The Frontstretch: Tracking The Changes: 2011 Sprint Cup Schedule Shakeup Looming by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday July 14, 2010

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Tracking The Changes: 2011 Sprint Cup Schedule Shakeup Looming

Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday July 14, 2010


Following the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona two weeks ago, talk began again about changes to the Sprint Cup schedule for 2011 and beyond. Hey, why not? After all, there is talk of changing the championship format for only the third time in seven years…

Further credence was given to this speculation when NASCAR President Brian France said last week that International Speedway Corp. (ISC), Darlington’s parent company, and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) both have petitioned the sport to have their dates realigned, with Darlington not yet receiving its event sanctioning agreements.

That leaves plenty of cities licking their chops at the prospect of NASCAR expansion. Tracks looking to pick up a second race include Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway, while Kentucky Speedway has been lobbying the past few years for a Cup date. SMI owner Bruton Smith owns all of the ones involved in both losing and gaining a date except for Kansas, which is owned by the France family-controlled ISC. The list of names are familiar, however, and with the speed and alacrity in which change has swept through NASCAR the last year or so, it would stand to reason that the Sprint Cup calendar will look markedly different come February, 2011.

So which tracks are likely to take one for the teams next year?

For all their attendance issues, Atlanta remains a historic and unique venue on the Sprint Cup Series circuit.

Atlanta: Is taking a date from here really necessary? With apologies and condolences to Talladega, Atlanta has long since been recognized as the fastest track in NASCAR since its 1997 reconfiguration. It has been host to some of the closest and most memorable finishes in recent history, chief among them Kevin Harvick’s first victory in 2001 – just three weeks removed from Dale Earnhardt’s untimely passing.

For years, the Fall Atlanta date served as the final race of the season, the site of some very memorable championship finishes. Does the 1992 battle between six drivers and Alan Kulwicki winning it on bonus points ring a bell? Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, and Bill Elliott were also among those who clinched down-to-the-wire title chases there.

Still, lagging attendance meant that before the season even started, Felix Sabates was suggesting that Atlanta should lose a date altogether. Huh? If someone can find a compelling racing-related reason why one of the most unique tracks in the series should lose out to the REM-inducing Kansas or the typically underwhelming Las Vegas, I’d be happy to listen.

Part of Atlanta’s troubles were corrected last year when its second date was moved from the fall to a summer September date – albeit one over Labor Day weekend. Last year’s penultimate race before the Chase reset brought 111,300 fans in attendance, up from 94,400 earlier that year at the March event. It turns out that fans really aren’t into freezing their behinds off at a track that may produce something between balmy 60-degree weather or a snowstorm, as in 1993.

So if there is one track that should keep two dates, it’s Atlanta. While location might sell some tickets, racing is what generates ratings, and those Sportscenter highlight reels that seem to have been the inspiration behind green-white-checkered finishes and double-file restarts.

New Hampshire: Five years ago, I would have been hollering from the rooftops like a New York City jumper hopped up on PCP to can a date from New Hampshire – if not both of them. The track that Kyle Petty once suggested should be boarded up and turned into a trout pond was always one that left me nonplussed, filled with intense feelings of indifference and boredom.

Over the course of the last few years, however, it has finally matured into a track worthy of two events, producing some of the best racing during a time when genuine close competition has been sorely lacking. It is a one-mile oval, but races like a short track – something that is sorely missing from our sport, a special type of competition which is often romanticized and the loss of long lamented.

That means there typically is a late-race battle between drivers at New Hampshire. Witness Denny Hamlin’s .068-second margin of victory over Jeff Gordon in 2007, Mark Martin’s tussle with Juan Pablo Montoya last fall, or the one three weeks ago between Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch in the closing laps. Sure, there is the occasional runaway, like Clint Bowyer in ’08, or a race that is called because of rain (Joey Logano’s first win in ’09), but overall, the Magic Mile has become quite a treat in the Northeast.

Plus, along with Dover and that first week of the Chase, when they motor the top 12 through Times Square, this place is about as close to the major markets of Boston and New York City as we’re probably going to get for the foreseeable future.

California: This is a track whose time for contraction has come. Much like Ron Burgundy, it was kind of a … “big deal” back when it first opened in 1997; NASCAR had broken into the coveted Los Angeles market, and was prepared to take SoCal by storm. Through the years, many waited for something memorable to happen there – but it never came.

Along the way, Caliborin’-ya has drawn the ire of fans for a number of reasons. As the follow-up event to the Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing, the Daytona 500, it routinely fills only a portion of the stands in February due to 500 miles of mind-numbing monotony. It is likely no great coincidence that there is more trash blowing around the track than your regional landfill, as it was built on an old concrete quarry, and looks like something that would typically house a lot of green 55-gallon drums with radioactivity warning stickers.

Weepers have long been one of many problems at the Auto Club Speedway, which displaced legendary Darlington as the site of NASCAR’s Labor Day race in 2004.

