This past weekend, the Atlanta Motor Speedway hosted an open house for NASCAR fans, with special ticket deals for the Labor Day Weekend of racing and even the chance to drive your own vehicle on the track among the many forms of fun that was available to all fans who made the trek to the Hampton venue.
Brad Harrison, who runs the AMS Twitter and Facebook pages, tweeted throughout the event about the great turnout, and from the Twitter feeds of the folks who were able to attend, it seems to have been quite the successful event, with fun for the whole family to be had.
Granted, as well as the Open House went, one can all but be certain that the track's staff and the attendees would have preferred that the weekend featured on-track action past race fans taking the family wagon or their heavy duty pickup trucks for a lap. As much fun as it must have been to see all those folks having a ball while channeling their inner Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart, actually having Johnson and Stewart dueling for the victory as they did in October 2006 and again in March 2007 would have been at least a little bit better.
Alas, Bruton Smith ended spring racing at the Atlanta Motor Speedway - a tradition that had held since 1963, the track's third year of operation - with last summer's announcement that moved the track's first date to the new prize of his Speedway Motorsports, Inc., the Kentucky Speedway.
Smith can hardly be faulted for his decision, one that made the good business sense that has been a hallmark of his years as a track owner and promoter. Kentucky Speedway's location puts it in the Cincinnati market, which had been untapped by the Sprint Cup Series. At the same time, Atlanta had struggled to fill its seats for both races in recent years, often owing to concerns over poor weather that always seemed to show up at race weekend. Smith and NASCAR had already moved the track's second date in 2009, taking it from its weather-plagued fall slot to the prestigious Labor Day Weekend.
Ever since Smith had purchased the race track, located in Sparta, KY, on May 22, 2008, however, fans in Georgia had waited for the news that the Bluegrass State's first NASCAR Sprint Cup event would come at our expense. There was little surprise when the announcement was finally made last August 10 that the track would host it's first Cup race this July.
The result is that, as this past weekend - the first off-weekend of 2011 for the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams - went by with silence at all tracks except Darlington Raceway, which was hosted a Camping World Truck Series event Saturday, that silence was particularly deafening in Georgia.
Atlanta's attendence numbers don't come close to illustrating the state's love for auto racing or our beloved 1.54 mile quad-oval that sits in Henry County. Nor do they come close to illustrating the sport's impact on Georgia: last July 7, during a tour of the track, I learned that the two race weekends annually brought in more revenue for the area than the Braves, Hawks, Falcons, or Thrashers did in their entire individual seasons. Obviously the cutback to one race weekend will affect that, but it is an impressive statistic nonetheless.
And the sport benefits plenty from the track and the area as well. No fewer than five teams are primarily sponsored by Georgia-based companies, and Coca-Cola has additional signage the cars and uniforms of ten of the sport's biggest stars. In addition, the racing at Atlanta is some of the best of the year and a noted favorite among competitors, with the worn surface creating a situation where drivers have to "get up on the wheel" and man-handle their 3400-lb machines.
The loss of Atlanta's March weekend may very well end up strengthening the track, from a "less is more" standpoint. Labor Day Weekend became historic in NASCAR circles thanks to the Southern 500 at Darlington, and fans have responded well to the race weekend's return to the Southeast in 2009, following five maligned years in Southern California. Now, in additon to the Sprint Cup Emory Healthcare 500 and the Great Clips 300 Nationwide Series event, the Camping World Truck Series will hold it's Atlanta event, a traditional highlight of the schedule, in September.
Track president Ed Clark has made it abundantly clear that showcasing all three of NASCAR's national touring divisions on such an important race weekend is a fine best-case scenario in a world with just one weekend of NASCAR racing at Atlanta. And with the ever-popular Thursday Thunder, featuring Legends car, Bandelero, and Thunder Roadster racing from June through August, as well as Friday Night Drags, there is still plenty of action to take in at AMS.
Still, springtime passing without the sounds of big-time stock car racing at one of NASCAR's original superspeedways is much more bitter than sweet, not only for Peach State race fans and Southeastern fans in general, but for all fans who have come to view Atlanta as one of the premier racing venues in America.