This weekend, NASCAR will celebrate the Labor Day holiday by running 43 cars under the lights at Atlanta Motor Speedway. 500 miles of racing on Labor Day weekend has always been a long-standing tradition; but for the folks in Atlanta, the hope is this new one can make up for the recent loss of a NASCAR institution: their second date. After hosting two events on the Cup Series schedule for 50 years, next season will be the first time the 1.5-mile speedway just south of downtown Atlanta will have only one event.
While many drivers were disappointed in losing a second date at AMS, they understand the economics of the sport. When fans are not filling the grandstands – which has happened over the past few spring dates in Atlanta – it is only natural for NASCAR to need to make a move. As tough as it was to swallow, track president Ed Clark knew he had to make the most of what the sport had given him moving forward.
“While our schedule will change, our commitment to the racing fans who have been the heart and soul of Atlanta Motor Speedway through these years will be stronger than ever,” Clark said once the scheduling adjustment was announced. “Our entire staff will be even more driven to produce the top annual sporting event in Georgia for many years to come.”
At least the speedway was given a top-shelf consolation prize. For decades, the Labor Day race was clearly set apart from the rest of the schedule, a can’t miss moment in any NASCAR season for well over 50 years in South Carolina. One of the sport’s most prestigious events, everyone circled their calendar for the annual running of the Southern 500 at Darlington.
The first 500-mile event in NASCAR, the Southern 500 tradition began in 1950 when Johnny Mantz took home the checkered flag, besting a 75-car field and launching a legend at a small-town track that only grew. For 53 years, the tradition of racing on Labor Day weekend continued at the “Lady in Black,” where Bill Elliott won the Winston Million, Darrell Waltrip won his final race and the “Silver Fox” David Pearson won a record ten times. However, with the Chase looming, NASCAR decided it was time for a change following the 2003 season, choosing to move the Labor Day race up towards the Auto Club Speedway instead.
For many, this move was a major slap in the face to both history and tradition. In a marketing push to attract a “new” fanbase, NASCAR opted to go to Southern California instead of saving the Southeast one of the most historic dates on the schedule.
Some might say Atlanta still isn’t enough of a compromise. But while NASCAR racing on Labor Day weekend goes back to the inaugural running of the Southern 500 in 1950, racing in the South on Labor Day weekend goes back even further.
The famous and now extinct Lakewood Speedway in the Atlanta area hosted racing events on Labor Day for many years, even before the formation of NASCAR. One of the sport’s earliest stars, Lloyd Seay, beat Bob Flock in the 1941 running of the Labor Day race before being killed by his cousin in a moonshine dispute the following day – and we thought Carl flipping Brad earlier this year was bad.
The Lakewood Speedway also ran AAA Champ Car events on Labor Day at the track in 1946 and 1948. The 1946 running of the race saw two racers killed in the closing laps, George Barringer and George Robson – the defending Indianapolis 500 winner. Sadly, the racing fizzled once the 1950s came around; NASCAR ran only once on Labor Day weekend at Lakewood, a Convertible Series race in 1956 won by Joe Weatherly.
So after the sport brought the tradition of racing in the South on that weekend back to Atlanta in 2009, fans rejoiced and started to trickle back into the stands. In receiving this historic date, Clark and everyone at the speedway instantly went to work to capitalize on what they call a tremendous opportunity.
“We were thrilled with the acquisition of the Labor Day date two years ago, and are proud to host such a prestigious, historical date on the NASCAR schedule,” Clark said. “This track produces some of the greatest racing the circuit sees, it remains one of the drivers’ favorite tracks, and we will continue to build a platform that sets this one date apart from the rest.”
So while Atlanta may have lost one of its dates, they are making the most out of this next, last chance to create a lasting tradition all their own. A two-day show last year has now expanded to four in order to encourage more fan involvement at the track.
“After a great inaugural Labor Day weekend night race, we were asked by fans to expand the show, and we’ve responded by adding two free events on Friday and Monday of the Emory Healthcare 500 race weekend,” said Clark. “We’re committed to giving our fans the biggest and best Labor Day celebration in the country, and $69 ($39 Turn 3 Elliott Grandstand ticket to the Cup race and a $30 general admission ticket to the Nationwide race) for entry into four days of events at Atlanta Motor Speedway is a great value.”
This Friday will include a Fan Q&A with NASCAR drivers Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and local favorite David Ragan before concluding with a 150-lap late model race feature. Among other events, there will also be concerts throughout the weekend by Foreigner, Colt Ford and Drivin’ N Cryin’. And even after the Sprint Cup guys leave, the action at Atlanta is far from over. The speedway is also offering “Breakfast with Bruton” on Monday morning, as fans who attended Sunday night’s Sprint Cup race will be able to join Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Bruton Smith for a free breakfast inside the Nationwide Series garage.
Certainly, no track ever wants to lose a date on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. But this cutback could turn out to be a positive for AMS in the long run. The facility has always provided great racing, high speeds, and close finishes, making it a favorite amongst drivers and fans who remain passionately loyal to the sport. With that lone date falling on Labor Day weekend, track officials are smart to make the most of this historic event and involve the fans as much as possible. Last year showcased the fruits of their labor: 111,300 packed the stands last September, and track officials hope the crowd will substantially increase in year two.
Racing on Labor Day essentially started in Atlanta and, while Darlington has been the historic home for NASCAR, it is nice to see the city in the heart of the South get another chance. Who knows? If all goes according to plan, this new tradition could fill the stands for years to come.