The Frontstretch: Great Racing, Bad Crowd? The Curious Case Of AMS - Where To Go From Here by Doug Turnbull -- Monday September 6, 2010

Go to site navigation Go to article

Drivers love it. It sits just south of the biggest city in the southeastern United States and 7th or 8th biggest in the whole country. It has wonderful facilities, a fan-friendly atmosphere. It has been home to some of the most spectacular finishes and impactful races in NASCAR history. But Atlanta Motor Speedway has a problem – the crowds just will not turn the gates. Sunday night’s crowd was well-short of expectation, to the surprise of many. Despite vast improvements and additions on the track’s grounds, despite lowering the ticket prices more than Mel Gibson’s appearance fees, fans in the Atlanta area just aren’t sinking their teeth into AMS races. But why? After all of the hubbub, the lost March race, the arrival of NASCAR on Labor Day weekend, how could they not? The list of problems may be longer than NASCAR and AMS officials can fix.

Some, particularly the casual fan (you know, the one that NASCAR broke its back to please these last few years), would argue that the racing at Atlanta is boring. A point can be made. I, myself, have fallen asleep at the track before, even in the grandstands. While drivers are pressing their cars’ handling abilities to the limits and pining for the thread-wide sweet spot that would give their cars speed. Of course, while they are busy dirt-tracking their various lines across AMS’ famously abrasive surface, one driver has figured out the riddle and checked out. The strung out field leads to long green flag runs, which yields to even more daylight (or moonlight as it be) between each position. While the endings are often fun, along with restarts, the meat of the sandwich sometimes takes too long to chew. And in the age of attentions spans shorter than Heidi Montag’s singing career. That means trouble.

The boredom, though, doesn’t always translate to the grandstands (despite my cat nap in the bleachers several years back), like it does on television. The sheer spectacle of stock car racing can overcome a lackluster race. Loud cars, the smell of fuel and tires, and the electricity of the light bouncing off the paint schemes can’t help but conjure up excitement. Add in the fact that the night race is brand new in Atlanta (and on Labor Day Eve – so people do not have to worry about work the next day) and this would at least prompt a few more fans to try AMS for the first time or return to a race after years of cold weather in March and October races. Last season, that was the case. The Labor Day race, while short of a sellout, was an exciting smash. This year, the Labor Day night race at AMS experienced a sophomore attendance slump.

Maybe the problem is deeper, then, than the problems unique to Atlanta. Fans used to pack the stands at AMS and see the same strung out racing, deal with the same questionable weather, and sit in the same traffic jams going to and from the races. Maybe the problem is the same one that plagues the whole sport. Both AMS and Auto Club Speedway in California lost one of their two annual dates on the 2011 Sprint Cup schedule. California’s attendance problems, though, pervaded most of its existence, as the cosmopolitan crew on the West Coast that did drive their BMW s from Hollywood to see a race there, rarely did so more than once or twice. But AMS had a healthy fan base simply erode away. Did bad weather wash it away? The weather for this Labor Day was forecast (and ended up being) as perfect. The fans showed up in droves – to other places.

The first problem for AMS is the same apathy that plagues all of NASCAR right now. Fans just simply aren’t in love with today’s drivers and the racing mentality most take to the track. The sport is covered apathetically by a bored media, who realizes they can draw a paycheck by following the same storylines, scanning Jayski for material instead of prodding for new information, and speaking in the same platitudes each week (and when that fails, they resort to bashing it). And apathy in Metro Atlanta on all occasions exists – especially in sports. The already non-NASCAR populace of Atlanta knows nothing of the sport and does not show up to watch the sports it does know about. As a native and avid Braves fan, I still cannot fathom the sub-20,000 crowds that attended the games at Turner Field this past week – and the Braves are in their first good pennant race since 2005. The Hawks’ first-round playoff-clinching win had more empty seats than a Limp Bizkit concert. Imagine how this translates to a venue 40 miles south of the city, for a sport that many Atlantans (who aren’t natives and have no concept of NASCAR) do not understand or like.

