For over two months, the NASCAR engines of your favorite race teams have turned silent, drivers and teams left idle during a offseason filled with rules changes and nervous anticipation regarding the future of our sport.
But as the last week of January dawns, that future is sitting on our doorstep. Speedweeks for NASCAR lies just two weeks away, with both the Bud Shootout and Daytona 500 qualifying ushering in a 62nd season for the number one racing series in America. That means it’s time to get the blood racing and ask the tough questions to figure out just exactly how this year’s going to work out. This week, we’ll get you thinking on six big questions facing NASCAR in 2010; as we try and find the answers, the staff you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and most of all… a sense of humor. After all, we’ll all need to laugh if these predictions blow up in our face come November….
Today’s Season Preview Topic: With Kansas and Kentucky widely expected to get second dates in 2011, that means some tracks are in peril of losing a date or even falling off the schedule altogether. Who should be the most concerned heading into the 2010 season, and why?
Tom Bowles, Managing Editor: This one’s exceedingly simple. Kentucky, an SMI track, will replace the spring Atlanta race on the schedule for Bruton Smith. The attendance for the March event at AMS was one of the weakest for any race all year, and paled in comparison to what the track drew for Labor Day weekend. Despite a speedway that’s provided fantastic finishes and arguably the best racing of all the 1.5-mile ovals, fan support just isn’t there for two dates, and it makes sense to replace another Southern race instead of adding one (the other option would be to take away a second date at New Hampshire.)
As for the dreaded second date at Kansas, there’s just too much money headed into ISC’s pocketbook for them to reconsider. And unfortunately, that means Martinsville is on the chopping block to lose a date. Of all ISC’s tracks, they’re the most vulnerable and failed to sell out their spring race this year (in fact, one of their Truck races, rained out and held on a Monday, was lucky to get 3,000 in the stands). I love short tracks as much as the next guy; believe me, I want the place to have THREE dates. But pure economics will trump tradition yet again with a sport that’s divorcing itself from history in the name of the almighty dollar.
Danny Peters, The Yellow Stripe (Tuesdays): This question should really come in two parts: Which tracks should be concerned (Pocono, Michigan, Chicagoland, etc.) based on racing and which tracks need to be concerned based on the vagaries of the decision-making powers-that-be (Dover, Martinsville). And while I’m on that topic, taking a race away from Martinsville would essentially erase any goodwill the governing body has generated with the raft of changes and “fresh approach” headed into 2010.
Kurt Smith, Happy Hour (Fridays): “Forgive the shameless plug, but I have an article written on this very subject. What tracks would I like to see lose a date? California and Talladega. What tracks are likely to lose a date? Well, Tom and I discussed this over a beer, and he thinks Atlanta is a prime candidate – which I think would be unfortunate, even though Atlanta is a cookie-cutter. Lots of great history there.
Now, me, I’m the complete cynic about NASCAR these days, so I’m certain that they will look at the tracks that produce the best racing and target them for race date reduction. Hey, don’t laugh; we lost Rockingham and North Wilkesboro, and I don’t see Darlington sticking around forever. At least the Chase made the Bristol night race safe.
I say it will be Atlanta and Martinsville, which would be very bad. Dover and Martinsville, however, would be the ultimate wrong.
Amy Henderson, Holding A Pretty Wheel (Mondays): NASCAR needs to wake up and smell the coffee. It isn’t drivers shooting off their mouths or a new spoiler that will save the fan base – it’s good racing, plain and simple. The sanctioning body shouldn’t even be considering a Cup race for Kentucky or a second date for Kansas unless they come with the stipulation that the dates may only come from a like track. In Kentucky’s case, that’s likely to happen anyway, as Atlanta Motor Speedway isn’t showing the ticket sales that owner Bruton Smith would like to see. But NASCAR needs to look long and hard at allowing ISC to give one of Martinsville’s dates to Kansas. A change from an historic, unique track with exciting races to a track that has none of those qualities is a huge mistake. NASCAR has said that they want to listen to the fans, so it’s time to stand behind that and keep the racing where it’s good – not where it only serves the market in the immediate area of the track, but where a national audience will get a good enough show that they actually want to watch.
Jared Turner, Turner’s Take (Tuesdays): Sadly, Martinsville should be the most concerned. Despite the unique racing and fan ambiance the tiny short track affords, it will be the first on ISC’s chopping block in order for the company to move a second date to Kansas. If Kentucky also lands a date for 2011, look for Speedway Motorsports to purchase Dover and Pocono and move a date from one of those facilities. Atlanta, another SMI track, should now hold both of its annual dates after strong attendance last Labor Day weekend.
