Atlanta looks to get back on track with new format
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[March 03, 2017]
By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange
Outlined against a blue-gray November
sky in 1992, two horsepower men, Alan Kulwicki and Bill Elliott,
dueled on the precipitous banks of the Atlanta Motor Speedway to
decide the Winston Cup championship.
The race is still considered one of the greatest in NASCAR history.
But will as many people show up for this Sunday's 25th anniversary?
Not incidentally, on that day in 1992 a standing-room-only sellout
crowd saw "King" Richard Petty's last race, Jeff Gordon's first race
and the last time an independent drove his own car to the title.
Along the way, Davey Allison flirted with the championship until his
Ford was knocked out by contact with Ernie Irvan.
Once Kulwicki led the most laps, he earned enough points after
finishing second to "Awesome Bill" from nearby Dawsonville to clinch
the title by what was the closest margin in NASCAR history.
Fast forward 25 years and the Atlanta Motor Speedway is no longer
hosting the season finale and instead is trying to gather some
momentum by being the follow-up to the Daytona 500. In the first two
years of this scheduling -- when the March weather is not much
better than late November -- the strategy worked fine for TV
executives looking to stay in the Eastern time zone in the late
winter the week after NASCAR's biggest race. But veteran AMS
promoter Ed Clark has struggled to sell tickets for a race that is
not all that far from Daytona and held in Atlanta's dodgy early
Outlined against this pessimistic sky, the focus this weekend is
squarely on NASCAR's new sponsor, Monster Energy and NASCAR's new
"made-for-TV" format of races with three stages. Last week's
wreck-fest at Daytona's restrictor plate race bumped up TV ratings
under the new format. Although the race was a sellout before the
pre-race thrill show from Monster Energy got under way, it too
created a buzz.
Given that local Georgia boy Chase Elliott, the son of Bill, nearly
won at Daytona and that seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is
looking to become the first driver to win three straight at AMS, the
more typical pulls are in place. At a facility once sarcastically
known as the "Atlanta International Rainway" in the 1960s in place
of the original name of Atlanta International Raceway, the weather
forecast is for three full days of sunshine and relatively balmy
Then there's the other bumps from Daytona. Three drivers whose age
averaged 22 -- Elliott, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney -- competed for
the victory before ancient mariner Kurt Busch won it on fuel
mileage. Other unheralded types such as A.J. Allmendinger and
unknown Canadian D.J. Kennington had strong runs in the absence of
15 drivers put behind the wall by the new Damaged Vehicle Policy.
Now fans are fully aware of the pre-race thrill show put on by the
new series sponsor. It's loud, semi-dangerous and cheered on by the
buxom Monster Energy girls, who seem to have spent a lot of time at
tanning salons when not visiting augmentation specialists.
There was a time when NASCAR's premier series sought to avoid a
carnival atmosphere in the name of preserving equipment and safety
as well as trying to be a cut above Saturday night short track
racing. Then came a major push for safety after the fatal crash of
Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in 2001 at Daytona. Starting with "Boys have at
it," NASCAR is again re-introducing more opportunities for
contentiousness by having three point-paying stages.
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Promoter Clark believes Atlanta's steep banks and
wide groove present a different kind of challenge for drivers when
it comes to stage racing. It's always been an oval where a driver
can hustle a car over the course of 500 miles and find a way to win.
"I don't think you'll see a lot of contact or wrecks as a result of
the stages at our place," said Clark. "I think what you'll see is
teams trying different tire strategies and fuel strategies to win
the stages. When you get drivers with different tire wear racing
together on our track, that's going to be interesting."
It will be the last race before the worn surface of AMS is repaved
for the first time in 20 years. That might also help emphasize the
issue of tire wear that creates back-and-forth competition.
But given previous classic duels in Atlanta in recent years, it
would seem the AMS problems are larger than the product on the
track. It was perhaps the oldest major market on the schedule in
terms of fan demographics. In the 1950s, the city with its one-mile
Lakewood Speedway and quarter-mile Peach Bowl was a NASCAR hub -- as
well as a haven for bootleggers supplying "shot houses." When
Fireball Roberts became the first driver to win two 500-mile races
in one season in 1958, he drove a Chevrolet built in shops near the
The opening of AMS in 1960 meant Atlanta became one of the Grand
Slam superspeedways of the Southeast that NASCAR was built on.
Roberts won the first race from the pole. It all culminated in 1992
when, despite 12,000 additional new permanent seats plus temporary
grandstands, ticket demand exceeded supply. The original track
configuration had a seating capacity of roughly 50,000 that day.
Under owner Bruton Smith and Speedway Motorsports, Inc., in 1997 the
track configuration was changed and new grandstands installed that
accommodated 99,000 permanent seats.
But once the track lost the NASCAR season finale in 2001 to the
owners of the Homestead-Miami Speedway -- the France family that
also owns NASCAR -- the fall race date was moved two more times. In
2011, in the face of declining ticket sales, owner Smith moved one
of Atlanta's dates to the Kentucky Motor Speedway. Then Atlanta lost
its prime Labor Day weekend date to the Darlington Raceway -- also
owned by the France family -- and was given its current post-Daytona
Along the way, Atlanta's older fans simply gave up and apparently
stopped watching TV, too. The timing of the arrival of Monster
Energy and an emphasis on youth as well as a new format could not be
better for the Atlanta track, which looks halfway barren with the
same size crowd that was present on that November day in 1992.
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