Saturday, September 02, 2006

NASCAR's destruction of a Labor Day tradition? Borderline criminal

I some know people get awfully tired of hearing about this, but the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series is an entire country away from where it ought to be for Sunday's race.
The only place where the circuit should be on Labor Day weekend is Darlington, S.C. It was an idiotic decision to end that tradition and nothing that's happened in the three years since that happened has done anything to indicated otherwise.
There's simply nothing special about being at California Speedway for Sunday night's Sony HD 500. It's just another race at another track.
Southern California could not care less whether the second Cup date here is this weekend or sometime in November, although if it were later in the year it might not be a THOUSAND degrees here.
I know it's hot in South Carolina this time of the year, and with the humidity it might be more uncomfortable there. But Darlington had traditions dating to 1950, for goodness sake, on its side.
In 1950 they were still building ships on this site, I guess.
NASCAR wants to be part of the Southern California scene, desperately. It wants this track to be a roaring success, but it's not.
The crowd for the season's second race here in Februray was pitiful. There figures to be more people here Sunday, and there will probably be more here than there would be if Darlington sold all of its seats.
Nobody is saying that California Speedway shouldn't have two dates each year. Well, actually, if the fans in this region continue showing their indifference to this track that might be something worth considering.
You wouldn't want to bet, for instance, that Las Vegas couldn't sell more tickets for two races than this track has been able to.
But that's an argument for another day.
The point here is that there are some things you don't mess with. The Southern 500 was one of the most significant races on the NASCAR schedule for generations, and the fact that International Speedway Corp. let its tradition waste away is borderline criminal.
I've heard that some of the people connected with the race that does survive at Darlington, now held on the Saturday before Mother's Day, are toying with the idea of naming that race something like the Dodge Southern 500. That would be an absolute travesty, and anybody with a soul who covers that race would have to hold their noses to type that in as the name of race held on any other weekend but this one.
Darlington has done a good job in the past couple of years selling tickets for that race, and if given a choice for one date a year the track might pick May over September. I think that's sad, too.
Run the Southern 500 at 6 p.m. on the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend and spend the kind of money needed to turn Darlington into a modern, up-to-date facility and you'd have a ticket that fans ought to be clamoring for.
This is almost certainly a lost cause, but you can fight a losing battle and still be on the right side.

21 comments:

Chip Guberalski said...

Cheers to you DP! Nascar has made some pretty cool changes the past few years, but destroying the Southern 500 is not one of them. Who knows? Maybe Brian France is a blog reader and will reconsider...

Monkeesfan said...

Actually it would be easy to bet that Las Vegas would not be able to sell out two dates, because for all of Bruton Smith's promotions the novelty of the track has largely worn off.

Stop running night Winston Cup races - run this race at 1 PM area time.

"There's nothing special about being at Fontana for Sinday night's Los Angeles 500." The bigger problem is there wasn't anything special anymore about the Southern 500, either - the sport has lost virtually all of its unique charm and competitive savagery - it's become promotion of the brand, not promotion of something really worth watching.

Bobby said...

Good call.

But I must blame Francis Ferko for the destruction of the Southern 500. He sued it out, after NASCAR flip-flopped the revived Western 500 in the Los Angeles region and Southern 500 races in 2004, moving the return of the Western 500 on Labor Day, and putting the Southern 500 in the longtime date of the Western 500 (a longtime race in Ontario and later Riverside).

The Dodge Charger (Rebel) 500 deserves to be the Rebel 500, as it is on the traditional Rebel 300/400 date. (The Rebel 300/400/500 was a longtime Saturday race because South Carolina Blue Laws prohibit Sunday automobile races.)

Before NASCAR could even sell tickets for the Southern 500, Showdown Edition, Francis Ferko's lawsuit forced an end to the race by judicial fiat.

It was clear in the press conference Darlington had after NASCAR announced the Chase that the Southern 500 had been reborn as the toughest race in the Chase, and the race would become tougher -- it went from 2 PM until 6 PM, and the drivers would start in the afternoon, see the setting sun on the backstretch midway through the race, and into the night.

It had morphed into an endurance race, as the short day and long night meant drivers went from mid-afternoon to night in the four hourse.

In November 2004, Kyle Petty called the Southern 500 NASCAR's version of golf's U. S. Open, saying that it was a different animal. Petty said golfers who play PGA Tour events shoot low to mid 60's weekly on the main Tour courses, whilst on the U. S. Open, golfers have to fight just to break par. (The 2006 Open ended with the winner at +4.)

The Southern 500, in Petty's words, meant Stimpmeters at 11 on the green, extremely high rough, narrow fairways, and golfers complaining that the USGA set up the course worse than Pete Dye, with high scores. The Western 500, on the same logic, meant the same old PGA Tour TPC courses with decent fairways, lower rough, and low scores.

Kentucky would NOT have sued NASCAR if Ferko hadn't sued NASCAR to kill the Southern 500 Showdown Edition.

And oh, by the way: NASCAR should seriously look at reviving the Southern 500 at the END of the year like 2004. Start the race at 3 PM and end the race in prime-time would be exciting -- the race starts with a mid-afternoon run and the sun baking on the fall track, and then the race finishes in the night. Put the Nextel Cup on the line at the Southern 500 -- can you imagine having to win the Southern 500 to win the championship?

