Race Weekend Central

The Cool-Down Lap: Great Racing, Bad Crowd? The Curious Case of Atlanta Motor Speedway

HAMPTON, Ga. – Drivers love it. It sits just south of the biggest city in the southeastern United States and seventh or eighth biggest in the whole country. It has wonderful facilities, a fan-friendly atmosphere. It has been home to some of the most spectacular finishes and impactful races in NASCAR history. But Atlanta Motor Speedway has a problem – the crowds just will not turn the gates.

Sunday night’s (Sept. 5) crowd was well short of expectation to the surprise of many. Despite vast improvements and additions on the track’s grounds, despite lowering the ticket prices more than Mel Gibson’s appearance fees, fans in the Atlanta area just aren’t sinking their teeth into AMS races. But why? After all of the hubbub, the lost March race, the arrival of NASCAR on Labor Day weekend, how could they not? The list of problems may be longer than NASCAR and AMS officials can fix.

Some, particularly the casual fan (you know, the one that NASCAR broke its back to please these last few years), would argue that the racing at Atlanta is boring. A point can be made. I myself have fallen asleep at the track before, even in the grandstands. While drivers are pressing their cars’ handling abilities to the limits and pining for the thread-wide sweet spot that would give their cars speed.

Of course, while they are busy dirt-tracking their various lines across AMS’s famously abrasive surface, one driver has figured out the riddle and checked out. The strung out field leads to long green-flag runs, which yields to even more daylight (or moonlight as it be) between each position. While the endings are often fun, along with restarts, the meat of the sandwich sometimes takes too long to chew. And in the age of attentions spans shorter than Heidi Montag’s singing career. That means trouble.

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The boredom, though, doesn’t always translate to the grandstands (despite my cat nap in the bleachers several years back), like it does on television. The sheer spectacle of stock car racing can overcome a lackluster race. Loud cars, the smell of fuel and tires, and the electricity of the light bouncing off the paint schemes can’t help but conjure up excitement.

Add in the fact that the night race is brand new in Atlanta (and on Labor Day Eve – so people do not have to worry about work the next day) and this would at least prompt a few more fans to try AMS for the first time or return to a race after years of cold weather in March and October races. Last season, that was the case. The Labor Day race, while short of a sellout, was an exciting smash. This year, the Labor Day night race at AMS experienced a sophomore attendance slump.

Maybe the problem is deeper, then, than the problems unique to Atlanta. Fans used to pack the stands at AMS and see the same strung-out racing, deal with the same questionable weather and sit in the same traffic jams going to and from the races. Maybe the problem is the same one that plagues the whole sport. Both AMS and Auto Club Speedway in California lost one of their two annual dates on the 2011 Sprint Cup schedule.

California’s attendance problems, though, pervaded most of its existence, as the cosmopolitan crew on the West Coast that did drive their BMWs from Hollywood to see a race there rarely did so more than once or twice. But AMS had a healthy fanbase simply erode away. Did bad weather wash it away? The weather for this Labor Day was forecast (and ended up being) as perfect. The fans showed up in droves – to other places.

The first problem for AMS is the same apathy that plagues all of NASCAR right now. Fans just simply aren’t in love with today’s drivers and the racing mentality most take to the track. The sport is covered apathetically by a bored media who realizes they can draw a paycheck by following the same storylines, scanning Jayski for material instead of prodding for new information and speaking in the same platitudes each week (and when that fails, they resort to bashing it).

And apathy in Metro Atlanta on all occasions exists – especially in sports. The already non-NASCAR populace of Atlanta knows nothing of the sport and does not show up to watch the sports it does know about.

As a native and avid Braves fan, I still cannot fathom the sub-20,000 crowds that attended the games at Turner Field this past week – and the Braves are in their first good pennant race since 2005. The Hawks’ first-round playoff-clinching win had more empty seats than a Limp Bizkit concert. Imagine how this translates to a venue 40 miles south of the city, for a sport that many Atlantans (who aren’t natives and have no concept of NASCAR) do not understand or like.

Say they did, though. Even if people in the Atlanta area were at least halfway passionate about the sport, they do not have much money. Sure, there are many affluent business people that live in posh areas close to town, the majority of Atlanta’s population with expendable income live well north of the city, adding over a half hour to a trip down to Hampton, Ga. And expendable income is at a premium for those people and even more so for the blue-collar demographic of fans that are NASCAR’s bread and butter, especially in this sagging economy.

Georgia’s jobless rate is among the worst in the country. And in better economic times, when fans flocked to NASCAR during the late 1990s and early 2000s, ticket prices rose to astronomical levels and priced some fans out before hard times hit.

Who do we have left? The core of die-hard fans that scraped together their vacation money for the bi-annual trip down or up I-75 to AMS that came over the majority of the track’s 50 years to see the likes of Allison, Petty, Pearson, Yarborough, Baker, Roberts, Earnhardt, the Labontes, Rusty and some red-headed fella named Elliott.

They saw the mind-boggling 1992 Hooters 500, where Richard Petty retired, Jeff Gordon debuted, Davey Allison was eliminated from title contention and hometown hero Bill Elliott (the race winner) did all he could do to snag the Winston Cup away from eventual Cup winner Alan Kulwicki. These fans still came in droves to see Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd and others through the 1990s and early 2000s.

But then the attitudes of drivers changed. The racing changed. NASCAR openly said that these core fans were not who they wanted to attract and the governing body made changes that many of those fans left didn’t appreciate. Suddenly (or not so much so), those blue-collar fans reconsidered the burden of loading the van and trucking themselves to the race. Who did they feel they could root for? Jimmie Johnson?

His blue-collar roots don’t come across in his interviews and his dominance the past few years has not been very popular. Dale Earnhardt Jr.? I’m told he still races, but I haven’t seen him up front in a while. Kyle Busch? Here’s a quote I heard during driver introductions from the crowd Sunday: “Boooooo.” It isn’t worth it to them. They’d rather take the family to the beach one last time on Labor Day and flip the race on for the last 50 laps.

And here’s the final thing to consider: Atlanta still attracts more fans than some tracks – some that still have two dates. The problem, of course, is that the expansion of NASCAR led to grandstand expansion and, thus, has left empty spots along the front straightaway seating (the expensive seating) in NASCAR’s contraction in the past few years. The AMS attendance drop-off has not gone unnoticed and is harped upon by many.

But unlike ACS, where the racing was nearly always boring (with the exception of this past February), AMS’s insufficient gate returns had little to do with anything the track itself could control. The economy tanked. The culture in NASCAR changed. The Atlanta media largely ignored the track, because it largely ignored NASCAR. Now the March date is gone.

I’ve heard that some scratched attending Sunday’s race because the March date got taken away, which is counter-intuitive, but nonetheless again adds angry, broke, apathetic souls to the pile of people who aren’t coming to the track. However you feel, though, whomever you blame, don’t blame the track.

Atlanta Motor Speedway is yet another heritage racing venue that fell victim to circumstance and can still fight to get some of its lost share. The crew that runs AMS has done more to accommodate fans (lowering ticket prices, booking concerts, and convincing hotels to lower rates) than many tracks would ever think of. The “Boys Have at It” experiment in NASCAR isn’t over, the Chase for the Cup may change, the economy definitely will rebound and fans will return to those empty seats.

When they do, Labor Day racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway will be viewed as the tradition it should be – and while the date may never surpass the tradition steeped in the Southern 500 at Darlington – it will carve its place in history as a marquee event.

Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on AM 750 and NOW 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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