Tracks in the Rearview Mirror

From Associated Press

With its rough, gravelly surface and odd corners that give it its famous egg shape, Darlington Raceway is an aging relic in the day of glistening new race tracks.

But as NASCAR's first paved superspeedway, the 54-year-old South Carolina track has a history few facilities can match.

That might not be enough, though, for Darlington to keep its two Winston Cup races a year.

Under a plan to realign its schedule, the tracks where the sport started are endangered species. NASCAR plans to take a hard look at its 36-race schedule, hoping to move events in 2004 out of the crowded Southeast and into larger markets where it can reach new fans.

NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. targeted Darlington, North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Lowe's Motor Speedway as tracks that might lose one of their races a year.

The announcement caught track operators by surprise, especially at Darlington and Rockingham -- two facilities clinging to their two Winston Cup races a year amid longtime rumors that they were in danger of losing at least one date.

"There are a number of large markets out there with beautiful facilities that only have one race a year, and here we are sitting on two dates with four other races within a rock's throw of us," said Darlington president Andrew Gurtis.

"We know there are fans throughout this great nation who want to see Winston Cup racing live, so we accept that there has to be changes made to keep this sport growing. And the truth is, this is an old track."

Gurtis isn't conceding anything. But like Rockingham general manager Chris Browning, he walks a fine line -- their tracks are owned by International Speedway Corp., which is run by the France family.

If NASCAR wants to move races from tracks the France family owns, there's little Darlington and Rockingham's operators can do.

"We haven't been selling out and we sit in the middle of a saturated market," Browning said. "So if moving one of our dates to another market could sell tickets and give fans a chance to see racing in other parts of the country, it's hard for me to say that's not good for the sport. That's just the way we have to look at it."

Atlanta and Lowe's, the other two tracks France targeted, are owned by France rival Bruton Smith and his Speedway Motorsports Inc.

Smith has been begging NASCAR for years to give him a second race date at Texas Motor Speedway, and under France's proposal, Smith can get that date if he forfeits one of his races at SMI's other tracks and moves it to Texas.

Smith said there was "zero chance" of that happening.

Truthfully, there's nothing wrong with the Atlanta or Charlotte tracks.

Atlanta offers some of the fastest speeds in NASCAR on its 1.54-mile quad-oval. But weather has long been a problem, even though last season it moved its November race to early October, only to see rain again wash out most of the weekend. Plus, the track doesn't always sell out.

Charlotte is considered NASCAR's home base, and the teams love to compete at the facility because they can sleep at home three weekends a year.

The Coca-Cola 600 is one of the toughest tickets in racing, and The Winston, the annual all-star race held the week before, is a glamorous dash for cash run under the lights.

The October race doesn't sell out, although track organizers hope that changes this year when it moves from a Sunday afternoon event to a Saturday night race on prime time television.

But France is looking for a solution to the Texas problem -- a TMS shareholder is suing NASCAR over getting the second date -- as well as help the sport grow outside its Southern roots.

So even if Smith doesn't want to give up dates at any of his tracks, France will likely have to take something away from his tracks to make the realignment plan work and encourage other track owners to participate.

That's unsettling to some of the drivers.

"Darlington, with its history, its probably the only track that can say every NASCAR great has raced there," said Ward Burton, a two-time Darlington winner. "If NASCAR wants to change the schedule, there should be ways for them to do it without taking things away from places who don't deserve it."

Even though Darlington and Rockingham have spent millions of dollars on improvements in the past decade to keep up with the shiny new facilities that have popped up in California, Las Vegas, Chicago and Kansas City, seating capacity is small, and except for Darlington's Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend, the tracks don't sell out.

Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, a 56-year-old family-owned short track located less than 100 miles from Charlotte, has no problem filling its 80,000 seats twice a year.

The Campbell family has spent their money to keep amenities current, but because it is located in a tiny market that lacks the hotel and restaurant access that NASCAR has listed as a criteria in its realignment plan, it might not be long before Martinsville falls onto France's list.

"I wouldn't want to be in NASCAR's shoes on this," said president Clay Campbell. "So many of us have been here when the times were hard in this sport and everyone is experiencing the good times now. It won't be easy for NASCAR to pick who to cut out of, especially when we all played a part in getting the sport where it is today."

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