`Lady' Darlington set to lose a date next year

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

March 16, 2003|By SANDRA McKEE

Darlington (S.C.) Raceway is known as the "Lady in Black." This weekend, those who love her may have reason to grieve.

Today's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 could be the last spring Winston Cup race for the grand old girl if NASCAR carries through on statements made by chairman Bill France Jr. before the season.

France, speaking off the cuff during a preseason media gathering in Charlotte, N.C., said tracks in Darlington, Rockingham, N.C., and Atlanta were all in danger of losing one of their two races next season. He said NASCAR, which sanctions races annually, was working on a new schedule to distribute events around the country to sites that could generate bigger crowds and more money.

"ISC [International Speedway Corp., which owns Darlington and other tracks and is also chaired by France] is interested in creating as much enhanced shareholder value as possible," France said. "So if we can make a better event out of it somewhere else ... and if the television people think it's a pretty neat idea, we ought to consider it. We've got to move forward."

Moving forward means making more money. It means Darlington, the first super speedway built, will run its 100th NASCAR race this weekend knowing there might not be another in the spring for this 53-year-old wonder.

But these days, in every sport, the money men can slice up traditions.

Indianapolis seats 250,000. Texas Motor Speedway seats 154,861. Even Dover International Speedway surrounds its one-mile, high-banked oval with 140,000 seats. Darlington - smack in the middle of five other Winston Cup venues within a four-hour drive - has the smallest seating capacity on the circuit at 60,000. In NASCAR's view, it doesn't need two races.

The Southern 500, Darlington's Labor Day classic, will survive - for now. But as NASCAR grows ever larger, no one should take for granted that it will always be so.

"We don't want to put tracks on notice," said NASCAR vice chairman Brian France. "Still, if we can see events that might have more appeal elsewhere ... "

CART comings and goings

Despite a statement from Road America saying it "had met all of its financial obligations" and was, in fact, in good-faith negotiations with CART for a 2004 event, CART this week canceled its Aug. 3 race at the historic Elkhart Lake, Wis., road course. The reason? The track failed to pay sanctioning fees for last season and the first sanctioning fee for this season's race.

CART said it would consider returning to Road America if a "satisfactory and professionally responsible" business arrangement could be reached "with an appropriate race promoter."

On the same day, CART said it had ensured the long-term future of the Grand Prix Americas in Miami by acquiring Raceworks LLC, the Miami-based company that promoted last season's successful race there. The acquisition gives CART the license to conduct a street race in South Florida for the next 15 years.

"I believe Miami to be the gateway to what is a very important Latin American market for us," said CART president/CEO Chris Pook. "And the fact that we can showcase our teams, drivers and sponsors in this market is a key point for us and for our future."

The 700 club

When Bill Elliott takes the green flag for today's race, he will become only the eighth driver to have made 700 career starts.

"I feel very fortunate to be where I am today," Elliott said. "I've seen a lot of things throughout my career, and I've won a few races along the way. I can't complain about anything. I'm not real big on making a lot out of things like this. I guess when you sit back and think about it, though, it's something to hang your hat on."

Among Elliott's accomplishments: the 1988 Winston Cup championship and 43 victories. Retired seven-time champion Richard Petty holds the record for career starts at 1,185.

Hagerstown set to race

After three postponements, Hagerstown Speedway - barring rain - will open its gates today and begin its season.

"All systems are go," said track promoter Frank Plessinger.

Today's doubleheader program is to feature the Octoberfest qualifier for the Big Block Modifieds and the ITSI Late Models. The program will have qualifying events and a 30-lap feature for each division. In addition to a guaranteed starting spot in the Octoberfest 350 on Oct. 25-26, each feature winner will receive $2,000. Race time is 1 p.m., with gates opening at 11 a.m.

Nuts and bolts

The No. 84 Glidden Motorsports' NASCAR Busch Series Team and Maryland driver Dion Ciccarelli have put together a five-race package for this season. The all-volunteer team continues to look for sponsors, but team owner Marty Glidden committed to this weekend's race at Darlington, as well as both races at Richmond, Va., and Dover. ...

Maryland was represented at the 12 Hours of Sebring, America's oldest sports car event, this weekend by Jeff Altenburg of Catonsville and Marc Bunting of Monkton qualifying. Altenburg competed in the GTS class in a Dodge Viper; Bunting ran a Porsche 911 in the GT class. ...

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