Atlanta Motor Speedway looks to get back to racing this weekend

Credit: Scott Cunningham

Credit: Scott Cunningham

In weird times Atlanta Motor Speedway has had to go to weird extremes to keep a little cash flowing. If that means running a bizzaro world speedway, where cars are parked by the hundreds rather than turning laps at 170 mph, then so be it.

“We have all had to think of non-traditional ways to come up with revenue,” said Brandon Hutchison, the track’s executive vice-president and general manager.

Everything has been at a standstill since NASCAR postponed the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at AMS on March 13 because of the coronavirus outbreak. So, what to do? You recoup a little money by standing still.

“We have been fortunate that we’re 30 minutes south of the busiest airport in the world,” Hutchison explains. “They’re not renting cars. Since they are not renting cars there are a ton of cars that needed somewhere to park. So, we have been able to generate a little bit of revenue by parking cars.” Behold, the racetrack that trades in cars going nowhere.

In the past few months, the track also has leased space for food sales. “One example is a chicken distributor,” the GM said. “If they’re not selling their chicken to local restaurants, where are they selling their chicken? They’ve been renting our parking lot and selling cases of chicken to the public.” The track has shown its charitable side as well, serving as a distribution point for the Atlanta Community Food Bank and hosting a pair of Red Cross blood drives.

And, get this: Coming this weekend is the now rather-novel idea of holding actual races at the racetrack. They are getting around to that Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 nearly three months after shutting down the infield and sending every team hauler and every undented, unmarked car back north.

As it has been since NASCAR fired back up in mid-May, there will be no spectators in the stands. No qualifying. No great seething masses in the garage or along pit row. They’ll run races — an Xfinity and Truck series doubleheader Saturday and the big boys Sunday afternoon — in a ghost town.

This track gets one race weekend a year. Now, mind you, if some other track in some other city can’t pull off a future date, AMS would be happy to step in. But right now, there’s just the one big event on a big, wide-open calendar. And not having one paying customer within a half-mile of the front gate during that annual opportunity hurts.

Without going into specific numbers, Hutchison calls the financial hit significant. “You think about the tickets that have been refunded, the tickets that didn’t get purchased, the merchandise that didn’t get purchased, the food and beverage that didn’t get purchased — the financial impact is quite large. We’re no different than any other company in America or around the world right now; we’re not exempt from the hardships that have fallen on everyone. We’re dealing with it, getting through it the best we can.”

“It’s bittersweet,” he added. “At heart I’m a race fan. I’m fully aware that the fans that sit in our grandstands are the reason I have a job and that Atlanta Motor Speedway even exists. To not be able to host our fans for our race weekend is not something that makes me feel good inside.

“What does make me feel good inside is that we’re able to bring live sports back to the state of Georgia and that our fans will be able to tune in live and watch live racing.”

Over the past three weeks, the folks at AMS have been able to benefit from the experience of their peers at Darlington, Charlotte and Bristol. Who knows what may happen on the track at great speeds? But Hutchison feels quite confident they’ll be able to get people in and out of the property this weekend without creating any great health risks.

What is coming to AMS this weekend is no less than, “a surreal schedule,” as Hutchison puts it.

He breaks it all down from there: “No practice. No qualifying. They’ll unload and go racing.

“The day before the respective race, the haulers and drivers’ motor homes will come in and park. The drivers of those haulers and motor homes will park them and leave. The next day, the team and drivers will be able to come in and access the facility. Everybody will be screened. The driver will come in, and he’ll go right to his motor home. He won’t be allowed to go to the garage. The team will go to their hauler and prepare the car.

“Ten minutes before the race is to start, the drivers will come out of their motor homes and go straight to the car. We’ll do the invocation and national anthem the drivers will get in their cars. We’ll give the command to go racing, the race will take place. After the race the winning driver will go to an empty victory lane. We’ll do a Zoom call with sponsors to do a virtual trophy presentation. The teams will take the car to the hauler, the hauler will leave. The drivers will get out of their cars, go to their motor homes, change, get in their vehicles and drive home.”

A race most strange comes this way.

But one guarantee: It is certain to be more engaging than watching parked cars.