Lost AMS race a sign of the times in NASCAR

If veteran racing promoter H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler is right in his assessment of NASCAR’s recent race-date realignment, the Southeast's claim to bragging rights as the hotbed of the sport is truly gone with the wind.

Wheeler, widely regarded as one of the most astute observers of all things motorsports, said the focus of NASCAR racing is now in the Midwest. He points out that while the Southeast is losing a race at one of its cornerstone tracks, the 50-year-old Atlanta Motor Speedway, the Midwest is gaining two and grabbing the opening race in the championship-deciding Chase.

Atlanta’s race went to Kentucky Speedway near Cincinnati. Auto Club Speedway in California lost a race to Kansas Speedway, and the first Chase race moved from New Hampshire to Chicago.

“It’s like Sherman struck again,” said Wheeler, who once was an executive of Speedway Motorsports, the parent company of the Atlanta track, but left in a dispute with chairman Bruton Smith, who made the decision to move the Atlanta race to Kentucky. “And it’s ironic that one of the bastions of NASCAR, the Atlanta area, lost one of its two races.

“It’s a sad thing. The taproot of NASCAR is in Atlanta and Charlotte, and here we’ve almost emasculated one of the tracks that started the whole thing.”

Wheeler said that not long ago NASCAR races were concentrated in the Southeast -- Atlanta, Charlotte, Rockingham, Darlington, North Wilkesboro and Martinsville with two each. He said now the focus is the Midwest, where Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Michigan International Speedway and now Kentucky Speedway, to get Cincinnati and Ohio, host races. Wheeler also lumps Talladega Superspeedway into that group since the Alabama track draws a large share of its audience from north and west of the track.

North Wilkesboro and Rockingham no longer host NASCAR races, and Darlington and Atlanta have lost one Sprint Cup race each.

Knowledgeable NASCAR people list two major reasons why the Atlanta spring race was moved -- an early-spring race date that often provided cold and rainy conditions and poor attendance, which incidentally, was caused by Reason No. 1. But Atlanta has not been the only track with attendance problems. Many of the Midwest tracks, particularly Indianapolis Motor Speedway, also have had trouble maintaining their fan bases.

“If you take away another 25,000 or 30,000 from Indy, I’m not sure you could make any money running a race there,” Wheeler said.

But team owner Roger Penske said Atlanta had its own set of problems, including the biggest factor -- bad weather. And he finds no fault with the decision to leave Atlanta with one race and move another to the Kentucky track.

"I think that it’s strictly business," Penske said. "If you look at the weather patterns that we’ve had, you go back a number of years and look at that first [Atlanta] race, and it’s a tough race."

Wheeler and AMS president Ed Clark contend that a better race date would have brought better crowds. And both point out that even a non-sellout crowd at the 124,000-seat AMS would more than fill many of the other tracks on the circuit that have not lost race dates.

“Atlanta’s problem has always been that its races have been at the wrong time of the year,” Wheeler said. “When you’re within 250 miles of the Gulf of Mexico, March is a terrible time to have a race. It’s a gamble to run a race anywhere in the South in March.”

So what did NASCAR do? It gave the Kentucky track the Atlanta race, then moved the race date to July.

“A night race in July in Atlanta would be magnificent,” Wheeler said.

Former NASCAR driver Richard Petty is not so sure. He said the Atlanta race seemed to be star-crossed from the beginning, with early financial problems and seemingly consistent bad luck.

"You say ‘Atlanta' and you’d always have a lot of people," Petty said. "For some reason they don’t get the local people there. They never have, though. From the word go, it’s never been a big deal for the surrounding community as far as spectators is concerned. It was for the businesses and stuff like that, but not spectators."

Penske said the decision by NASCAR and Smith fit the sport's recent model of taking its main event to new venues.

"We get to see different fans, and that’s important to NASCAR and our sponsors," Penske said. "Bruton and his team have decided that one race is better [at Atlanta], and they have a feeling that they bought Kentucky for a lot less than they paid for New Hampshire, so the economics of having a race at Kentucky could be quite good for them and for their company. I don’t see it as a negative at all. As you start to see some of these tracks being purchased and having multiple ownership, they may move some dates around. I think Auto Club will be a similar situation. We need a big race in California, but do we need two in the same market?"

Wheeler believes that Southern tracks have suffered in recent years because of the dearth of Southern-born drivers. At present, there’s just one Sprint Cup regular from Georgia -- Unadilla’s David Ragan. Alabama, once the home to the popular Alabama Gang, has none. Neither do South Carolina and Tennessee. North Carolina has just one Cup regular, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and his on-track struggles are well documented.

Wheeler said open-wheel drivers no longer are advancing to the struggling Indy Racing League; instead they are gravitating to NASCAR and taking driver seats that once were filled by those who built grass-roots fan bases at short tracks in the Southeast.

“Every driver that in 1962 would have naturally progressed to Indy cars is instead winding up in NASCAR or in Formula One,” he said, pointing out that many Indy car stars now come from places such as Brazil and Scotland.

Wheeler said that it’s unlikely that Atlanta will regain its lost Sprint Cup date, and he said the best hope for the future success of the speedway -- one he considers one of the nicer and better run in America -- rests with the formation of an all-new racing league that appeals to a younger audience who grew up playing video games.

“Somebody needs to come along with a new type of racing that just blows the doors off of Indy and [NASCAR],” he said. “It needs to take video-game action and put it into reality.

“Maybe it’s putting 40 Monster trucks on the track and turning them loose.”