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NASCAR's future lacks strong Southern accent

As the sport expands, even New York City may get a Winston Cup race.

BRUCE LOWITT
Published August 31, 2003

DARLINGTON, S.C. - "We didn't have no tickets, no safety equipment, no fences, no nothing," the late Tim Flock once said. "Just a bunch of these bootleggers who'd been arguing all week about who had the fastest car."

Flock was NASCAR champion in 1952 and '55 - and a Georgia bootlegger. That pretty much defines the birth of stock car racing 70-something years ago, moonshiners outrunning federal tax men in the middle of the night.

Drivers still argue (and occasionally punch each other) anywhere from nondescript dirt tracks to glittering superspeedways. Money remains the sport's driving force, measured in billions of dollars, not gallons of hooch.

NASCAR's first race was June19, 1949, at Charlotte Speedway. Darlington Raceway opened the next year with the Labor Day debut of the Southern 500. By 1965 NASCAR was racing in or near Atlanta, Daytona Beach, Charlotte and Rockingham, N.C., Richmond and Martinsville, Va., and Bristol, Tenn. Its first serious step out of the South had been taken with the Motor City 250 in Michigan.

Winston Cup tracks are in 19 states now; in the past decade NASCAR has spread to speedways in or near Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Las Vegas, Miami and Kansas City. And the sport's roots have begun to shrivel.

"You have to change," said NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter, former Darlington president. "People accuse us of forgetting where we came from. This is a big business, but I don't think there are any plans afoot to do away the events that made NASCAR what it is today.

"If it were just money, you'd put all the events out for bid and whoever had the most money would wind up with the races. We'll always have races in the South."

Just not as many.

Taking tradition away

After today Darlington loses its Labor Day weekend race to California; that gives the Fontana track 50 miles east of Los Angeles two races each year.

Darlington keeps its 400-mile March race and next year stages the Southern 500 in November, a date taken from North Carolina Speedway. That leaves the Rockingham track with one Winston Cup race. Darlington, with its attendance problems, could lose a race in further NASCAR expansion and realignment.

Lowe's may lose the Winston; it has problems selling out NASCAR's annual all-star race. And North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway, 85 miles north of Lowe's and a Winston Cup fixture in 1961-96, sits idle.

"I don't know if I'm necessarily in favor of tracks getting two races right now," defending Southern 500 champion Jeff Gordon said. "I'd much rather see us building new tracks in markets we're not going to. But you have to pull (a date) from one track to give it to another."

Running the Southern 500 in November won't seem the same to some drivers. Others don't care one way or the other.

"It's taking tradition away from Darlington," said Terry Labonte, who has raced here since 1978 and won the 1980 Southern 500. "This (weather) is the way it's supposed to be. It's supposed to be hot and the track slick. This is a perfect Darlington weekend. I'm one of the ones hating to see it leave."

On the other hand, four-time Southern 500 winner Bobby Allison said, "It might be even better. Even the fans don't like to be really uncomfortable, and as time goes on they get more and more picky about that too. If it's a nice fall day, the fans will come here and have a good time."

Still, Allison acknowledged, "The Southern 500 really contributed to the idea that NASCAR racing was big time. It was a major event on that given day, and the whole country paid attention to it."

Then there's Jimmie Johnson, running his second Southern 500. "From my perspective, Labor Day and all the other holidays we have, I've kind of forgotten about them in general with the schedule we have. Not having been here and racing on Mondays as a lot of Southern 500 veterans have, it doesn't mean the same to the younger guys coming into the sport."

Gordon planted himself somewhere in the middle. "I think we'll miss it a little bit - the first year or so," he said.

Only so many weekends

International Speedway Corp. owns or operates 12 of 23 Winston Cup tracks. Speedway Motorsports owns six. Bill France is chairman of NASCAR and ISC; Bruton Smith is chairman of SMI. They are bitter rivals.

Smith said he built Texas Motor Speedway with a promise from France in 1994 that he would receive a Winston Cup expansion date and NASCAR reneged. He and Bob Bahre, owner of New Hampshire International Speedway, each wanted a Winston Cup race. They bought the .625-mile North Wilkesboro track, split its dates and shut it down.

The 11/2-mile Kentucky Speedway, opened in 2000, also was built without a guaranteed Winston Cup date. It still doesn't have one and isn't likely to get one, nor are 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway, opened in 2001, or .596-mile Nashville Speedway USA (formerly Nashville International Raceway), which hosted Winston Cup races in 1958-84.

They, like several of the old NASCAR tracks, are victims of proximity.

"We're 50 miles from Rockingham and 80 from Charlotte," Darlington president Andrew Gurtis said, "and none of the races at any of those tracks sells out. It's been 1997 since we sold out a race here."

It also is about 60 from Rockingham to Charlotte, 100 from Charlotte to Martinsville, 105 from Talladega to Atlanta, 120 from Charlotte to Bristol...

"There are only so many weekends out of the year," Gurtis said. "Nobody would argue that (the South isn't) saturated. Out of necessity, NASCAR has gone to new major markets."

Eventually a speedway in or near New York City is a virtual certainty. "Being in the major markets defines you as a big-time business," Max Muhleman, president of IMG/Muhleman Marketing, told espn.com. "New York would complete NASCAR as far as being a more bona fide national sports organization."

But unless NASCAR adds a 37th race to its Winston Cup schedule, an existing track will lose a date to New York. Of the 13 with two races, nine are in the South.

"I think the writing has been on the wall," Gurtis said. "(NASCAR has) put people on notice and said, "Look, for 2004, to grow the sport and increase the attendance for all of us, we're going to have to take a hard look at things.' I certainly hope it's not Darlington."

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