The heights of heresy were reached in 2004, when California was given the Labor Day date that for over 50 years was Darlington’s hallmark event, the Southern 500. This moment was perhaps the point when, for many fans, NASCAR began to jump the shark, becoming pander bears in a desperate plea to gain attention from viewers who could really care less about the rich history and legacy of the sport.

Or so they thought. Ironically, with that move both attendance and attention began to dwindle. The caliber of actors, singers, and stars appearing at Fontana started to steadily decline, looking more like a rerun of Hollywood Squares than a premier sporting event in the entertainment capital of the planet. (Tip of the cap to Jack Nicholson, however. You, sir, are welcome to be the flagman for the whole race this fall if you so desire. Wear a Kobe jersey if you want.)

With this trio in the mix to be sacrificed, those tracks looking to pick up a date are not exactly barn burners themselves, but are mainly benefiting through two reasons: geographical convenience and promotional possibilities.

It has been suggested that Las Vegas may become the launching pad for the Chase, or potentially the final event of the year. It also provides fans that are traveling to the track something other to do than just the race itself. Besides, it would not be a major sporting endeavor if there weren’t the specter of gambling surrounding it.

Kentucky works too, I suppose. It is in the Southeast, so it’s kind of getting back to our roots, and a new track isn’t always something to be reviled. Besides, NASCAR probably would like to go there just to rub it in Jeremy Mayfield’s buzz cut.

Casino notwithstanding, Kansas is the one that remains a bit of a mystery to me – I seriously don’t understand the on-track appeal. With the United States shunning missile defense and Iran’s nuclear ambitions going unchecked, I guess being centrally located in North America makes sense. After all, our missile silos and SAC headquarters have always been positioned about the plains in the middle of the country – to give us a few extra minutes to scramble everything.

But if NASCAR isn’t going to use corn fuel as a fuel next year, as had been widely reported, what is the rush to head back out there? I see it turning into the second coming of California, which, as detailed above, is not necessarily a good thing. Besides, a rain delay is a small problem – a tornado delay is a whole other story.

Whatever the outcome, the landscape of the sport looks to be “evolving” once again. The problem is these moves have not exactly worked out in the past, and we’ve seen what happens when you change for the sake of change. Given the cast of tracks involved, I’d say NASCAR would be best served in this instance to leave well enough alone.

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Mike In NH
07/14/2010 08:54 AM

Most race fans around here have resigned themselves to losing a NASCAR race. The manufactured controversy over security costs – which are the same or less than those SMI pays to other local departments, despite their claims otherwise – plus adding an IRL race pretty much told us it was going to happen. And that’s fine, because as much as we love NASCAR, we don’t like having out of town bullies try to force us to do stuff. Which Bruton knows quite well.

NASCAR should be concerned however, since that’s that much less exposure in the Boston/New England market, which isn’t going to help their TV ratings, plus letting SMI open the doors to IRL at his tracks just gives them a leg up to compete for fans with NASCAR – and right now IRL is getting positive press, and NASCAR negative around here. Of course, if NASCAR is going to let ISC and SMI dictate where their races should be held, then they have nobody to blame for this but themselves.

As for the economic impact of losing a race, it’s been overblown. Some businesses will lose a bit of income, but over the year, it won’t kill them, since no business can live on the income of two race weekends a year. Most of the money gets spent on hotel chains which send the money (except local salaries) out of state, or at the track itself, again most of which except salaries goes out of state. And now people who wouldn’t visit in June during race weeks will come up here and spend tourist dollars, and those dollars have a higher percentage staying in state.

07/14/2010 11:30 AM

Living in the Martinsville area, I am relieved that talk of our track possibly losing a date has all but disappeared. However, I hope Atlanta doesn’t lose a date either. It does produce some of the best racing we see, certainly best among the 1.5-mile tracks, and it has always been among my favorites. I’m more neutral toward Loudon, but I agree that it has gotten better in recent years. As far as I’m concerned, they can take both dates away from Fontana!

In a perfect world, I’d love to see two dates return to Darlington, Rockingham, and North Wilkesboro. Several other tracks (those 1.5-miles and larger) could lose one of their two dates. I know it won’t really happen, but it’s nice to think about anyway.

07/14/2010 12:58 PM

NO more boring D-shaped ovals! Darlington had better NOT lose its one existing race. The racing is great and the crowds have been a sell out or close for years.

BZF ought to try and buy 2 brain cells to rub together before making any decisions.

I agree the schedule needs to be revamped — what I think they should do is sit down with a map, weather forecast and the names of all the tracks and try and make the smartest decision with all those factors.

07/14/2010 01:22 PM

If NASCAR cares about the traditional fans at all they will move darlington to labor day and give Kentucky mothers day. I hate for Atlanta to lose a date but I understand and kentucky is a similar track in southern market. NH for Vegas and KS for CA aren’t going to make much of a difference to anybody.

07/14/2010 02:34 PM

Since Brian, when has NASCAR EVER made the smartest decision? It’s based solely on MONEY for the stockholders.