Say they did, though. Even if people in the Atlanta area were at least halfway passionate about the sport, they do not have much money. Sure, there are many affluent business people that live in posh areas close to town, the majority of Atlanta’s population with expendable income live well north of the city, adding over a half hour to a trip down to Hampton, Georgia. And expendable income is at a premium for those people and even more so for the blue collar demographic of fans that are NASCAR’s bread and butter, especially in this sagging economy. Georgia’s jobless rate is among the worst in the country. And in better economic times, when fans flocked to NASCAR during the late 1990s and early 2000s, ticket prices rose to astronomical levels and priced some fans out before hard times hit.

Who do we have left? The core of die-hard fans that scraped together their vacation money for the bi-annual trip down or up I-75 to AMS that came over the majority of the track’s 50 years to see the likes of Allison, Petty, Pearson, Yarborough, Baker, Roberts, Earnhardt, the Labontes, Rusty, and some red-headed fella named Elliott. They saw the mind-boggling 1992 Hooter’s 500, where Petty retired, Jeff Gordon debuted, Davey Allison was eliminated from title contention, and hometown hero Bill Elliott (the race winner) did all he could do to snag the Winston Cup away from eventual Cup winner Alan Kulwicki. These fans still came in droves to see Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, and others through the 1990s and early 2000s. But then the attitudes of drivers changed. The racing changed. NASCAR openly said that these core fans were not who they wanted to attract and the governing body made changes that many of those fans left didn’t appreciate. Suddenly (or not so much so), those blue collar fans reconsidered the burden of loading the van and trucking themselves to the race. Who did they feel they could root for? Jimmie Johnson? His blue collar roots don’t come across in his interviews and his dominance the past few years has not been very popular. Dale Earnhardt Jr.? I’m told he still races, but I haven’t seen him up front in a while. Kyle Busch? Here’s a quote I heard during driver introductions from the crowd Sunday: “Boooooo.” It isn’t worth it to them. They’d rather take the family to the beach one last time on Labor Day and flip the race on for the last 50 laps.

And here’s the final thing to consider: Atlanta still attracts more fans than some tracks – some that still have two dates. The problem, of course, is that the expansion of NASCAR led to grandstand expansion and, thus, has left empty spots along the front straightaway seating (the expensive seating) in NASCAR’s contraction in the past few years. The AMS attendance drop-off has not gone unnoticed and is harped upon by many. But unlike Auto Club Speedway, where the racing was nearly always boring (with the exception of this past February), AMS’ insufficient gate returns had little to do with anything the track itself could control. The economy tanked. The culture in NASCAR changed. The Atlanta media largely ignored the track, because it largely ignored NASCAR. Now the March date is gone.

I’ve heard that some scratched attending Sunday’s race because the March date got taken away, which is counter-intuitive, but nonetheless again adds angry, broke, apathetic souls to the pile of people who aren’t coming to the track. However you feel, though, whomever you blame, don’t blame the track. Atlanta Motor Speedway is yet another heritage racing venue that fell victim to circumstance and can still fight to get some of its lost share. The crew that runs AMS has done more to accommodate fans (lowering ticket prices, booking concerts, and convincing hotels to lower rates) than many tracks would ever think of. The “Boys Have at It” experiment in NASCAR isn’t over, the Chase for the Cup may change, the economy definitely will rebound, and fans will return to those empty seats. When they do, Labor Day racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway will be viewed as the tradition it should be – and while the date may never surpass the tradition steeped in the Southern 500 at Darlington – it will carve its place in history as a marquee event.

Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on AM 750 and NOW 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.
“Contact Doug Turnbull”: fireballturnbull@gmail.com
Follow Doug on “Facebook”: http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=22606881 and “Twitter”: http://twitter.com/dougturnbull _

NASCAR NEWS, RIGHT TO YOUR INBOXAND IT’S FREE.
The Frontstretch Newsletter, back in 2014 gives you more of the daily news, commentary, and racing features from your favorite writers you know and love. Don’t waste another minute – click here to sign up now. We’re here to make sure you stay informed … so make sure you jump on for the ride!

Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…
FREE NEWSLETTER! CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP

 

©2000 - 2008 Doug Turnbull and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Janice
09/06/2010 10:05 AM
permalink

And living in GA why did I attend the race in person? Didn’t want to spend the money. I’m thankful I have a job, but as you mentioned, unemployment here is some of the worst in the country. I also didn’t want to have to even think about dealing with post race traffic in the wee hours of the morning. GA is also having a huge crack down of drunk driving this weekend. Not that I drive, but it makes me anxious and nervous being on roadways with folks that have been indulging all day and night long. There are enough accidents on Atlanta highways, and generally one fatality a week, so it’s a control thing with me. Maybe next year, if economy gets better. Weather was perfect and I was tempted on Sunday to drive down, as I knew tickets were still available, but I chose to hold onto my dollars and watch from the couch. Once Dale Jr went a lap down and the “debris caution” was thrown, that bunched up the field and did make racing a bit more exciting. Again, credibility issue with NA$CAR.

Bette
09/06/2010 11:34 AM
permalink

YES. I SAW THE EMPTY SEATS. SORRY I DIDN’T LIVE CLOSE ENOUGH TO BE THERE AND SEE IT FOR REAL.IT WAS A GREAT RACE.DON’T SEE HOW ONE COULD TAKE A NAP DURING THAT ONE. I’M SORRY I DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER TO HOW YOU GET PEOPLE OUT.

AncientRacer
09/06/2010 12:36 PM
permalink

I agree with everything said here. Like Janice I THOUGHT of going, but I would have had to drive from Rome, GA to Hampton and that (since the track is on US41) a pain. Atlanta traffic works pretty much from the airport going north but going south is a pain in the rear. I love AMS and have gone to the spring race most years since 1969, but the fall race leaves me less than enthused because it comes so soon after Bristol.

RamblinWreck
09/06/2010 01:21 PM
permalink

Quite frankly, I’d be more likely to attend a daytime race than a night race. I like the night race idea when it’s at a local short track and attendance is small… but I don’t want to start a busy drive home (even if it’s “only” thirty miles) at or after midnight.

Of course, the other thing going against the track is that despite me living in Atlanta, Talladega isn’t that much farther away and it promises something different… a greater spectacle, a chance at a surprise winner, a race that’s virtually guaranteed to be close, and a Truck race as a companion event. If I can only get to one race weekend this season, it’s going to be ‘Dega.

dt
09/06/2010 03:44 PM
permalink

We need to look at local publicity. The ajc (atl daily newsp.) put the race on page C-16 Sun. The front page Sun. included a long story about the old coach’s wife and her opening game outfit. WSB radio, which has has gone all-out in recent years, went back to their true love, UGA football. I don’t know what AMS has done to tick off the local media – but that’s part of the attendance problem.

Marybeth
09/06/2010 06:41 PM
permalink

Whomever picked the Ernie Haase & Signature Sound group to sing our National Anthem should pat themselves on the back & get a big bonus. Sometimes I wonder if the folks picked to sing it have even been auditioned. Not this time! These guys, in their suits, white shirts & ties, sang it like they BELIEVE it!!! :) Well done guys!

Bob Chimento
09/06/2010 07:32 PM
permalink

It’s not what has ticked off local media DT… It’s NASCAR has ticked off it’s “CORE” fan and it’s payback time…

We aren’t showing up to races because of the same old thing…$$$$..