Chris Myers is right in calling Darlington NASCAR's version of Lambeau Field or Fenway Park. If someone in Los Angeles decides to sue the NFL to force a move of the Green Bay Packers to Los Angeles, they can use Ferko as precedent.

That's the real problem we now have.

Gary said...

I'm with you DP. I was a teenager in NC in the fifties, so have always followed Nascar. However, in the last few years I've been increasingly less faithful and watch fewer races due to the sellout of traditions by Nascar and Bruton Smith, beginning with N. Wilkesboro.

Monkeesfan said...

bobby,

You're certainly right about the Francis Ferko suit - BTW, I think we can all agree it was Bruton Smith filing the suit using Ferko as his fall guy - but there may be a silver lining in the follow-up suit by Kentucky Speedway - NASCAR can't afford to take dates away from tracks anymore.

StewartFan said...

If you build it, they will come. This is about tickets sold and butts in chairs.

http://stewartfan.blogspot.com

Cato said...

There's a stock response to situations like this that everyone associated with NASCAR can recite on commmand. It goes something like this: "While we revere our sport's traditions and history, we also need to balance that with the need to grow."

Whenever you hear that, history and tradition are about to get it up the old kazoo.

On the upside, with Darlington empty on Labor Day weekend, it makes the drive from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach a whole lot quicker.

Matthew said...

Howdy all. I leave in Boston and have only been watchng NASCAR since ~1998. In other words, I think I am exactly the sort of "new fan" that NASCAR is trying to attract.

And I don't want to see two races a year in California! I TiVo'd the Saturday night race and still fell asleep before I got through it. The Sunday night race was okay only because my expectations were so low.

Bring me more short tracks, oddly shaped tracks, and road courses!

Anonymous said...

At one point in the race Sunday night all 10 drivers in the top 10 were running in the Top 10 (kudos to them, but no drama)
Imagine that same race at the Track Too Tough To Tame.

If NASCAR wants a real "Race to the Chase" imagine closing with Bristol, Darlington and Richmond. Or even better, tweak the schedule and close with Bristol, Richmond and Darlington.

Oh, and Las Vegas will have two races soon and will sell them out. California attracts crowds from the region, Vegas is a national (and international destination) and the city backs NASCAR stronger

Marysafan said...

First of all, when you get right down to it does it really matter where they are racing on Labor Day weekend as long as they are racing somewhere? The only people it really matters to are the people at the track...and there were twice as many of those in California.

The Southern 500 hadn't sold out in many years in Darlington. If Lambeau field had teh kind of support that Darlington got, it wouldn't be around either. They had good reason to move the date, and smart business sense to do it. For which we should all be grateful, because it ensures that there will be racing on Labor Day weekend for years to come.

Traditions are not built overnight, but over time. Darlington had their time, and when they didn't want it anymore, California was given the opportunity to grow their traditions. Let's hope they make the most of it. If not, then I'm sure NASCAR will move on to other hopefuls.

Monkeesfan said...

cato,

"While we revere the sport's history and traditions, we need to balance that with the need to grow."

The problem is they never explain how going against tradition somehow hurts the sport's ability to grow - nor do they bother to ask whether the sport needs to grow right now. Where has the sport grown because some tracks were sacrificed?

Monkeesfan said...

marysafan, Darlington wasn't selling out because NASCAR was not promoting it or spending money on it - when they spent money and promotion, it sold out. It never made good business sense to cut it to one date. You make it sound as if the sport would be seriously injured if it stuck to tradition - where was keeping the Southern 500 hurting the sport?

Cato said...

monkeesfan,

For the most part, I agree with you. I don't think that NASCAR often appreciates what it has built. However, the schedule of, say, five years ago needed some work. Four races in the sandhills region (Darlington & Rockingham with two each) were just too many for that area to profitably support, especially when there were other markets like Kansas City that were willing to build tracks with taxpayer money.

But DP is right. The California market doesn't care about having its second date on Labor Day any more than any other weekend. It could have two dates while Darlington gets Labor Day (of course, I'll need to find an alternate route to the beach). If that's still too many dates for the Carolinas, let me commit a heresy and suggest that the fall Charlotte race be moved somewhere else. Compared to May, it's a nonevent.

Clance' McClannahan said...

I will never understand NASCAR destroying the Labor Day tradition, even tho for me it is easy to get to Calif. Speedway. Change is an important part of life, but so is tradition. No race will ever be the Southern 500 in NASCAR history. It was a dumb move on NASCAR's part.

Anonymous said...

Hey David!! Love your columns!!! I live in Charlotte and actually was in Fontana, CA for the race last weekend (I was visiting my sister, who lives in LA and is a huge Matt Kenseth fan) and MAN IT WAS UNBELIEVEABLY HOT. Hinges of he** hot. Like walking into a hair dryer my sister said. The IE (Inland Empire) of CA is NO place to have a NASCAR race at that time of year, as much as I love both NASCAR and California.

Monkeesfan said...

cato,

There was never any money lost by running twice a year at both Darlington and Rockingham, and the schedule could easily have handled adding tracks like Kansas and Kentucky without disrupting the schedule's core.

Fontana certainly shows the folly of the argument about the sport needing to be in big markets, but abandoning one or both dates there makes no sense.

Anonymous said...

I agree one hundred percent. I wish you could make the powers that be see the error of their ways!

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