Soul For Sale

The soul of the sport of stock car racing is for sale to the highest bidder though NASCAR would prefer that you call it “realignment.” It’s likely we know a bit more about NASCAR’s plans than the titular powers that be had intended, only because Bill France Jr., NASCAR’s increasingly addled loose cannon and defacto Boss who has never gotten over the idea he can do or say whatever he wants with no repercussions once again fired from the hip during what was likely supposed to be a carefully choreographed announcement.

“Realignment” in this case refers to moving race dates from one track to another. If there is a bright spot it is that even the NASCAR brass seems to finally have admitted 36 points races and the two annual dog and pony freak shows are about all that can fit on the schedule. For years there have been rumors that either Darlington or Rockingham, or possibly both, would lose one of their Winston Cup race dates. Each year, when the new schedule has been released in September (or thereabouts) the two storied racing facilities have been spared. But without tipping their hand, NASCAR wanted to float a trial balloon early this season to see just how outraged fans would get about losing a race at their favorite track and having it moved to some cookie cutter track that features races best viewed by insomniacs late at night. (Well except for Chicago which was seemingly designed to put racecar drivers in pine boxes more efficiently than any other track not featuring restrictor plates.) Then Buffalo Bill went ahead and laid NASCAR’s hand down on the table.

Looking at things from a strictly economic standpoint NASCAR’s plan makes perfect sense, at least to those poor souls who view a field full of wild flowers in the spring and see only fistfuls of greenbacks available for cultivating those flowers and selling them at roadside stands. Darlington and Rockingham rarely sell out their winter races. (Look at a calendar. Neither race is run in the spring.) Atlanta has been having trouble selling out their first race of the year (also run during the winter.) So, the argument goes, why not move Atlanta’s race date which can’t sell 80,000 tickets to Texas where 160,000 seats are sold, every square inch of infield is spoken for, and where a waiting list exists for even more fans who’d come if there was a place for them to fit.

Why not indeed? Well how about back when H. Ross Perot was still trying to unload a major piece of real estate in Texas with an unstable water table beneath it, the fans in Atlanta had already been buying tickets to Atlanta for decades, just as their daddies had and likely just as their daddies dads had back in the era where stock car racing was little more a carnival freak show than a legitimate sport in most folks eyes’. How about the fact that the grandkids of those fans who showed up at Darlington for the first Southern 500 in starched white shirts and skinny ties, then used can opener to pop open a beer are owed a debt by a now prosperous sport? My daddy always told my sisters “you leave the dance with the one that bought you.” (He usually told me “You get caught smoking pot or the rear tires at the dance again and don’t bother don’t bother calling home” but that’s another story.) It’s interesting that in announcing their latest plan to “grow the sport” (NASCAR speak for throwing out the rednecks and catering to a more upscale clientele who until last year were enthralled with indoor soccer) NASCAR officials noted the desires of the networks and sponsors must be listened to. How about the fans? Do they matter at all anymore?

How about the fact after years of negotiations the state of Georgia is laying down some major taxpayer derived bread to build a nice new six lane Interstate to funnel traffic in and out of AMS more efficiently. How are the politicians and taxpayers going to feel if suddenly one of the tracks race dates gets yanked before the new asphalt even cools? Fortunately Atlanta is a major city, not a rural hamlet. The damage done to the economies in the areas around Rockingham and Darlington would be irreparable. Not much goes on in those parts and the four big race weekends a year pump a huge amount of money into the local economy. Want to see what happens to a rural town when the NASCAR circus makes tracks? Take a drive through tiny North Wilkesboro. If you’d been there in the town’s day it’s enough to make you cry. Who takes care of all the local merchants, innkeepers, waiters and waitresses who have been catering to the race crowds for years in Darlington or Rockingham. Or does NASCAR out of the goodness of their hearts just issue these folks sweatshirts that read “My race date got realigned and all I got was this crummy sweatshirt” to keep them warm as they sleep in a cardboard box under the Interstate in the winter of 2005?

Even the mightiest oak is doomed when it loses hold of its roots though as of late I think NASCAR will only admit to being in existence since 1993. Like large trees, tradition is not easily transplanted no matter how much manure you use and lately Daytona Beach seems about nostrils deep in the stuff.