Lets face it… NASCAR is about money and putting on a show…. it’s not like the early years when it was about the racing…

Things that need to change…
1. The car… bring back the stock in racing..
2. Price gouging the fan (this is happing in all sports)
3. Races belong on Sunday afternoon after church not Sat or Sun nights
4. Chase is ok but needs a major overhaul of points value…
5. Break 500 mile races into 4 or 5 shoot outs…
6. This is a team sport add points for pit stops…
7. and… get rid of the pomp-and-pre-race-frills…

Intro the top 10 drivers and past Champs without all the hipe (Hornish,Speed, and field fillers..who cares(sorry guys.. I don’t love ya and I already KNOW Ya)), we need to have a moment of silence not a prayer (many of my agnostic and jewish friends are tired of guys like Coach G and some pastors proclaiming JC is the divine savior(very offensive)), do the Athem, G..SYE! sweet and to the point and get the cars rolling… all in 30 minutes…

and lastly… The present Frances family is killing NASCAR along with guys like “Bug-Eye” “I’ll take my toys elsewhere” Burton…

Bob Chimento
09/06/2010 07:39 PM
permalink

oh yea…

8. Lador Day Race’n belongs at Darlington….PERIOD!

Thank You!!!

Brians Mom
09/06/2010 10:14 PM
permalink

I told BZ this would happen,………But did he listen, NOOOO!!!

Lee
09/06/2010 10:31 PM
permalink

i went to the race last night. i live in Doraville which is in north Atlanta. i got back to my car around midnight and i didn’t get home till 2am. they need to go back to the daytime for that race. by the way, Atlanta is the worst sports town i’ve ever lived in and i lived in south florida for 30 years.

Mr. Tony Geinzer
09/07/2010 03:31 AM
permalink

I feel hurt by Atlanta not selling seats because they should have gone to a Summer Race sooner and if Darlington can’t shape up, which sadly is just as equally ill shape as a venue, I would prefer Bristol in 2012 because that would be the Saturday Night Labor Day Night Race Week so there can be more to draw from.

zhills fan
09/07/2010 07:39 AM
permalink

Economy, economy, economy that is the main problem!! Also the racing season is too long, drop some of the second races and squeeze the season down to six months. It’s so long now that it has reached the saturation point. Chase, you got to be kidding.

Lisa
09/07/2010 09:00 AM
permalink

My husband and I went to an Atlanta race 5 years ago in the spring. The race itself was fantastic! One of the best I had ever seen. The employees at the track were another story. We approached the gate one morning to locate Will Call to pick up some tickets. We asked the girl at the gate if she knew where the Will Call was or if it might be open and were promptly told, “How am I supposed to know, I’m not there.” That was the general attitude of virtually every track employee we ran into. The exception to that was the people who ran the track campground we stayed at (they were from Talladega). I wrote a letter to the speedway and didn’t receive so much as an acknowledgement. I can stay home, not travel 1,000 and go to my local grocery store to get attitude and get treated like crap. Not to mention save thousands of dollars.

Betsy
09/07/2010 01:03 PM
permalink

I have been to the each race at AMS for the last 11 years. Granted, I live close to the track but even if I lived on the north side of town, I would still go! I love the racing at Atlanta, it is a drivers track. I was excited on Sat when it seemed that the Nationwide race had great numbers in the stands then was disappointed on Sun when the numbers looked lower. I think they should take out one of the grandstands then it would fill up better, sounds crazy I know but the crowds are not going to be as big as many years ago because of all the changes at Nascar. AMS did not deserve to lose a race either. I thought last year that Nascar was trying to get back to its core members but then this year that was all taken away. Let each track have only one date, make the season shorter, rotate the tracks for the last 5 races each year so each track will get a season ending race. Or get rid of the chase all together and pls put the stock back into racing. I am a long time Gordon fan but I watched “Dale” this weekend waiting to go up to the track and I believe that Nascar has lost someone who can carry the sport like Dale did and the rivalry between him and Gordon, you don’t see that at all now with the drivers they have, which most never worked on a car in their life so the regular joe cannot relate to these drivers anymore and who wants to spend money which is hard to come by nowadays to watch a bunch of spoiled brats race? I will continue to go each year because racing is in my blood period, I love it and I love AMS Nascar just needs to find a hero again that can relate to all of us.