Friday, February 27, 2015

COMMENTARY: Tough Love For Atlanta Race Fans

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.


  1. I am curious as to how you will now defend NASCAR over the qualifying fiasco today at Atlanta....

  2. More fans down the tubes after today's fiasco?

  3. This is the first time I've read your blog however I've heard your radio show many times. I would like to offer you a little" tough love". On your show today I think you were a little rude to a caller I believe named David.
    I live north of Atlanta and used to regularly buy 4 grandstand seats for every race. My father took me as a kid to the track for my first race in 1964 which was run in the summer! I disagree that it's all the fans fault. First if you buy tickets to the Packers game you know the game will be played even if it rains. Tickets to a race are expensive and you may or may not see a race. Most of us have to work on Monday, Tuesday or whatever rain date it happens to be run.
    The reason I stopped buying tickets over 10 years ago was mainly because of the weather issue! Not because of cold but because of rain delays that caused us to blow a ton of money to get there and then nothing happened.
    Other factors that caused me to stop buying tickets were the constant tinkering with rules. One year the cars have a wing and then the next they don't. For a few years we have a 10 team chase then we add two more then four more! For years we raced back to the finish line when the caution flag came out. Now we don't even know who finished where until Nascar looks at a video tape! And through all this ticket and concession prices kept climbing.
    I would also like to point out that your arrogant and condescending attitude towards any customer - that's what we fans are you know- is ridiculous! If your product is not selling maybe you need to look in the mirror. The people who call in to your show or read your blog are your customers why insult them! There may not be a big enough fan base in this area to support AMS- I don't know. But please stop attacking the fans that are here! Also it should say something that many tracks - not just AMS are removing grandstands! When your sales start falling you better look at your product and not blame the customer!

  4. That would be a real shame if this came to fruition. I believe that Atlanta provides some of the best ways racing on the circuit.

  5. Furthering the analogy between the speedway and the Falcons - the Falcons depend on walk-up ticket sales to sell out their games - in 2005 the Falcons danced around on the league-required injury report about Michael Vick before the Patriots game there - or more bluntly they lied on it - because they wanted fans to think Vick would play and thus guarantee strong ticket sales; they of course started backup Matt Schaub instead, having intended to do so the entire time.

    Atlanta is one of the nation's weakest sports market - LA is by far the worst - yet the speedway's saving grace is Atlanta is headquarters to sponsors such as Coca-Cola.

  6. Anonymous10:11 AM

    Dave I have to disagree it's not the fans fault you get better coverage on tv. Heck isn't NASCAR made for tv now. The price of tickets vs sitting at home and watching for free on Fox is why the stands aren't packed. Thats just my opinion

  7. I have said since the date was moved, that it is so Bruton can say he tried, but in reality he wants that 2nd race in Las Vegas. I suspect next year it will be. Heck they dismantled the Elliot seating section this winter. When Bill Elliot's name is removed from a track in Georgia that track will be history

  8. Hello Dave,
    I certainly understand your perspective. I love Atanta and the racing it provides, but I just don't think the fans, especially the older ones, are willing to sit in blustery cold weather when they can wait a month or so and go to Bristol, Martinsville, etc. As season ticket holder for the Eagles, I fully expect to have a freezing cold game or two. However, I would not be inclined to buy my race tickets ahead of time if my home track had a date where it may be cold. Perhaps when I was in my 20's or 30's I would still be eager, but at 45, not so much. Another issue I believe, involves RV's & campers. I own a 5th wheel and take it to several events a year. It is still currently winterized. If I were to come to Atlanta, I would then have to re-winterize once I return home. I truly hope the stands are overly full, but considering the attendance woes Atlanta has had in years past, the late February, early March date is tough to swallow. IMO

  9. Anonymous5:49 PM

    Mr. Moody, nobody likes to be told to take the serving of poo they're offered and like it...or else. NASCAR, always full of itself, thinks if they schedule it, people will come...or they'd BETTER come. What the Atlanta fans are being offered with this race date is a mix of discomfort and blackmail. If any real business tried to unload this onto potential customers, they wouldn't last long where they are. Mr. Moody, the process of Detroit abandoning NASCAR started in the 1990s with Chevrolet's fake Lumina race cars. Since then all the participating manufacturers have brought were more and more irrelevant cars to run - cars in no way like in construction and power plant what we can find in a showroom. That tie-in to see our brand whup the neighbor's brand no longer exists to draw us to NASCAR product. NASCAR is incapable, as evidenced by lukewarm reception to it's hall of fame, of creating interest in it's past, and it is as lost in trying to maintain interest in it's present. As for it's future it is a dog sniffing for money scents not even yet on the ground and chasing after them regardless. Atlanta may yet lose it's remaining race date, but it's not all the fault of the fans that once made it a twice-a-year stop on the circuit.

    1. To Anonymous and others of similar view -

      You mention Chevrolet's "fake Lumina racecars." What was fake about them compared to other brands at the time? As for "more and more irrelevant cars to run, cars in no way like in construction and power plant what we can find in a showroom," again, compared to what? And why does it never seem to occur to anyone that Form Following Function not only exists but it is an ironclad law of performance?

      If NASCAR is not capable of creating interest in its past - I agree there is something to that criticism - then what should NASCAR do to generate interest in its past?

      And if Atlanta's date in not acceptable, then what date is? At some point fans need to admit they aren't doing enough. It's not solely because of NASCAR or "the economy" that attendances have declined.

  10. Anonymous11:05 PM

    Actually, the Flames moved to Calgary. It was the Thrashers that moved to Winnipeg

  11. Anonymous7:12 PM

    The Flames are in Calgary, the Thrashers are in Winnipeg. Also The Winnipeg Jets were an NHL team that was moved to Phoenix.