Things get even more curious when one looks at France’s statement that NASCAR would be willing to discuss things with the folks at Dover if they wanted to move one of their race dates to Nashville or Saint Louis. (Both owned by Dover’s parent company.) Ticket sales aren’t a problem in this instance. Dover regularly caters to about 140,000 rabid fans at each Cup race. And while Dover itself isn’t the most happening burg on the face of the earth, it’s ideally located midway between the Philadelphia and Baltimore Metro areas. So why move a date to Nashville? Maybe in hopes that they can stage country music “Nashville Pays Tribute to NASCAR” show every bit as refined and entertaining as Hollywood’s salute to NASCAR and this year’s awards banquet? Why Saint Louis, other than perhaps NASCAR’s official brew happens to be headquartered there? I mean what’s in Saint Louis other than a brewery and that “Gateway to the West” thing that looks like the Washington Monument in need of Viagra. Heck, people there can’t even decide if it’s pronounced “Saint Lou-is” or “Saint Lou-eee”. And isn’t Kansas City, which already has a race, almost as close to Saint Louis as the Chicagoland Speedway is to Chicago? The fact is there are barely as many seats at Nashville and Saint Louis combined as there are at Dover.

One factor I haven’t heard mentioned yet as this issue heats up is the quality of the racing. The tracks specifically mentioned as at risk of losing a date feature some of the best races on the circuit, even for those blind to tradition. The tracks that are being mentioned as possible recipients of new dates were all built as multi-purpose tracks with lower than optimal banking to allow both stock car and open wheel racing. Time has proven while stock cars can race at such tracks, they tend not to put on a very good show. (Texas was originally “dual-banked” but the track has been dug up and done over twicw since it opened. It’s the best of the new tracks and while it has more banking than California, Las Vegas, Kansas, Chicago or Homestead the IRL open wheel guys stage some incredible races at TMS.) Last fall Atlanta staged a promotion where fans got a discount off of future ticket prices if there were less than forty passes for the lead at a track which has staged some memorable races in years as of late. What’s Chicago going to offer? A discount if the same guy wins again? How again Kansas City? If this race is as bad as the first two we’ll let you return to your car and bring in your cooler after all?

Of course these multi-use tracks were designed in an era where building a racetrack was seen as basically a license to print money. It wasn’t that way back when Darlington, Rockingham or Atlanta were built. Back when Paul Sawyer decided to pave his half mile oval at Richmond, he wasn’t looking to increase profits. He just thought his fans might enjoy the races more if they didn’t go home with all that dirt in their hair wearing filthy clothes.

Nor has anyone mentioned the downside of the increased traveling inherent in “growing the sport” to new markets. If nothing else, Darlington and Rockingham are within easy driving distance of the Charlotte area where most teams are headquartered. If both tracks lose a date and the races are moved to Kansas and LA, it just means more time away from home for already burnt out team members. It just means more expense for the team owners who have to transport their equipment and personnel clear across the country rather than just down the Interstate a piece. And it’s not as if expenses aren’t already out of control in the sport.

I’m also confused as to why the networks and sponsors are said to be aboard this ship of fools. One would guess at least some people at FOX realize that not only does Darlington predate their network, it predates television. Where a race broadcast originates doesn’t limit the ability of race fans coast to coast to tune in. You could race in Pigs Knuckle, Alabama and folks in New York, Dallas and LA can tune in with a few strokes of the remote. And they’re more likely to tune and stay captivated by an exciting race being broadcast from a rural area than a dull race from a major metro area. Likewise, if I’m a sponsor, I want the races to be exciting to draw the most possible viewers to see my 180 MPH billboard even if I have to send all three corporate jets to fly my marketing folks to the track where that race is being held. Bottom line, the size of the crowd on hand at a track to see a race is dwarfed by the size of the television audience at home and that’s as true at Daytona as it is at Martinsville.

This seems a classic matter of putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps there will be a time down the road when a place like Kansas or Fontana deserves a second date. If NASCAR can find the correct aero and tire package that allows exciting side by side racing on low-banked tracks the change would be more palatable. (Here’s a hint. The trucks have about the same power and almost the same tire as the Cup cars, but are far less aerodynamic. Yet they can put on thrilling races at places like California and Michigan. Is there a lesson here? Apparently someone at NASCAR isn’t paying attention. They’re making the trucks more aerodynamic.)

While some fans are already pretty stirred up over the proposed changes a large percentage are sitting by complacently and quietly watching the pretty trial balloons float by. After all, their logic says, NASCAR would never move a race from Darlington to a cookie cutter track. They can’t possibly be that stupid or greedy. I’ve been watching the good ship NASCAR sailing in uncharted waters for a number of years now as the sport has grown, and when it comes to stupidity and greed it seems to me that they’re working on cornering the market. The heck with dumping Darlington. Let’s dump France.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2003

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