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The night the lights went on in Georgia

May 29, 2002
Missoura Ozarks
2012 💯 4LT GS Roadster

Empty seats have become the tradition at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

ATLANTA – OK, Atlanta … last chance.

For the first time ever, NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup series will run its fall Atlanta race under the lights. Suffering from attendance issues for the past few years, the track willingly surrendered its role as one of 10 hosts for NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup in exchange for the desirable Labor Day weekend date. The question is: Will it pay off?

There’s the scent of desperation at work here, a Hail Mary pass – or, in NASCAR terms, a fuel-mileage gamble – with everything on the line. The track’s owner, Speedway Motorsports Inc., is seeking a Sprint Cup race run on a track it owns in Kentucky, and since NASCAR is unlikely to approve an expansion of its schedule, that means SMI will almost certainly pull a race from one of its seven other tracks which host a Sprint Cup event. And because most of the other tracks are either sellouts or located in highly desirable population centers, Atlanta’s two-race prospects grow more dubious with every empty seat.

So what’s the problem? Really, how much more desirable could a track location be than Atlanta?

Georgia is home to many of NASCAR’s pioneers, both the drivers who would run moonshine from stills in the Appalachian Mountains to thirsty customers in Atlanta and the mechanics who would soup up their vehicles to elude the law. NASCAR icon Bill Elliott hails from Dawsonville, just north of Atlanta. And there’s been racing in the city since well before NASCAR even existed.

Atlanta Motor Speedway has a respectable NASCAR pedigree of its own. Open since 1960, it’s a track where the biggest names in the sport have had some of their greatest successes. Dale Earnhardt won a record nine races there, while Richard Petty has started and placed in the top 10 there more than any other driver – 33 top 10s in 65 starts. For many years, Atlanta was the site of the NASCAR season’s final race – and thus the determining track in championship battles. Petty drove his final race here in 1992, and in a neat bit of symmetry, that race marked the debut of a young driver named Jeff Gordon.

So why aren’t fans flocking to the track? Pull up a chair and we’ll list the reasons.

First and foremost, look to Atlanta’s mercurial fan base. Famously mocked as the city that couldn’t sell out Braves playoff games, Atlanta has a vast, diverse group of fans, one that – because of the city’s explosive growth over the past decade – divides its loyalties among multiple sports and many pro and college teams.

And no matter whom they root for, these fans all have to share the same sprawling, overcrowded highways. AMS is located just south of the city, several miles from Interstate 75, and long held a reputation as an impossible track to get in and out of on race day. Road improvements have alleviated much of the traffic problem, but not enough to supplant long-held perceptions about taking blankets and pillows to wait out the post-race traffic jams.

Mother Nature apparently isn’t much of a NASCAR fan, either, because for the past few years the Atlanta races have run on either cold, wet days or afternoons of unrelenting, seat-baking sunshine. The move to late-summer nighttime is designed to dodge both problems; September evenings in the South offer some of the finest weather in the country.

“It’s always been a situation in Atlanta that the two dates have been iffy on weather,” Tony Stewart said earlier this week. “It’s normally wet and cold, but this weekend is going to be an awesome weekend. The night race will bring a lot more excitement. This is a date change that Atlanta deserved.”

There’s also the matter of competition for entertainment dollars. Where many other tracks are the equivalent of a lone gas station on a desert highway, Atlanta Motor Speedway is the pizza bar in one of those mile-long Las Vegas buffets. Even if the product is good, it’s screaming for attention among dozens of equally high-profile alternatives.

This weekend alone features everything from the kickoff of college football season to a Britney Spears concert to a critical Braves homestand to the Dragon*Con comic book/fantasy convention. And while there’s not a tremendous amount of crossover between fans of Dale Earnhardt and Darth Vader, both clog up the city with traffic and help convince fence-sitters that maybe this race is better seen from the comfort of one’s own couch – that is, if they’re even aware the race exists at all.

“We think everybody knows about us,” AMS president Ed Clark told NASCAR.com earlier this week. “Then you go downtown and stand on a street corner and ask people about the race, and maybe one in 10 can tell you something about it. Then you realize, we’re not doing quite as good as we think we are.”

But give the promoters at Atlanta Motor Speedway credit; they haven’t simply sat back and taken a “schedule it and they will come” approach. Advertisements and promos for the race have blanketed the city for months. You can’t drive on a major highway, turn on a radio or TV, or visit a local fast-food joint without seeing the Car of Tomorrow racing under the lights … accompanied, naturally, by coupons offering discount tickets.

That last element is essential because the spring race taught an important lesson to anyone paying attention: If the tickets are cheap enough, fans will flock to the track. This past spring, the track slashed the prices in its Turn 3 section, and walk-up business was phenomenal. Even the drivers noticed it, and they were flying past at 190 mph.

“I’m not sure what the deal was with the Turn 3 grandstands, but they were full,” Jeff Gordon said immediately after the spring race. “Those were full. These,” he said, motioning to the far more expensive front stretch, “were not. I don’t know if those were less expensive, if those were sponsors that gave them away. That was slammed over there.”

In a down economy, track officials are taking the long view, trading a short-term hit at the gate in exchange for establishing a long-term connection with fans. It’s always dangerous for a corporate entity to proclaim it’s “starting a new tradition” – traditions grow organically, not from the minds of marketing executives. But Atlanta race fans are deep into a tradition of their own: staying home and watching the race on TV.

So that makes this weekend a referendum on NASCAR fandom in Georgia. The weather will be ideal; the tickets are cheap; holidays bracket the race; and with 15 drivers battling for a dozen Chase slots, the on-track action should be some of the best of the year. Short of running the races on the interstate during rush hour, there’s not much more NASCAR can do to bring the race to the fans.

Both the drivers gunning for the Chase and the race fans of Atlanta will be under the lights Sunday night. And for both, the question is the same: Who’s going to show up?


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