  12. Anonymous8:43 PM

    Instead of pointing the finger at the fans maybe you and NASCAR should take a look at bringing a product to the track that we might find interesting enough to give you our valuable time once again. Atlanta like most of the tracks in the NASCAR world is having “issues” due to combination of reasons. Things like the economy, how nice the race is to watch on TV, what the race cost to watch on TV vs. going to the track, an older fan base, and the cost of gasoline to name a few. However, those aren’t the only issues. NASCAR has seen its TV ratings fall over the past 6 seasons. Oh sure, you jump to point out that the Daytona 500 was up 38% in viewership over the previous year. Then you’ll fail to throw out it still had its second lowest ratings since 1991.

    NASCAR’s issues begin and end with the people running it or lack of leadership running it. They ran out all the people who used to have “personality” and replaced them with corporate robots. The same leadership moved the sport into a spending spree where only the top 5 or so teams can win races that aren’t restrictor plate ones. Of course, that spending spree didn’t include the tracks that the family that runs NASCAR owns. Safer barriers? Wait, how long have they had to put them up around Daytona? The technology has only been around since the early 1990’s. You’ll point out the cost per foot. Ask Kyle Busch if they needed them on every wall at the track and if he cares about the cost of a piece of equipment the France family could have put in over the last 30+ years. I know Dave – Bill France who is an MULTI-BILLIONAR just couldn’t afford it. Then that leadership seems to knee jerk every decision it makes and never has any “standard” for the punishment it hands out. Be liked and your punishment seems to be less severe, but don’t tow the company line and your out even if you haven’t been charged with anything and another racer who pled guilty to what you have been accused of is still racing but can't make it to the track because he misplaced his racing car.

    Dave, over the course of the last 10 years I have watched the sport I have loved since I was a child turn me closer and closer to not caring about it. I don’t watch races all the way through anymore and don’t care about this driver or that one anymore. It seems from track attendance and from TV ratings I’m not the only one.

    1. Anonymous raises numerous issues that warrant examination.

      1 - On NASCAR having a product worth watching at Atlanta - in the case of Atlanta NASCAR has had several interesting races since the track was reconfigured to quad-oval layout. The overall point about the quality of the racing is certainly true, yet in Atlanta's case there has been some interesting racing there the last ten or so years.

      2 - The cost of gasoline argument seems to ignore the major drop in fuel prices the last five or so months.

      3 - The argument that NASCAR drove out drivers with personality remains puzzling because the drivers who've gotten the most airplay the last ten-plus years have been the ones with personality - if anything the sport has been choking on personality. It may be the issue of personality ignores that the drivers who have personality are the ones alienating people. The Busch brothers have strong personalities yet are alienating to a lot of people, and there are others in the garage like that.

      4 - The NASCAR leadership did have a role in the sport's spendaholism, but that argument seems to want to pass the blame away from the team owners; they share blame for spendaholism also.

      5 - "(SAFER) technology has been around since the early 1990s." This is the worst kind of second-guessing, shown further when people took to Twitter after Kyle Busch's injury about the lack of a SAFER barrier where he crashed - an area where crashes previously had never happened before, and I doubt anyone thought beforehand there would be need for a barrier that that specific spot, a scenario repeated in the Atlanta 500. The issue of safety is never the cut-and-dried issue some pretend it to be.

  13. NASCARJeff8:23 AM

    My first visit to the then Atlanta International Raceway was in 1987 for the Buck Baker School, I then moved to Georgia in 1990 and have been a regular at the Atlanta Motor Speedway since then.

    What we are seeing is the slow death of a racetrack and we have seen it before with the North Carolina Speedway which by the way also held the second race of the season.

    The only race I have seen as a sold out event at AMS was the Hooters 500 in 1992 which of course was Richard Petty's last race and some guy named Gordon something or others first race. It was cold that do too but the stands where packed.

    Since that time the track has been re-configured, the L.G. DeWitt and Elliott grandstands are gone as well as most of the ticket holders. With the loss of a race date the remaining one has been shifted around and rumors of this lone date going to Las Vegas seems likely.

    I now live in Henry county, about seven miles from the track and there is a building boom of subdivided and condominium homes going on. As sad as this thought is I can see the track closing and being torn down with the Tara Place Condominium tower staying with other buildings added and homes and shopping centers built in its place. The infrastructure is there for such a project and it will make Bruton Smith more money in a land sale then tickets for a race.

    So it looks like Vegas will get its second date after all.

    Jeff In Atlanta
    or NASCARJeff

  14. I have to say I thought nascar would try to make the mile half track racing better but they clearly didn't I think it's actually worse yesterday's race was awful boring boring boring 3 rd place 8 seconds back 10 th 18 seconds back and that's a few laps after restart 12 or 13 cars on lead lap yah nascar. If you have a sleeping problem turn on a mile half race you'll sleep like a baby these tracks will be the death of nascar

  15. Anonymous1:42 PM

    Maybe they didn't sell out when they had the race in October but it drew very well and often had good weather. I made the trip from Chicago to Atlanta in the fall for 11 straight years until they moved the race to Labor Day. It is a shame they don't give them a good date but I agree with some comments that it appears this is the same strategy as Rockingham - give the track a date they know it will not draw well and that provides a reason to move it to another track. But this isn't just Atlanta, it is the entire schedule. Another example is Chicagoland where they took the race from an excellent summer Saturday night event to an early September race that competes with the NFL/Bears and draws much worse. It just puts the promoter in a spot that is difficult to succeed. I would have thought some of this may have been addressed by now but it is clear no one at NASCAR gets it or possibly just doesn't care.