The 2006 racing season is underway at short tracks around the nation, but for competitors in NASCAR’s four Autozone Elite Divisions -- Southeast, Midwest, Southwest and Northwest – this year will be their last under the NASCAR banner. NASCAR announced a few months ago that it will pull their plug on its regional racing programs at the end of the 2006 campaign, citing low car counts, the escalating cost of competition, and diminished interest from regional track operators.
That “diminished interest” is plain to see. The 2006 Autozone Elite Division Southeast Tour schedule features just four (four!) races, while the Midwest Tour has only five. Competitors in the Southwest Division will race nine times this year, while their colleagues on the Northwest Tour will enjoy a comparatively robust 11-race schedule. Those schedules are a far cry from the days when ARTGO (forerunner of the Midwest Series) and All-Pro (now Autozone Southeast) regularly booked 25-30 race schedules, and both the Southwest and Northwest Tours raced virtually every weekend, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
“Doing away with the Elite Series was a tough emotional decision, but it really wasn’t a tough business decision,” said Don Hawk, Director of Regional Racing Development for NASCAR. “At what point does it no longer make sense for track operator and competitors to race that kind of a car, with that kind of a purse structure? You have to ask yourself, `at what point do they go broke?’ Eventually, you are going to have to make a business decision.”
NASCAR decision to walk away from the Elite Divisions has left racers in those areas with some tough decisions of their own, though there are a few viable options. Former Supermodified and IRL driver Davey Hamilton will promote the Wild West Late Model Shootout series for Southwest Series-type cars next season, under his SRL banner. A similar group is said to forming in the northwest, with plans to race at Evergreen, Yakima, Rocky Mountain and Wenatchee Speedways. And rumors have surfaced recently that a group in the Midwest may be working to resurrect ARTGO, running perimeter and straight-rail chassied cars against each other; at least in the short term.
For drivers in the southeast, however, options are strictly limited. A handful may turn their attention to the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series; a division that has somehow found a way to thrive in many of the same markets NASCAR’s Elite Divisions struggled in. To make that move, however, competitors will have to completely revamp their programs, with all-new cars and engines. They can also upgrade to the NASCAR Busch East or Autozone West Series, spending twice as much money in search of a similar purse.
For many, though, it’s a question of going back to weekly racing, or quitting the game outright.
NASCAR is encouraging its Elite Division competitors to examine other racing venues. Vice President of Corporate Communications Jim Hunter said recently, “We’re looking forward to a dignified and respectful ending to NASCAR’s involvement with the Elite Division. NASCAR realizes that many Elite Division competitors will choose not to step up into the Grand National Division, but will be looking for opportunities to race. For our competitors on the West Coast, we encourage our tracks, teams and drivers to participate in the Stockcar Racing League (SRL) in the future.”
I have said before that the situation faced by NASCAR Elite Divisions racers should serve as a warning to those on the Busch East and Autozone West Series. All three factors cited by NASCAR in terminating the Elite Divisions -- low car count, high cost, and lack of interest from promoters – exist at the Grand National level, as well. Only 11 races are scheduled in the west this season, with 10 “back east.”
NASCAR admits that it gets more difficult every year to convince promoters to pony-up the dollars necessary to book a Grand National event, as track owners learn to live without series’ that were mainstays of their schedule just a few years ago.
My friend Bill Ryan is the owner/promoter of the highly successful Oxford Plains Speedway in Oxford, Maine. Oxford used to be a mainstay on the Busch East schedule, often booking as many as five series races each year. Ryan brought the Tour back for the first time in a decade in 2006, and nearly drowned in the red ink.
“I got the wind taken out of my sails last August,” says Ryan in an excellent story by Mike Twist on the Speed51.com website. “I might like a series, but I can’t book a race just because I like to see those cars run. I’ve got better things to do with my money than buy a $50,000 race ticket.”
In 2006, Ryan has booked the Pro All Stars Series Super Late Models, and the American-Canadian Tour Late Models, circuits he calls, “affordable for a racetrack… even if a couple of clouds roll across the sky.”
He’s not alone in that attitude. Hopefully, NASCAR will learn from the mistakes it made in the Autozone Elite Series, and avoid stepping in the same potholes at the Grand National level.