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Archive for Thursday, August 28, 2003

Losing tradition

Despite long history, Darlington bracing for last Labor Day weekend race

August 28, 2003

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If you plan to attend the Southern 500 next fall, bring a jacket. And a flashlight.

If you will be there this weekend, bring a knife to scrape the Labor Day weekend rubber off your face because, who knows, someday it might be a souvenir.

Darlington Raceway, the home of the Southern 500 since 1950, will hold the final running of the storied race on Labor Day weekend this Sunday. Next year, the Labor Day date is being moved to California Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and the Southern 500 moves to Nov. 14. NASCAR officials announced the change in June, saying also the November race at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham would no longer be held.

Some considered the schedule change a double slap in the face to an area of the country that helped raise Winston Cup racing to its current stature as the premier motorsports circuit in the United States. Others felt it was a move whose time has come. Most, if not all, people in racing felt it was inevitable.

"I hate to see it leaving," said Jeff Burton, the 1999 Southern 500 winner. "I do understand the need to adapt to a changing environment, and I do see a need to be in California twice.

"I wish there was a way to keep it here on Labor Day weekend, but on the other hand, we can start a new tradition, and it'll be OK."

That, at least, is what NASCAR is banking on. In January, NASCAR and International Speedway Corp. chairman Bill France, Jr., put the less productive tracks on the Winston Cup circuit on notice: Increase ticket sales, or lose a race date to a track where we can sell it out.

Darlington, along with Rockingham, has not had sellout races in several years for their 60,000- to 70,000-seat grandstands, and California fills 100,000 with ease. Since ISC, the sister company of NASCAR, owns all three tracks, it made perfect business sense.

On the other hand, not everyone agrees the bottom line should be the bottom line. If the Southern 500 is fair game, they wonder, what's next?

Ricky Craven, the winner of the closest race in NASCAR history in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington this spring, said if it were his decision, Darlington and Labor Day weekend would be inseparable.

"(But) my personal opinion won't satisfy people who own stock in that company," Craven said. "That is the difference between today and 20 years ago.

"It's important to recognize what helped NASCAR become such a popular sport. The Darlington Southern 500 is a big, big part of that."

The other side of the coin, he said, is the current generation's responsibility to keep that popularity growing.

"If the West Coast is demanding more races, then we go to California," he said, adding: "That doesn't mean I have to like it."

The problem, according to Burton, is the same thing that helped tracks like Darlington and Rockingham when racing was based primarily in the Southeast now works against both. Tickets are more expensive, and the market is oversaturated, making Southeastern ticket buyers more selective.

"Now a lot of people travel to the races, and Darlington's not one of those places you circle," Burton said. "Not a lot of people say, 'I can't wait to go to Florence, South Carolina.'"

Darlington is attempting to spice up its fall lineup for next year by adding lights and running the race in prime time for the first time in history.

Donald Dunn, a race fan from Greenville, N.C., said he doubted that would make a difference. NASCAR already has alienated a good portion of its hardcore Southern race fans with high ticket prices, and it's too late for tinkering.

"Like it or not, the 'country boys' supported the Labor Day race and bought a big part of the tickets," Dunn said. "Without that support, it won't sell out. Now that this race is moving to the middle of hunting season, there will be even more empty seats."

He has already made his plans for next November: "I'm going to the bluegrass festival," he said. "Can't wait till ISC finds out about this one."

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