07/14/2010 02:39 PM

I really think the attendance problem with Atlanta is the unbelieveable traffic jams getting into and mostly leaving the track . It’s fast , usually puts on a good race , has a lot of history , and is in the South . I just think people have soured on the trafic jams over the years . I know it’s been improved recently , but too little too late maybe .
One track that hasn’t been nominated to possibly lose one of it’s races is Daytona . The July race . Far fewer fans showing up , so few that the ENTIRE backstretch seating area is closed for that race . And even with that , the frontstretch stands are never close to full . NASCAR pull one of the races from it’s own home track ? Well consider that NASCAR has pretty much moved to Charlotte , including Brian . So who knows .

07/14/2010 03:18 PM

Being from NH, I would be very upset losing one of those races, but at the same time it is inevitable because of the Bruton factor. The only way I would be happy if NH lost a race, is if it went back to North Wilkesboro. They deserve a race along with Iowa, Pikes Peak, Hickory, and Memphis. Apparently Brian France hasn’t noticed that his best attendance figures occur in the small markets, but what do we know?

Kevin in SoCal
07/14/2010 04:05 PM

I have no problem with giving up a Fontana date so that Martinsville, or any other good track, keeps both their dates on the schedule. Fontana didnt ask for two dates, and it certainly didnt ask for the Labor Day date that put it at the top of the long time fan’s hate list. NASCAR should be going to more tracks once instead of twice so that more people across the country can see a NASCAR race close to their home.
Dave, I think Pike’s Peak Raceway is closed, and I know Memphis closed last year.

07/14/2010 04:50 PM

If SMI and/or ISC owned Pocono or Dover, then these date swaps would be gimmes. But it seems that SMI’s short list of date donor tracks has to be 1) New Hampshire and 2) Atlanta. ISC has a few more options for date donors: 1) Martinsville (Ouch!), 2) California, 3) Michigan and 4) Phoenix.

Kevin, I’m sorry to say that Martinsville’s remote location, lack of air service, aging facility and declining attendance makes it a prime candidate for the 2nd Kansas date.

While California seems like the logical choice, its Winter date is too early and its Fall date is too late for Kansas weather.

07/14/2010 06:28 PM

Just went to the NASCAR site. They have a beautiful picture of the modifieds at Martinsville. What memories!

07/14/2010 08:49 PM

I don’t know what you are thinking JT. If you look at a map Dover has more people living less than 4 hours from it than any track on the Schedule by far.It looks empty because it has 133,000 seats.Its attendance still beats all the tracks you listed and Chicago, Phoenix and Homestead.

Chris in TX
07/14/2010 09:46 PM

Pikes Peak Raceway re-opened about a year ago. Robby Gordon was testing there a few weeks ago.

I don’t really understand a Fontana to Kansas swap. I mean, I’m sure there’s more money into ISC’s pockets, and I understand that…but from a racing perspective, it’s not really an improvement. There are so many other places they could go to put on a better show (if it were about that) than Kansas.

I’m in favor of Atlanta losing a date. There’s lots of 1.5milers (I know they’re not all the same), and it, with 2 dates (like Fontana) is not pulling its weight attendance-wise. I know that there are some “but look at the racing” arguments…well, good…They’ll likely have good attendance and good racing for their 1 date.

I don’t think that NHMS deserves to lose a date. The attendance is strong for both races, and the racing has really improved.

Too bad they’re not talking about moving all 3 dates to tracks that don’t currently have a cup race, instead of just 1.

07/15/2010 10:20 AM

JT, I’m actually less concerned about Martinsville losing a date now than I was a year or two ago. I think NASCAR is smart enough to realize that if they get rid of yet another old-fashioned, traditional short track race, they’re going to lose most of their remaining traditional fan base. I don’t think they can afford to not give Martinsville two dates for a long time to come.

07/15/2010 11:23 AM

The tracks should be determined by the quality of the racing, not its ameneties surrounding the track. I have said for a long time, that if you fix the product on the track (which is not good right now), the stands will be full every weekend.

Not sure what the obsession with Kentucky and Las Vegas is. Las Vegas will be just like Fontana. The stands will be full with one race, but half full for 2 races and the racing isn’t stellar there either.

And why is it when Kentucky was under different ownership, it wasn’t worthy of a Cup date. Now that Bruton has bought it, it all of a sudden is?

Being from New England, If NH loses a date, I will never buy anything associated with Nascar again. All those promises Bruton made when he bought the track from Bahre about it not losing a date. Now he is using this bogus security argument as a reason for moving a race. Bruton is a bully and I’m glad the town is not giving in to him. I’m sure Mr. Magoo will get his way though. Kentucky Speedway will not do better at selling tickets than NHMS.

Kevin in SoCal
07/15/2010 03:54 PM

Steve, there isnt room on the schedule to give Kentucky a date, especially since it was independantly owned. Now that Smith owns it, there still isnt room on the schedule, unless he moves a race from one of his tracks to it. That’s the issue here. NASCAR and ISC certainly arent going to give up a date (and the money) at one of their tracks to give to a competitor’s product.

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