Doug Turnbull, Hot/Not (Tuesdays): Kansas’s second date will come at the expense of an ISC track and Kentucky’s at the cost of an SMI track date. For years, Martinsville has been rumored as having a date on the chopping block, but if NASCAR is truly listening to the fans, that shouldn’t happen. One of ACS’s dates is being shortened from 500 to 400 miles, so that could be a sign of things to come for the struggling track. Another track with two long, boring races is Pocono, but it is independently owned and has good attendance numbers.
An SMI track will have to lose a date for Kentucky to get a race, and several tracks have been rumored here. Atlanta’s March date has been in jeopardy for awhile, and this first March date following AMS’s successful Labor Day weekend may be a make-or-break race to save that second date. Dover is ripe for the picking with SMI and could also lose a race. The same fate also lies for recently purchased New Hampshire Motor Speedway or possibly the road course at Infineon in California.
Matt Taliaferro, Fanning The Flames (Thursdays): Just when it appears NASCAR is making strides to reach out to the die-hard fan with promises of “loosening the drivers’ reins” and changes to a very unpopular car, they jolt us back into reality with this question. Yes, at the end of the day, it’s still all about making money for the family-owned business(es).
Two more 1.5-mile “cookie-cutter” dates are the last thing this sport needs, but it appears that’s where it’s heading. These two dates can only be justified to the fans, though, if the pre-existing dates come from 1.5 or 2-mile facilities. Few would shed a tear if Auto Club Speedway lost a date, or if Pocono Raceway didn’t stage 1,000 miles of drudgery in an eight-week span. ACS sits on prime real estate, though, and Pocono is owned by an independent body not interested in selling, so these two are most likely standing pat.
Atlanta, in stock car racing’s cradle of the Southeast but in a city that seems to simply ignore professional sports, looks primed to lose one, most likely to Kentucky, as both are owned by Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, Inc. A transfer of dates would be all-too-easy.
As for Kansas Speedway and its new casino-driven date, the outlook is much less clear. Taking a date from the oldest and one of the more popular dates on the circuit at Martinsville would trigger an uprising not seen since Darlington lost its Labor Day date – and NASCAR knows it. Therefore, all eyes turn to Dover, which currently is an independently-owned track. It’s been rumored, though, that Dover Motorsports Inc. is willing to listen to a buyout offer. If so, that may be the date ISC is looking for (unfortunately).
Toni Montgomery, Marcos Ambrose Driver Diary (Fridays): Ah, but isn’t it always Martinsville and Pocono that end up on the hot seat here? It ought to be Fontana. If a track can sell out one race (as Martinsville and Pocono have done several times in the past), then maybe they deserve two. I know that’s the usual answer, but it’s the truth. As for Kansas, why on earth are they getting a second date, anyway? Because they put in a new hotel/casino? Why should that ever be the basis for giving a race to a track that has no distinguishing features whatsoever?
Mike Neff, Full Throttle (Wednesday Newsletter): Kansas is an ISC track, and there are four tracks that are being scrutinized to replace it: Michigan, Martinsville, California and Phoenix. Many people might think Martinsville due to its small size and remote location. However, Martinsville usually sells out, which the other tracks cannot claim. California (Auto Club) would seem like the most obvious track to lose the date, but that would require ISC admitting it made a mistake going to the biggest media market for a second race. Odds are Michigan, who is severely challenged by the horrible economy, will probably lose a date to Kansas. As for Kentucky, Atlanta is the prime candidate. ISC won’t give them one of their dates, and I don’t think Pocono or Dover will sell to Bruton.
Phil Allaway, Talking NASCAR TV (Tuesdays): O. Bruton Smith has said that he would move a race from one of his tracks to Kentucky when the lawsuit is finally dropped by the track’s former owners. As of right now, it is debatable whether they have finally given up. If they haven’t officially dropped it by May, they won’t get a date. However, if they do drop it, the likely candidates to lose a date are Atlanta and Dover (If Smith buys it).
As for Kansas, they’re only getting a second date because of that casino, which is a stupid reason to grant a second date. Rumors have claimed that a second Kansas race would come at the expense of another ISC intermediate track (Auto Club, Michigan, etc.) Personally, I would be fine with ACS losing a race. However, most people believe Martinsville would lose one, and I’m not cool with that. Martinsville should be worried, though.
Either one of these moves happening would require a substantial schedule realignment. Maybe it’s part of the reason that the October race in Fontana got cut to 400 miles for this year….
And one more, for good measure…
S.D. Grady, Fan’s View (Tuesday Newsletter): Michigan… located in one of the regions hardest hit by this recession, there were almost more empty seats than full during the August race. You can hide 20,000 missing fans from the TV cameras in Atlanta. It’s much harder to hide 70,000 missing fans.