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Archive for Thursday, August 28, 2003

Despite bad press, NASCAR will prevail

August 28, 2003

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There may not be any hurricane warnings up for the central coast of Florida, but the folks at NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach are hunkering down nonetheless.

From a public relations standpoint, this is not going to be the easiest week in the stock-car racing sanctioning body's history.

This Sunday's Southern 500 at South Carolina's Darlington Raceway puts NASCAR and its sister company, International Speedway Corp., squarely in the critics' crosshairs.

Next year, for the first time in the sport's history, this race won't be run on Labor Day weekend. That makes this race the perfect jumping-off point for stories and columns about how growth is forcing the sport to abandon its roots -- or "modernize tradition," to use the ridiculous doublespeak term employed when the decision to put a second California Speedway in this slot next year was first made.

In the first place, it may be jumping the gun to say that Sunday's race will be the last Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend at Darlington.

I've always had the sneaking suspicion that Darlington might get this weekend back in the near future, maybe when NASCAR takes away the track's spring Cup date. And when plans to put lights up at the venerable old track were announced earlier this month, that only made those suspicions stronger.

It seems silly to spend money to light Darlington for the final hour of a race in November, but makes much more sense to put up lights as an option to run there on a Sunday night in September. Nobody has told me that is what's being planned, but I still don't think that's out of the question.

Regardless, that won't stop NASCAR from taking heat from the media and, most likely, from inside the garage this weekend. It's likely, in fact, that the entire 2004 Nextel Cup and Grand National Series schedules will be released this week so all of the squawking about the first phase of "realignment" can be over and done with at one time.

Whenever the critics start piling on like they'll do this week, you wonder if NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. gets the urge to pick up the phone, call his banker and check the balance. Then, he could just sit back and chuckle at everyone who keeps telling him how the family business is going down the tubes.

No, everything's not all about how much money you make. But in American capitalism, that's how you keep score. And despite all of the "advice" the folks who run NASCAR get, you can't say they're not putting good numbers on the board.

NASCAR also is looking seriously at making changes to its championship points system as well as its rules regarding provisional starters. Both are overdue for a tweaking. It's also looking hard at what rules changes it could make for 2004 to reduce the cars' dependence on clean air and revive on-track competition.

Jimmy Spencer will be back at the track this weekend. Then, the circuit will move to Richmond and New Hampshire, where the energy-absorbing SAFER barriers will be in place for the first time.

The storm will pass, and NASCAR will keep right on counting its money.

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