News came out this week that Gateway International Raceway is not going to seek to host its two Nationwide and one Truck Series races next year. NASCAR now has three races on its plate that can be reassigned to other racetracks without increasing the length of the schedule in either series. The possibilities are numerous and, if NASCAR does it right, could really make fans very happy. Gateway races have been very enjoyable since the track first hosted a Nationwide race in 1997, so the sanctioning body needs to work hard to replace the races with quality venues next year.
It is ironic that Gateway was awarded a second Nationwide race this year for the first time only to thank NASCAR by begging off of the schedule. The primary reason for the request is that Dover Motorsports Inc. is attempting to sell the facility. Frontstretch has heard that the most promising suitor at this point is only interested in running the drag strip, so Dover is most likely trying to avoid putting that potential purchaser in an undesirable position.
As NASCAR puts together the schedule for the 2011 Nationwide and Truck series, it has several things to consider. Costs for transporting the vehicles to the tracks along with the support personnel are continuing to rise, yet the sanctioning body has cut the prize payouts. Attendance is dropping for the Cup Series and is treading water for the Nationwide events. The efforts to bring fans into the sport from non-traditional markets has not yielded the interest NASCAR had hoped for.
It very well may be time for NASCAR to get back to the roots of its fanbase, holding more races in the Southeast where it all began.
Two tracks that came to mind when the Gateway announcement first hit the wire were Rockingham and North Wilkesboro speedways. Both tracks were mainstays on the Cup circuit through its growth years in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, but both were completely off of the schedule by the end of 2004.
Rockingham has been working hard under the leadership of Andy Hillenburg to remain relevant and has hosted some great shows with developmental series over the last couple of years. North Wilkesboro has begun its reclamation from the weeds and is going to host its first races in over 10 years starting Labor Day weekend. The first obstacle that both tracks will have to overcome is that neither is NASCAR sanctioned, and adding that sanction could potentially cost them revenue in the future.
Assuming NASCAR continues its current testing ban, no NASCAR-sanctioned track can be utilized for testing. So, if these tracks acquired a NASCAR sanction, they would forgo the potential income that would be realized from NASCAR teams testing. However, if they do assume a NASCAR sanction, they would have the opportunity to host races in all of NASCAR’s divisions and could theoretically make up for that lost revenue by hosting the higher-profile events.
The second major obstacle the tracks face is that neither currently have SAFER barriers installed at their facilities. At this point in time, NASCAR does not allow a track to host an event in the national touring series without SAFER barriers installed in the corners. Hillenberg has stated that it would cost approximately $4 million to have the soft wall technology installed at Rockingham, and it’s a safe bet it’ll costly about the same for North Wilkesboro. If NASCAR has the best interest of the sport at heart, it will give a date to one or both track and help them install the SAFER barriers so rejoin the group of tracks that host the national touring series.
If Rockingham and North Wilkesboro can get the barriers installed, NASCAR should give them a Nationwide race to give the fans a chance to see racing at the historic tracks and also provide the teams cost savings. Both tracks are within an hour and a half drive of Mooresville, N.C., where the majority of the teams are based. The teams would be able to have their crews stay in their own beds and commute to the track for the race activities. The cost savings to all teams involved would be substantial, and would also be a welcome respite to the team members who would get to stay at home during a race weekend.
If North Wilkesboro and/or Rockingham don’t want to apply for a NASCAR sanction, there are other tracks within a few hours of Mooresville that would be happy to host a touring series race and already have a NASCAR sanction. A quick look at the map reveals a handful that can be thought of rather quickly: South Boston, Hickory, Bowman-Gray, Greenville-Pickens and Motor Mile are all short tracks in the region that would love to have the chance to host a Truck or Nationwide race and already fly the NASCAR banner over their weekly racing activities.
The end result would be the Trucks and Nationwide getting back to their roots, running on the little Southeast bullrings where stock car racing was born. The teams would save travel expenses, they wouldn’t have to provide accommodations for their race team members, and the crews would be able to spend the majority of the weekend with their families. It would also afford team members that don’t normally go to the tracks the opportunity to see their handiwork in action.
C’mon NASCAR, do the right thing and bring racing back to the tracks where it all began.
Author’s note: One fact that was not mentioned in all of the discussion about the poor attendance at Indianapolis last weekend is that the Indianapolis 500 is still blacked out in the Indianapolis area. The fans who live in the majority of Indiana have to go to the race if they want to see it in real time or travel out of the state if they want to watch it on TV. While NASCAR has gotten away from blacking out races in recent years, the practice very well might need to be revisited to drive attendance figures back up at race venues.