fans into the fold. Get them to The Winston, and they are forever hooked on NASCAR.

It was Wheeler who, almost on the spur of the moment, made The Winston a night race. When he proposed that it be run at night, he was not altogether sure it could be done, and the resulting system of lights, with reflectors and high-tech innovations designed to reduce glare, became the model for other similar systems at tracks like Daytona and Talladega.

So why change? The race annually draws huge crowds. The spectacle is awe-inspiring. Seldom has there been a bad race.

“The guys at Charlotte have done a great job with that race, and I don’t see any problem with keeping it there forever,” said car owner Andy Petree. “It’s a ‘racy racetrack,’ and it’s the kind of track you need for this kind of race. They keep tinkering with the format, and that’s good, too. These have been some really good races in the past.”

Apparently, there is some thought in the boardrooms of Daytona that Charlotte gets too much exposure in an era in which the sport’s popularity has spread far beyond what once was its heartland. Another factor is the existence of tracks that have not been able to secure a date on the schedule. NASCAR president Mike Helton recently suggested to Nashville writer Larry Woody that The Winston might even be moved to the new track located just east of Music City.


“Originally, the concept of The Winston was to move it around to different venues,” Helton told Woody. “If we returned to that philosophy, certainly Nashville and some other tracks could be in the mix.”

That comment might not have been much, but it was enough to accelerate the rumors that had already started flying. It’s hard to analyze what Helton meant. He may have been making a congenial nod to a local writer on the occasion of a Busch Grand National race in Nashville

“If NASCAR is going to move it, they need to stay with a place that can be racy,” said Petree. “Moving to a single-file track or a track where that kind of racing is prevalent would be a mistake. You need a track where you start off with two or three grooves, and you know those are going to be there all weekend.”

Then there’s the old rotation idea. “A place like Richmond kind of comes to mind,” said Petree. “It’s pretty racy and the kind of track where the cars can get in there side-by-side. It’s a tough place for anybody to run away from everybody else but a good car can get you to the front.

“A short track would be kind of fun … at least, until you tell the fabricators on these race teams what you have in mind. Still, Richmond or a Martinsville or a Bristol … well, that might be something.”


Richmond, by the way, is owned by International Speedway Corporation, the company that shares a building with NASCAR. Not that such a consideration would ever come into play, ISC and NASCAR being completely separate and all.
Then again, Texas Motor Speedway, the track that wants another race so bad that – gasp! – litigation appears to be a possibility, has all but established a campaign committee to draw The Winston.

Texas, of course, is owned by the same company, Speedway Motorsports Inc., that owns Lowe’s Motor Speedway. As such, a cynic would say, it has no chance. Of course, there are no cynics in NASCAR proper and certainly none in the news media.

Do the fans want The Winston to move? Probably not, unless it’s going to a place like Bristol, which, on the one hand, would be wildly exciting, but, on the other hand, might be akin to introducing nuclear weaponry into a conventional war. The Winston at Bristol might be too much of a good thing.

“Everything they have done with that thing over the years has been set up to give the fans the best possible race,” noted Kyle Petty. “They change the rules. They change the formats. They tell you you can do this or you can’t do that. They change the race beforehand and the way qualifying is set up. They change how you qualify to get into it to begin with.
“It’s our All-Star Game. That’s what you have to keep in mind. Yeah, everybody wants to win it, but the most important thing is how is gets won. If the same guy wins it five years in a row, but he passes three cars on the last lap and has to run through the grass to do it, then it’s been just what they wanted.

If five different guys win five different years, but they blow everybody away to do it, then it’s not much of a deal.

“Wherever it goes, it needs to go where the racing is going to be good, where there is room to do some racing and where you have time to take chances on the racetrack. For a long time, that place has been Charlotte. If not there, I don’t know. … Just keep the race and the fans uppermost in your mind, and you won’t go wrong.”

Shouldn’t there have to be a coherent reason for Charlotte to lose The Winston? What’s wrong with holding it there? Haven’t the crowds been great? Hasn’t the action been breathtaking? Hasn’t the stewardship of Wheeler and his Lowe’s Motor Speedway staff been exceptional?

The race pays a lot of money, but it’s not a huge boon for most of the teams there. A lot of them don’t even get an invitation. The two preliminary events can be kind of expensive, particularly if there are crashes, and only one driver gets to transfer into the main event by winning what is known as the Winston Open. One of the reasons the weekend is still attractive to the lesser teams is that they don’t have to withstand the travel and lodging expenses that would be required if the race were moved elsewhere.

In the past, all this talk has usually been no more than a trial balloon. Someone takes someone else aside and says, “From what I hear, I wouldn’t be surprised if NASCAR didn’t move The Winston out of Charlotte.”

If the raised eyebrows and conspiratorial tone don’t get the collective response of, “Hey, what a great idea,” then the race stays in Charlotte.


Here’s hoping that’s what happens again.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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