Rock In A Hard Place

What a picture perfect day it was in the Sandhills of North Carolina Saturday afternoon. Blue skies, sunshine, Spring-like temperatures. But from the looks of the grandstands at North Carolina Speedway during the Busch race, NASCAR may have been better off racing in Siberia.

The stands were pitifully empty on Saturday and unless there is an enormous walk-up crowd for Sunday's Nextel Cup Subway 400, "The Rock" won't be a sell-out then either. And with one date already taken from the long-time NASCAR facility, the track can't afford another sub-par turnout.

It's sad to say, but I'd bet the odds are pretty good the 2005 schedule won't include a stop in Rockingham, where the NASCAR tour has visited since 1965. Although track officials insist they believe a date will be on next year's Nextel Cup Series schedule, talk in the garage area this week says otherwise.

Realignment will continue next season and the latest reports are that Texas will receive its long-coveted second Nextel Cup date, however it will come at the expense of Rockingham, which lost its Fall date this year to Fontana. Next season's ten race "Chase for the Championship" will probably be tweaked to include Texas and Fontana in the mix, in order to bring the title race to major markets. The good news is that Darlington, with its new lighting system in place, will get back the traditional Southern 500 Labor Day date, which can then be run in prime time to meet NBC's demands. The bad news is the shake-up will put Rockingham on the scrap heap with North Wilkesboro.

It's still speculation at this point, but the numbers certainly don't add up in Rockingham's favor. If the track can't even sell-out a 60,000 seat venue for one race, the odds aren't good it will keep the tour's visit. Not when NASCAR can trade it for a sure 200,000 SRO crowd at Texas.

The question is, why doesn't Rockingham do well at the ticket gate? True, the weather in February isn't always the kindest and folks need to plan these NASCAR weekend treks far in advance. But isn't North Carolina the hotbed of NASCAR racing? You'd think with the thousands of fans in the area, the opportunity to drive maybe 90-minutes from Charlotte on a beautifully sunny Sunday would appeal to more than a handful of fans.

But maybe that's the problem, the one that the new NASCAR regime has been pointing out. There are simply too many races still in the Southeast. With two races in Charlotte plus the Nextell All-Star race, two in Bristol, two in Martinsville, two in Darlington and one at Rockingham, almost a third of the Nextel Cup Series schedule is still held within a five or six hour radius of Charlotte. And I don't care how much of a fan you are, that's alot of events to take in, not to mention expenses to rack up.

I still think if an SRO crowd filled "The Rock," NASCAR would find a way to keep the track and its history and tradition on the schedule. But it's really a matter of supply and demand and sadly, the demand just doesn't seem to be there.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2004

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