It’s time for a little tough love.
In recent days, a familiar chorus of negativity has begun to emulate from the area surrounding Atlanta Motor Speedway. Social media is rife with commentary from area race fans, complaining that this weekend’s Folds Of Honor/Quik Trip 500 falls too early in the season for their taste. The radio talk shows are abuzz with disgruntled Atlantans, complaining bitterly about being “screwed over” by NASCAR and a March 1st slot on the Sprint Cup Series calendar.
Bruton Smith’s 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor speedway is a motorsports showplace; fan friendly and conducive to fast, competitive, exciting racing. Track President Ed Clark and his staff do a bang-up job taking care of their fans and delivering an exemplary race day experience, and since the gates first opened in 1960, the Henry County speedway has done just that.
Sadly, however, Atlanta has historically struggled to fill its seats, and Sprint Cup Series events regularly roll off with the track’s towering grandstands only 75% full. That’s a dangerous state of affairs, and here’s why.
When Bruton Smith purchased what is now New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2008, his plan was to move one of the track’s two annual Sprint Cup Series weekends to another Speedway Motorsports, Inc. track, most likely Las Vegas. Once Smith got a first-hand look at those sellout Loudon crowds, however, all talk of moving a race came to an end. New Hampshire retains its twice-annual slots on the Sprint Cup schedule, and New England race fans have no reason to fear for the long-term future of their favorite race track.
Atlanta Motor Speedway fans do not have that luxury.
Empty seats and fan apathy have already sent one of AMS’s Sprint Cup dates elsewhere. If things don’t improve, the track could follow North Wilkesboro and Rockingham to the elephants’ graveyard.
The warning signs are plain to see. As far back as January of 2003, former NASCAR Chairman Bill France, Jr. warned that flagging attendance would put race tracks – any race track – in danger of having their dates “realigned” to other, more successful facilities.
It has happened to Rockingham Speedway. It has happened to North Wilkesboro. It has happened to Darlington, which now hosts just one Sprint Cup race per season. And it can happen to Atlanta, too.
Obviously, there are other tracks on the NASCAR circuit with attendance issues. A plummeting economy has cut this sport -- and every other business dependent on discretionary income -- to the bone, with tracks now eliminating seats in favor of higher-revenue options like luxury RV parking and Fan Hospitality zones.
Atlanta is not alone, but it is absolutely at a higher degree of risk. SMI’s Smith continues to bang the drum for a second Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and NASCAR has shown no willingness to add a 37th event, allowing him to do so. If Vegas gets a second event, it will almost certainly be at the expense of another Speedway Motorsports property. And by virtually all indications, Atlanta stands at the top of the Hit List.
Yes, the weather in North Georgia can be cold on occasion. It can also be hot, just like every other venue in NASCAR, or on the planet. No matter what the ambient temperature, however, Atlanta fans have historically proven to be lukewarm when it comes to professional sports.
The NFL’s Falcons were competitive last season, finishing third in the NFC South and remaining in playoff contention until a loss to Carolina in the final week of the regular season. They ranked 10th in attendance for the 32-team league -- well above their usual average – but still felt the need to pipe-in crowd noise over their stadium’s public address system, in a misguided (and illegal) attempt to disguise lackadaisical fan support.
The Atlanta Braves won 12 consecutive divisional titles in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but led the National League in attendance only once. In Game Four in the 2010 National League Division Series, the Braves played in front of 6,000 empty seats, and their fans historically buy playoff tickets at the gate on Game Day, knowing there will be plenty to choose from.
Philips Arena – home of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and WNBA Atlanta Dream – seats just 18,047 for basketball, but still struggles to fill the seats. Most years, you can stretch out and have a row to yourself. The Hawks are playing great ball this season with a league-best 45-12 record that places them 12 ½ games ahead of the Washington Wizards for first place in the Eastern Conference. They rank 20th (of 30 teams) in attendance, though, selling only 90% of their available tickets.
The National Hockey League tried and failed twice in Atlanta, with both the Flames (1972-1980) and Thrashers (1999-2011) attracting little attention from local fans. In their nine-year run, the Flames never ranked better than 21st of 30 teams in attendance, and the franchise now resides in the bustling metropolis of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Is it any wonder Atlanta is known as a lousy sports town?
In fairness, the University of Georgia Bulldogs have no trouble filling 92,000-seat Sanford Stadium for each of their home football games, while Georgia Tech and Clemson (in nearby South Carolina) also pack them in with regularity. NASCAR has often butted heads with the NCAA in recent years, battling for the attention of Atlanta-area fans. In almost every instance, NASCAR comes away holding the short end of the stick.
NASCAR has moved Atlanta’s race date a handful of times in recent seasons. Local fans see that sort of schedule shuffling as a lack of commitment to their speedway. In truth, however, it constitutes a frantic effort on the part of the sanctioning body to find a date – any date – that suits the fancy of the fickle Atlanta fan.
Unfortunately, it always seems to be “too something” at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It’s too hot, too cold, too close to football season, or too close to hunting season. It’s too close to Labor Day, too close to Mother’s Day, too close to Arbor Day or National Kielbasa Appreciation Day for local race fans to come out of hiding and fill the seats.
That’s sad, because as fans of Rockingham Speedway can attest, long-term apathy has serious consequences.
The forecast for Sunday in Atlanta calls for a high temperature of 45 degrees, with a 50% chance of rain. That’s not ideal, admittedly. But for football fans in Green Bay, New England or Chicago, that’s shorts-and-a-Tshirt” weather. Put on a jacket, grab a pair of gloves, fill a Thermos with coffee and support your local race track, while you still can.
And if not, don’t say you weren’t warned.