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Thursday, August 5, 2010
Atlanta shouldn't be losing a race


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The phone rang at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday. It was Ed Clark, the president of Atlanta Motor Speedway, and, as with most conversations, I began by asking how things were going.

"I've had better days," Clark said.

You could hear the disappointment in Clark's voice. Only two hours earlier, he had had a phone call from Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith and chief operating officer Marcus Smith to tell him that in 2011, for the first time in 50 years, Atlanta wouldn't host two Sprint Cup races.

Clark, like many of us, had heard such rumblings for almost a year. Clark, like many of us that never have known NASCAR without two events in Atlanta, was crushed.

"We've now gotten the word," Clark said. "It's time to step back and refocus. A lot of tracks have one NASCAR event weekends and do very well. That's what we intend to do."

Kentucky Motor Speedway will be the benefactor in this. When the reshuffled schedule is announced in the coming weeks, the 1.5-mile track will pick up the date Atlanta had in March and begin its venture into NASCAR's top series with an early July date.

Nothing against Kentucky. I hear the fans there are passionate and will support a Cup event like NFL fans in Green Bay support the Packers. Smith is so optimistic that he plans to expand seating capacity from 65,000 to 100,000.

But this is a sad day for Atlanta. It's a sad day for NASCAR.

Atlanta has been a part of some of the sport's most memorable moments, particularly the spring race. It's where Kevin Harvick got his first win after Dale Earnhardt died in 2001. It's where, a year earlier, Earnhardt had earned his second-to-last win with a photo finish over Bobby Labonte.

It's where all the greats, from Cale Yarborough to Darrell Waltrip to Richard Petty, have won. Atlanta is where former President Jimmy Carter once worked as a ticket taker, where NASCAR President Mike Helton once was the track's general manager.

"That's one thing about this; great moments have occurred here, and that's not going to go away," Clark said. "We're going to make some more."

For the longest time, I was for Atlanta losing a Sprint Cup weekend so Kentucky or Las Vegas or any other community that would appreciate what it has got a date. All the empty seats, I thought, were an embarrassment for the sport.

I was wrong.

Every track has empty seats these days. Indianapolis Motor Speedway barely was half full last month.

Atlanta deserved to keep two dates. Even with only 80,000 to 111,000 of its 125,000 seats filled in recent years, that's more than will attend many tracks on the circuit. The market also is one of the most significant to sponsors as the home of Home Depot, Coca-Cola, UPS, Aaron's, Rubbermaid and more.

And you can't blame the track for having trouble filling seats. Ever been to an Atlanta Braves, Hawks, Falcons or Thrashers game? Atlanta might be the toughest city to sell tickets in in the entire country.

It's hard to blame Smith, either. He promised Kentucky a date and, because of the politics of NASCAR, had no choice but to give up a date at one of his existing tracks. He approached the governing body about Sonoma but was turned down. There were rumblings about New Hampshire, but that track is one of the most successful in SMI.

And NASCAR certainly wasn't going to hand over a date at Pocono or Dover, the only tracks not owned by SMI or International Speedway Corp.

So Atlanta was the loser, just as California will be the loser when ISC gives one of its dates to Kansas -- although many don't think California deserves one race, much less two.

There's not much flexibility when it comes to shuffling races. SMI and ISC aren't about to give one of their dates to the other side even if it makes sense. Then there is the cloudy issue of the France family's involvement with ISC and NASCAR that further complicates matters.

As a result, we'll make only one trip to Atlanta next year. Hopefully, AMS can turn the Labor Day weekend race it keeps into something special -- as Darlington, which historically hosted the Labor Day race, has done with its lone Mother's Day date.

At least Clark won't have the headache of trying to sell tickets for a March date few wanted because the weather always seemed to be a factor.

"It's a business decision," Clark said. "Are we happy about it? No, but we're very supportive of the company. The most difficult thing for me was a lot of loyal people have worked a lot of years to build what we have.

"I feel for them. We'd heard the rumors, but when they got the definitive news at 11:30, it was kind of a shock."

Yep, Clark has had better days.

So has the sport.