By Joe Dunn
Five years ago Nascar moved one of the oldest and most popular races, the Southern 500, a Labor Day tradition at Darlington Raceway. This move infuriated a lot of long time NASCAR fans from the south, and to make matters worse, they moved the race to the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA.
The move was all about NASCAR, and Brian France’s master plan to make NASCAR a major player on the west coast. Since the time that Roger Penske first opened the California Speedway in 1997, the track has struggled to fill seats. The lone race at California had it’s date changed from the original late June to late April / early May in an attempt to fill the stands, none of these dates did the job. So in 2004, the bright idea was to give California a second date. With the closing of Rockingham on the table, the first move was to switch the late November date to Darlington and give California the long popular Labor Day weekend.
After five years, the Labor Day ‘experiment’ has proved to be a dismal failure and the abundant vacant seats remain. So, in 2008, a new plan was evolved, since the west coast failed to support a traditional and popular race weekend, the idea for 2009 was to move Labor Day to Atlanta and move a ‘Chase’ date from Atlanta Motor Speedway to The Auto Club Speedway. Atlanta was a safe choice for Labor Day, as they too have suffered dismal attendance ratings for the past several years.
Giving Atlanta Motor Speedway the Labor Day date is a step in the right direction, and making it a night race gives it an even better chance to recapture the fans. Will the change really help AMS? Who knows for sure, but if the numbers at AMS don’t improve, look for one of those dates to migrate north to Kentucky Speedway in 2011. Of course, I am still among the thousands of folks who felt that taking the date from Darlington was a bad decision all along.
So now we have California and The Auto Club Speedway getting one of the ‘coveted’ Chase for the Championship dates. Will this suddenly attract throngs of new west coast NASCAR fans, filling the speedway to capacity? I would hope for the sake of the sport that it will do just that, but realistically, I don’t see that ever happening. Too many folks across the country and especially on the west coast, still see the sport as a regional sport from the old south. In their hunt for the big TV numbers, and what appears to be Briand France’s quest to be a Hollywood mogul, NASCAR has been continually alienating tons of the sports oldest and most loyal fan base.
NASCAR has been a “good ol’ boy”, redneck, beer drinking, and smoking crowd sport for 60 years. And as the Daytona honchos work harder to change the image, they further diminish the fan base. Bill France Sr. was one heck of a promoter and under his guidance the family business grew and prospered for years. Bill Jr, took over and he followed pretty much the same pattern of his dad. He ruled with an iron fist, but he knew tradition and happy fans were a major force in the growth and life of the sport.
When Brian took over the reigns, that atmosphere seemed to change. He rules with what appears to be a distance from the history of the sport and it’s individuals. When Bill Sr and Bill Jr were running the show, everybody knew it. They were very visible in the garage area at nearly every race. Seeing Brian in the garage area is sight that very few have witnessed.
So, as we all trudge through this coming weekend without a Cup race, I’ll be looking forward to Labor Day with hopes that it brings the fans back to AMS and revives some old fans of southern racing. I have had the pleasure of covering races at Kentucky Speedway and look forward to covering Cup races there. It is one of the nicest tracks around and with SMI as the new owner, the future looks bright. But I do not want to see that date come at the cost of an Atlanta date.