Gillian Zucker, who runs NASCAR’s Los Angeles outpost, gets a new fall Cup weekend in 2009…when she hopes things are a lot cooler (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Nope, Kentucky Speedway didn’t make the cut for NASCAR’s 2009 Cup tour schedule, which NASCAR president Mike Helton released Tuesday afternoon.
But Helton and CEO Brian France did bow to the late summer heat in Southern California and move the Labor Day 500 from California Auto Club Speedway to Atlanta Motor Speedway, though why the heat in Atlanta that weekend – even if the race is run Saturday night—should be any more bearable is unclear.
What that move does do, however, is give NASCAR’s Los Angeles stop better weather, in mid-October next year.
And it puts the LA market right in the heart of the championship chase. Whether or not that will be a Sunday afternoon race or a Sunday night race is still up for study.
Helton and France also moved Talladega Speedway to Nov. 1st, the date that Atlanta would have had.
They also moved the Montreal Nationwide event to a weekend of its own. NASCAR was criticized for having no wiggle room when rain hit Montreal earlier this month, that key international event being scheduled the same weekend as the Cup event at Pocono.
And NASCAR added a week off, giving Cup teams four off-Sundays next season.
The NASCAR Frances added Iowa Speedway to the Nationwide tour, the sport’s Triple-A tour, August 1st. That event replaces Mexico City on that tour.
And NASCAR added a Truck series event in Chicago August 28th.
NASCAR used the occasion of the release of the sport’s 2009 tour schedules as a marketing opportunity for some of its key tracks – in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta-Birmingham.
Crowds have been off this summer at several NASCAR tracks, as the economic slump hits this sport too.
So a lot of Wednesday’s talk was rah-rah.
Atlanta president Ed Clark, who once had the Cup tour’s season finale but gave that back to NASCAR, citing poor weather in November, called his new late season race date “a win-win for all of us.
“We’ve desired a night race for a number of years.”
Gillian Zucker, who runs the LA track for the Frances, has been pushing for a cooler Cup weekend. The Labor Day heat has been brutal, even though that event has started in late afternoon.
“We have to pinch ourselves to be sure this is really happening,” she said. “We know how complicated the schedule change was to complete.
“This is an emerging market for NASCAR but also a very important one. Since the track opened in 1997, we’ve seen nothing but growth in this market, even with a less-than-ideal schedule. What we see here is a real opportunity for people to come out and experience NASCAR in temperate conditions, and we believe it certainly will help with our attendance and help us to continue to grow.”
Moving Talladega a few weeks deeper into the chase makes it even more of a wild card in the title playoffs.
“Also, moving to the end of October separates our two events,” Talladega boss Rick Humphries said, with a nod toward Atlanta Motor Speedway, less than two hours away.
What Iowa Speedway brings to the table – particularly with the loss of Mexico City so obvious – is questionable. Still Jerry Jauron, who runs that track for owner Rusty Wallace, points to NASCAR’s Midwestern fan base: “We have a tremendous fan base, with what we believe is enormous growth potential.
“Our Iowa fans are crazy about racing since we have no professional baseball, basketball or football teams in the state to compete with.”
Perhaps pumping up Iowa will help the France family’s track in Joliet, Ill., four hours east.
The Chicago market is the third largest in the U.S., and it’s key to NASCAR’s growth, which president Matt Alexander knows:
“We have a lot of great competition, and we’re very proud of the progress we’ve played in trying to establish NASCAR, motorsports and Chicagoland Speedway.
“A tangible example of our growth is our TV ratings for this year for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series—up 26% compared to last year.”
However adding a Truck event at Chicago does more to pump up the series – which is facing continued sponsorship issues and perhaps Detroit issues too with the high price of gasoline affecting truck sales – than to pump up the track itself.
Helton declined to describe the decision to move the Labor Day event out of Los Angeles as NASCAR realizing the original move – the date belonged to Darlington’s Southern 500 for years – was a mistake.
“The inaugural Labor Day event in California was the addition of a second race in California, and the schedule throughout the 60-year history of NASCAR has been a work in progress to find the right place at the right time for the series,” Helton said.
So, does Atlanta now inherit the ‘Southern 500,’ in effect?
“W certainly don’t think we’re going to replace Darlington…But what we’ve done is given southeastern fans an opportunity to have an event back in the Southeast at a long time NASCAR speedway,” Clark said. “We’ll be celebrating our 50th year of racing next year, and this event certainly is going to be the keystone of that celebration.
“I won’t call it a new start, but almost like a new event.”
However Atlanta has long been plagued with smaller-than-desirable crowds, and weak attendance at Darlington was one reason for the date move to California.
However California’s attendance too has been weak that weekend.
Whether a simple date change will help Atlanta or California is not obvious, by any means.
For one thing, Clark’s decision to move to Labor Day takes his track out of the title chase: “That’s certainly something we took a hard look at. We felt the opportunity to have a night event in a summertime setting on a holiday weekend overshadowed the opportunity to be in the chase.”
Zucker says creative promotion is key: “We already have a bunch of really creative and unique out-of-the-box ideas.
“We have a huge Latino outreach program that’s been extremely successful. We’ve seen that grow considerably over the past three or four events.
“And we done some unique things with our partner Miller Lite—a bar poster program all throughout Southern California.
“We have some unique marketing partnerships with the military, and with our area sports franchises, everything from the Angels to college football.”
Jauron, who has the most unusual job here, perhaps, with a track that’s on the rise, agrees: “I’ve challenged our staff to throw the box away.
