Weekends were made for NASCAR
As my colleague and hero Ed Hinton points out in the latest issue of The Mag, the Darlington Raceway, not so affectionately known as The Lady in Black, is simply too mean to die. (Ed would know. I'm pretty sure he dated her in high school.)
How do we know that The Track Too Tough To Tame is also the Track Too Tough To Die? Because over the last six decades we have watched the very people whom she raised try to murder her. Yet despite every boot stomp and shovel full of dirt thrown over her head, The Lady still stands and will add another chapter to her tale this Saturday night, the track's 106th NASCAR Cup Series race.
In 2004 they ripped her baby away, Labor Day weekend, which had been her domain since hosting the first Southern 500 in 1950, the centerpiece of NASCAR's second ever "Strictly Stock" season and the first asphalt speedway race in the sport's short history.
In exchange they handed her racing's version of a death sentence, a reservation for Mother's Day weekend. As long as racetracks have hosted events there have only been a few rules written in stone:
1. Mother Nature always wins.
2. The concession stands should never close.
3. You never EVER hold a race on Easter or Mother's Day weekends.
"Us racecar drivers, we spend all year neglecting our wives and mothers," explains Richard Petty, who was raised by a three-time NASCAR champion Lee Petty and NASCAR's original racing mother, Elizabeth Toomes Petty. Now The King is married to the undisputed Queen of Stock Car Racing, Lynda Petty, who raised four kids while her man was winning races, celebrating birthdays and holidays in racetrack infields and motel parking lots. "Race fans do the same thing, ignoring the women in their lives to either go to a race or sit on the couch and watch one on TV. Unlike football or baseball it goes on all year round. So it kind of became an unwritten rule that we set aside their special weekend and didn't go racing. And anybody who tried to have a race on Mother's Day never got anybody to come out and watch it. After a while people just quit trying."
The art of landing the perfect race weekend is an inexact formula at best, a mix of track location, weather patterns, consumer habits, and superstition. New Hampshire Speedway or Watkins Glen can't have a date too late into the fall because it is too cold while Phoenix and Atlanta can't hold races in July because it is too hot.
But no matter where your track is, certain dates always seem to be blackout dates.
Easter has always been avoided because the longtime core NASCAR fan (paging all you WASPs) is expected to be in church or, at the very least, hunting eggs with his family. The Sprint Cup Series hasn't raced on Easter weekend in decades, though the league has used the open date to showcase the lower level Nationwide Series.
The weekend after the Daytona 500 is always in the seemingly prime late February slot that falls into the no TV competition zone between the end of the NFL season and the start of March Madness. But for whatever reason, perhaps post-Daytona fatigue, the momentum of the Great American Race always seems to vanish by the following Sunday afternoon.
For years Easter weekend was occupied by the North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, which always struggled to sell tickets and maintain a TV audience. So The Rock was abandoned for the flashier Auto Club Speedway in California, presumably to take advantage of the attention that comes with the massive Los Angeles media market. But a track that seats less than 95,000 never sells out and this year's Fontana race pulled nearly a million fewer television households than two years ago…and six million fewer than the previous weekend's Daytona 500.
As for that wished-for media attention, the local reporters usually ditch the race for a little black tie event they have down at the Kodak Theater. Something to do with a little gold man named Oscar…
"Three factors always seem to either boost or doom a track's date," Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark said before last fall's AMS race. "What race are you following? What's the weather going to be like? And what are you competing with for the sports dollar? We can't be too close to Talladega's races because we're drawing from the same fan base. For years we hosted the season finale, which fell in mid-November. In Georgia that's a total crapshoot. One year it might be sunny and 80 degrees, the next it might be snowing. And around here nobody is thinking racing in October and November. You may have heard of a little team we have up the road from here called the Georgia Bulldogs…"
This year Atlanta's second event slides into the coveted Labor Day weekend slot, swapping its late October, smack-in-the-middle-of-The-Chase date with the perpetually struggling Auto Club Speedway. If AMS continues to display empty seats, one of its two dates could be considered movable.
"You can tell what tracks NASCAR wants to succeed by how many chances and advantages they keep throwing a facility's way," says one track official who asked not be identified for fear of upsetting what he called "our perfect spot" on the calendar. "It doesn't take a genius to see the writing on the wall."
Which is precisely why that writing seemed to be very clearly written when the Darlington Raceway first lost its lock on Labor Day, then had its spring date moved to (gulp) Mother's Day.
But to the credit of track president Chris Browning and his staff, each one of those four races, held under the lights on Saturday night, has been a sellout. Advance ticket sales this year have been slower than normal, but that's been the case at every NASCAR venue due to the slow economy. The good news is that morning of the race box office walkup traffic has increased dramatically, which means The Lady's fifth consecutive sellout isn't out of the question.
"When (Darlington founder) Harold Brasington started building a racetrack in the middle of a peanut field everyone thought he was nuts and the place was going to fail," says David Pearson, the track's all-time victor with ten wins and a dozen poles. "But there it still sits, you know? And people keep coming back. Even if the powers that be keep trying to kill it."
Ryan McGee is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.