NASCAR is heading in the wrong direction. No (for once) I don’t mean in general, I mean that literally. As the Busch and Nextel Cup Series both head for California Speedway this weekend they’re going the wrong way. They’re heading west when they should be heading south.
I touched on NASCAR’s abandonment of its history in my column last week. The subject should be of much greater concern than NASCAR seems to want to admit. Labor Day weekend was, until 2004, the weekend of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. It’s not just that Darlington is the oldest superspeedway in the United States; it’s that the Southern 500 was once the oldest race in NASCAR, older than even the Daytona 500. In fact, NASCAR once had a bonus program for any driver who could win three of its four most coveted races; the Daytona 500 (the most prestigious race), the Coca-Cola 600 (the longest race), the summer race at Talladega (the fastest race) and the Southern 500 (the oldest race). The feat was only accomplished twice in over 10 years on the books – once by Bill Elliott and once by Jeff Gordon. Both accomplished it at Darlington.
Until the last five years or so, ask most drivers what races they most wanted to win and they’d have said “the Daytona 500 and the Southern 500” almost to a man. The race was one of the sport’s crown jewels, a demanding test of endurance and car control. Once Indianapolis allowed the stock cars inside its hallowed gates, the Brickyard 400 was added to that list, but the Southern 500 stuck.
Then NASCAR decided it didn’t need its roots any more. They decided demographics were more important than good racing and tossed aside more than 50 years of their most storied history in favor of the Southern California 500. And it’s time to fix it.
Putting the Southern 500 back in its rightful spot might slow the bleeding of NASCAR’s declining ratings and exiting fanbase. At least it would put a decent race on a weekend when many families are watching a little NASCAR while they have their cookouts. California Speedway would do just as well in February and again in May. It wouldn’t hurt their attendance and it wouldn’t boost Darlington’s. But it just might boost NASCAR’s coveted television ratings and it would most certainly boost the morale of the old time fans who feel alienated and even unwanted by this new NASCAR.
NASCAR, once upon a time, used ticket sales as a gauge when assigning race dates. This policy destroyed one track when it put Rockingham in the catch-22 of a cold and inhospitable February date that the track was never going to sell out, and refused to give them a better date because of poor sales. By that policy, Darlington deserves the Labor Day date. They sell out their one date every year while California can’t fill the stands… even when they give away thousands of tickets. California is bigger and may sell as many, or possibly more, tickets to an event as Darlington does; but look at the stands… they’re always half empty. Maybe all those fans prefer the shopping underneath the seats than to actually sitting in the seats and watching the racing on the track and who could blame them? But it sure looks like the seats are empty.
There would be just as many people not there in May as there would be in September. Darlington wouldn’t sell any more tickets, you can’t sell more than all you’ve got, but the Lady in Black is one of NASCAR’s last links to the past, and by virtue of that, one of the last links to their most loyal fans. Just once, it would be about the racing. In a time when NASCAR’s integrity is being questioned from every side, a little morale boost would go a very long way. Actually, it’s not a very long way at all… just two or three hours due south.