Sunday, June 15, 2003

Auto racing insider

NASCAR trades tradition for dollar signs

The Southeast "NASCAR Family" feels like it has been collectively kicked in the stomach this weekend. Racing fans in the Carolinas in particular would like to share some unkind, and probably unprintable, words with NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation officials, who are really one and the same.

NASCAR or ISC or both, depending on how you look at it, took a race from North Carolina Speedway next season to accommodate a date change at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and California Speedway. A new race will be run on Labor Day weekend at California Speedway. The Southern 500, which normally runs on Labor Day weekend at Darlington, will move to a date later in the fall, a date that previously belonged to North Carolina Speedway.

Newspapers across the southeast are lamenting this day as the beginning of the end for NASCAR.

Sure, they have a right to be upset. They lost a race and a half-century of tradition. But whether Tobacco Road folks want to admit it, the move makes sense. California can sell out its 90,000 seats for two races. Darlington and North Carolina can't sell out 60,000 seats. Those tracks are realizing that the bottom line matters more than tradition. Just ask Indianapolis Motor Speedway brass who had to advertise for the Indianapolis 500 for the first time this year. Tradition exited stage left when the threat of empty seats became real.

The France family realizes that the future of NASCAR does not necessarily have to be where NASCAR grew up but rather where NASCAR can get richer. Larger markets will out-slug the little guys every time in that game where sponsors and television set the rules. Which means the folks holding on to tradition had better enjoy their races while they still have them.

Kentucky Speedway did not receive a race (again), but general manager Mark Cassis correctly said this latest development is good for the Sparta track. By causing such an uproar in the southeast, NASCAR has shown it is willing to follow the scent of money and larger markets over tradition and old tracks.

ECONOMIC PITFALLS: The economy is starting to affect not only the Busch Series but Winston Cup as well. Hooters recently announced that it is through with Brett Bodine after today's Sirius 400 in Michigan. Bodine broke his collarbone during practice for the race Saturday.

Meanwhile, Bodine's brother, Todd, is out of a Busch ride unless he can find a new sponsor after the July 4 race in Daytona. And Stanton Barrett has been released from Roush Racing because of sponsorship issues.

"It's not a distraction for us on race day," Todd Bodine said. "We just haven't gotten a deal for an extended period of time. It's frustrating knowing the potential we have as a group and not being able to reach that potential. ... With the economy and escalation of racing costs, not a lot of corporations can afford that kind of money."

F1 COMPETITION: It is nice to see an actual season points race occurring in Formula One. Entering today's Canadian Grand Prix, Kimi Raikkonen leads Michael Schumacher by four points. It was about this time a year ago that Schumacher had all but clinched the season title.



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