Atlanta still can thrive with one race

  • David Newton [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPN.com | September 1, 2010

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Chris Browning remembers the empty feeling in the pit of his stomach as though it were yesterday. There was shock, grief, everything one experiences after losing a close family member or friend.

And Browning had to go through it twice, first at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham and then at Darlington Raceway.

Chris Browning
AP Photo/Mary Ann ChastainAs the president at Darlington Raceway, Chris Browning knows how to make one Sprint Cup race date a season work.

So when it came to the search to understand what it means to lose a Sprint Cup race -- as Atlanta Motor Speedway will do beginning in 2011 so that Kentucky Speedway can have a race date -- the president of Darlington Raceway seemed like the logical place to start.

"It's kind of a shock at first," says Browning, who shut the doors completely at Rockingham in 2004 and saw a race disappear at Darlington in 2005. "You really kind of change your way of thinking, you change your approach, and to be honest, you don't get the full effect until you've gone full circle and gone through that whole 12-month cycle.

"It takes some getting used to."

But losing a race doesn't have to mean the death of a track, although it turned into that for Browning at "The Rock," which became a pawn to get Texas Motor Speedway a second date in the Ferko lawsuit.

Darlington has thrived with one date. The Mother's Day weekend has become one of the most popular races in the series and sold out four consecutive years before falling just short the past two seasons.

Other tracks, such as Homestead-Miami Speedway, Chicagoland, Kansas Speedway, Sonoma, Watkins Glen and Las Vegas, have done just fine with one event as well.

So Atlanta can survive with its lone Labor Day weekend event.

"Work harder and smarter," Browning says. "It's definitely going to be a big transition. There's pros and cons, obviously, on both sides. You are able to concentrate more time and more focus to do things promotionally for the single Cup weekend that you might not have been able to accomplish when you have two dates.

"It also forces you to reach out and find other events to fill your schedule."

To survive financially, a track doesn't need 81 home dates as Major League Baseball teams do or 10 home dates (eight regular-season, two preseason) as NFL teams do.

Losing a date actually could be more profitable. Say, for example, Atlanta sells 125,000 tickets for its lone event as opposed to 80,000 for each of its two events. There's only a 35,000-seat difference that can be made up in ticket prices and the savings from not having to open the facility for a second weekend.

And by creating a limited supply scenario to go with (hopefully) increased demand, there is a far greater chance of selling out one event as opposed to two.

Rockingham Speedway
US PresswireRockingham Speedway has found a way to stay alive, including hosting ARCA races.

The open date also provides opportunity for more business ventures. Tracks don't sit idle for a year after a race. Atlanta has a Legends car series, 17 weeks of Friday night drag racing, car shows, driving schools and auto manufacturer ride-and-drive programs to introduce new lines of cars.

There's even what AMS president Ed Clark calls the EGGtoberfest, in which customers of the Big Green Egg grill gather to show off their cooking skills.

Clark also is looking into possibly bringing in an Indy Racing League event to supplement the loss of his March date.

Browning recently held a stand-alone Truck Series event that drew 15,000 to break even, but he hopes to grow that into a moneymaker in upcoming years.

Darlington also has an annual three-day Historic Racing Festival featuring legendary cars and drivers that made the sport famous. It has become a big success. That along with hosting local and state law enforcement for training and other events keeps Browning's small staff hopping.

"It does force you to reach out and find other events to fill your schedule," Browning says of losing a race.

That's not to suggest losing a Cup event isn't big. The France-family-run International Speedway Corp. has 12 tracks that run 19 Cup events and claims that 90 percent of its revenue comes from NASCAR events.

The events also are a huge economic boon to the community and region. A $100 million impact is about average for most race weekends. Studies show Daytona International Speedway -- including all events from NASCAR races to motorcycle races to car shows -- generates about $1.9 billion in economic benefits to the Central Florida region each year.

Homestead-Miami Speedway, which hosts the finale for NASCAR's top three series and the finale for the IndyCar Series, generates an impact of nearly $250 million per year for South Florida.

To put that into perspective, the NFL typically claims an economic impact of $400 million for the Super Bowl.

So a track can survive with one Cup event.

"You don't have to have two Cup races to make it," says Pat Warren, the president of Kansas Speedway, which will grow from one to two events in 2011. "We have about 200 revenue-generating days a year, most generally nonracing."

Among Kansas' other revenue producers include a Bikers for Babies fundraiser for the March of Dimes in which 7,000 motorcyclists invade the track and a cancer fundraiser for the city's medical center.

"I don't think it's an issue of survival with one race," Warren says. "It'll be different for Atlanta, but I can't say that's better or worse. It's just different."

Ed Clark We're still not over the announcement about what's going to happen next year. But you can deal with it in several ways. The way we chose to deal with it is find the positives and give fans and the people who have support this place such a tremendous activity that we can say they may not have two races, but they're really going out of their way to make this one special for us.

-- Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark

Fans and local businesses may complain, but do they really have the right to? If they really wanted to save two dates, all they had to do was buy tickets and fill the place up before it became too late.

Some wish every track hosted only one event. That would allow NASCAR to shorten the schedule as well as add different venues such as Iowa Speedway that would bring in different markets in the country.

"I look at losing a race from a positive view," says NASCAR vice president for corporate communications Jim Hunter, who for years fought to keep two races as the track president at Darlington.

It took Browning a while to get to this point. He spent years trying to keep two races at Rockingham, then lost both within a one-year span. He then moved to Darlington, where he knew going in the track would shrink from two to one in 2005, not to mention lose its traditional Labor Day weekend date that hosted the Southern 500.

Back then the argument for the closing of two dates at North Wilkesboro, two at Rockingham and one at Darlington was a saturation of the Southeastern market. Former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler used to argue there were too many races within two hours of his track, and that hurt his attendance.

The track closings didn't give CMS a boost, so there must be other reasons. Clark said he believes that the lack of Southern-born stars as there were with David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty has been a factor. He makes a good point. The last champion from the South was Dale Jarrett of Hickory, N.C., in 1999.

"You used to watch them race short tracks and build their way to the Cup level," says Clark, reminding that a Georgia native hasn't won a Cup race at his track since Bill Elliott in 1992. "People went to eight or nine races a year to see the guy they watched grow up. Now it seems more guys are out of the West Coast or all over the U.S."

Yes, times are changing, and tracks are being forced to change with them.

It's not a particularly sexy story like Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards returning to the scene of their March incident. It's just the reality of the times.

It doesn't have to be bad. It's just, as Warren says, different.

"We're still not over the announcement about what's going to happen next year," Clark says. "But you can deal with it in several ways. The way we chose to deal with it is find the positives and give fans and the people who have support this place such a tremendous activity that we can say they may not have two races, but they're really going out of their way to make this one special for us."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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