NASCAR may target Dover race for move

New markets are sought in effort to expand sport

Auto Racing

January 22, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - NASCAR officials said yesterday that there could be major changes in their 2004 schedule as they look for ways to expand the sport while continuing to hold the total number of Winston Cup races in a season to 38.

NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. went even further, naming tracks in Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Rockingham, N.C.; and Darlington, S.C., as "good candidates" for moving one of their two traditionally scheduled Winston Cup events to different sites. NASCAR senior vice president George Pyne said Dover, Del., was another track that might want to relocate one of its races to a venue in St. Louis or Nashville, Tenn. - areas of the country without nearby Winston Cup races.

The corporation that runs the Dover track also operates those in St. Louis and Nashville - as do other companies associated with NASCAR that also own multiple tracks.

"We're not putting tracks on notice," said NASCAR vice president Brian France. "We don't want them looking over their shoulders. But we have to look within the schedule for better ways to realign the schedule. We're taking a pro-active approach and working with track operators to enhance our product. If we can see events that might have more appeal elsewhere, we're going to suggest it, but it is going to be complicated and difficult."

Those remarks were made at NASCAR's new Research and Development Center during the Winston Cup preseason media tour.

NASCAR officials also announced a new garage and pit area policy in effect this season that will limit access by fans and some media during practice and racing sessions.

And the organization said it might change race starting times to later in the day, possibly moving some noon starts to 3 p.m. or some Sunday afternoon starts to Saturday nights, to increase NASCAR's television exposure.

"We're open to anything," said NASCAR president Mike Helton.

The statements about possible site changes apparently caught a number of track management groups by surprise.

In Dover, track president and chief executive officer Denis McGlynn said he could see the logic in the idea for tracks such as those mentioned by France.

"The Southeast is fairly well represented by Winston Cup races and may be over-represented from a marketing standpoint," McGlynn said. "That's reflected in seating capacity at those tracks and the lack of full crowds - if you watch television, you know. If you can move a race from Rockingham to California and/or from Atlanta to Texas, to major markets and sell out, it might be a good arrangement.

"Our situation is a little different. It doesn't make sense for us to take a race out of the important Mid-Atlantic region that sells out 140,000 seats for each race and move it to Nashville or St. Louis where we would have to build those seats just to stay financially where we are today."

"There will be all kinds of wailing and gnashing of teeth over this," said Humpy Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, whose corporation also owns the Atlanta and Fort Worth, Texas, tracks. "It's an effort by ISC [International Speedway Corp., which owns Daytona and several other tracks] to get races in California and Texas. They're huge markets. Fortunately or unfortunately, that's the way things are going, but we've no intention of moving one of our races to Texas."

McGlynn also said NASCAR's new rules on garage and pit access are necessary and will mean a great improvement of working conditions for drivers and teams at the Delaware track.

"But I'm not happy if someone else is unhappy, and I'm afraid there will be some unhappy fans," he said. "But we'll try it and see. NASCAR has said it may do some tweaking during the season."

Bill France said the possible site changes had nothing to do with a lawsuit being brought by Speedway Motorsports Inc. shareholder Francis Ferko. Ferko's suit charges NASCAR with failure to deliver on a promise of a second Winston Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway and with antitrust violations.

Reached by phone in Texas, track general manager Eddie Gossage said he believes "it makes sense for NASCAR to consider all the categories they brought up today."

Among the issues to be considered: market size, attendance, TV ratings, purse, facilities and geographic location.

"If you use all those things as your criteria," Gossage said, "then we feel Texas wins out on every one."

McGlynn said he "had no way of knowing" if NASCAR's new approach had anything to do with the Texas lawsuit.

"I see the business case to be made," McGlynn said. "The networks have said before that they want to be in major markets because that is where the ratings growth is. They're not enamored of Rockingham and Darlington. New partners, like the TV networks, are a driving force."

At Fox Sports, vice president of media relations Lou D'Ermilio said the changes discussed by NASCAR yesterday had been "bandied about" in discussions with the organization, but added: "Ultimately, NASCAR has the final say on changes, if any, that are made."

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