“We’ve only been in existence two years officially next month. This just raises the ante.”
Of course moving from Mexico City to rural Iowa could easily be considered a major step backwards for the sport, whose bosses have been pushing the sport into major markets for several years now.
And what does the future hold for NASCAR, in terms of tracks and schedules? Where does Kentucky Speedway fit in, if it does at all?
“We put the schedule together one year at a time, and this announcement is our most current look at the three national tours,” Helton said. “I don’t know what the future holds, other than that, based on our experience—and if people looked at NASCAR’s reaction to opportunities—we are open to looking at better ways of doing things for the entire industry, and particularly the fans.
“There are a lot of moving parts and pieces in the NASCAR community—whether it’s the tracks or teams or NASCAR—and that’s a good thing.
“We worked very hard for a long period of time to build this sport to the level of recognition it now gets…and it probably deserves more.
“When we do that, we also ask for the exposure….and we also inherit the responsibility that goes along with that.
“It’s a wonderful sport, a wonderful lifestyle to be part of.
“But it doesn’t get any easier. And it shouldn’t. That’s what comes along with the high level of exposure: you get scrutiny…and scrutiny demands sometimes tough decisions.
“That’s what we asked for. And that’s what we should step up and be prepared to do.”
2009 NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES SCHEDULE
Feb. 7 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, Daytona International Speedway*
Feb. 15 Daytona International Speedway
Feb. 22 Auto Club Speedway
March 1 Las Vegas Motor Speedway
March 8 Atlanta Motor Speedway
March 22 Bristol Motor Speedway
March 29 Martinsville Speedway
April 5 Texas Motor Speedway
April 18 Phoenix International Raceway
April 26 Talladega Superspeedway
May 2 Richmond International Raceway
May 9 Darlington Raceway
May 16 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, Lowe’s Motor Speedway*
May 24 Lowe’s Motor Speedway
May 31 Dover International Speedway
June 7 Pocono Raceway
June 14 Michigan International Speedway
June 21 Infineon Raceway
June 28 New Hampshire Motor Speedway
July 4 Daytona International Speedway
July 11 Chicagoland Speedway
July 26 Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Aug. 2 Pocono Raceway
Aug. 9 Watkins Glen International
Aug. 16 Michigan International Speedway
Aug. 22 Bristol Motor Speedway
Sept. 6 Atlanta Motor Speedway
Sept. 12 Richmond International Raceway
Sept. 20 New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Sept. 27 Dover International Speedway
Oct. 4 Kansas Speedway
Oct. 11 Auto Club Speedway
Oct. 17 Lowe’s Motor Speedway
Oct. 25 Martinsville Speedway
Nov. 1 Talladega Superspeedway
Nov. 8 Texas Motor Speedway
Nov. 15 Phoenix International Raceway
Nov. 22 Homestead-Miami Speedway
* – Denotes non-points event.
2009 NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES SCHEDULE
Feb. 14 Daytona International Speedway
Feb. 21 Auto Club Speedway
Feb. 28 Las Vegas Motor Speedway
March 21 Bristol Motor Speedway
April 4 Texas Motor Speedway
April 11 Nashville Superspeedway
April 17 Phoenix International Raceway
April 25 Talladega Superspeedway
May 1 Richmond International Raceway
May 8 Darlington Raceway
May 23 Lowe’s Motor Speedway
May 30 Dover International Speedway
June 6 Nashville Superspeedway
June 13 Kentucky Speedway
June 20 Milwaukee Mile
June 27 New Hampshire Motor Speedway
July 3 Daytona International Speedway
July 10 Chicagoland Speedway
July 18 Gateway International Raceway
July 25 O’Reilly Raceway Park
Aug. 1 Iowa Speedway
Aug. 8 Watkins Glen International
Aug. 15 Michigan International Speedway
Aug. 21 Bristol Motor Speedway
Aug. 30 Circuit Gilles Villenueve
Sept. 5 Atlanta Motor Speedway
Sept. 11 Richmond International Raceway
Sept. 26 Dover International Speedway
Oct. 3 Kansas Speedway
Oct. 10 Auto Club Speedway
Oct. 16 Lowe’s Motor Speedway
Oct. 24 Memphis Motorsports Park
Nov. 7 Texas Motor Speedway
Nov. 14 Phoenix International Raceway
Nov. 21 Homestead-Miami Speedway
2009 NASCAR TRUCK SERIES SCHEDULE
Feb. 13 Daytona International Speedway
Feb. 21 Auto Club Speedway
March 7 Atlanta Motor Speedway
March 28 Martinsville Speedway
April 25 Kansas Speedway
May 15 Lowe’s Motor Speedway
May 23 Mansfield Motorsports Park
May 29 Dover International Speedway
June 5 Texas Motor Speedway
June 13 Michigan International Speedway
June 19 Milwaukee Mile
June 27 Memphis Motorsports Park
July 18 Kentucky Speedway
July 24 O’Reilly Raceway Park
Aug. 1 Nashville Superspeedway
Aug. 19 Bristol Motor Speedway
Aug. 28 Chicagoland Speedway
Sept. 12 Gateway International Raceway
Sept. 19 New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Sept. 26 Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Oct. 24 Martinsville Speedway
Oct. 31 Talladega Superspeedway
Nov. 6 Texas Motor Speedway
Nov. 13 Phoenix International Raceway
Nov. 20 Homestead-Miami Speedway
Note: All dates subject to change.
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