The biggest news to come from Bristol Motor Speedway over the weekend had nothing to do with what took place on the track. After years of trying to get its spring Sprint Cup race date moved to later in the year, Bristol was informed that next year its spring date would move from its traditional March date to April 19.
Bristol has been plagued in recent years with poor weather for its early spring March date and it is one of the reasons that the attendance for its Food City 500 has seen a sharp drop. The race for years was always a sellout, but like the rest of the tracks that makes up the Sprint Cup schedule, the country’s economic slowdown really hit the track hard. The uncertain weather of East Tennessee in March also kept fans away leaving the track with nearly as many empty seats as fans on race day.
Speedway Motorsports Inc. owns the track and has petitioned for years for a new date later in the spring, but there is little flexibility in the Sprint Cup schedule unless a track owner is willing to play a little give and take. There are always tracks that are looking to move a date in hopes of getting what they feel is a better spot on the schedule for them, but many of the tracks like what they consider to be their traditional dates and they know that their fans make plans for that particular weekend each year.
Bruton Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., played the game of give and take with NASCAR for the new date as another SMI track, Atlanta Motor Speedway, had to give up one of the best dates on the entire schedule for the change to be made. Atlanta had to give up its highly coveted Labor Day slot on the schedule to Darlington Raceway in order for Bristol to get its new April date.
Atlanta for years had two race dates including the last race of the season, but attendance at the track saw a sharp drop long before the rest of the tracks on the schedule experienced the slowdown in ticket sales. Oddly enough, the reason for Atlanta’s drop off was the date of its spring race, that like Bristol’s date was in the middle of March. March weather in Atlanta was much like what Bristol has endured over the years and the result was the same, selling tickets was a tough task.
Smith finally moved Atlanta’s spring date to another one of his SMI tracks because it was such a hard ticket sell, but now the track finds itself in the same predicament as the track will now host the second race of the season on March 1. The track will benefit from the excitement of the seasonopening Daytona 500 the week before and its enormous media coverage, but we will not know until race day if it is enough to overcome the uncertain March weather.
Darlington is not a SMI track but it may have benefited even more than Bristol in the switching of dates. Darlington has been hosting Sprint Cup races longer than any other track on the schedule and for years hosted the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend that was considered one of the cornerstone races on the Cup schedule. Darlington lost the date because of a drop in attendance and the expansion that was taking place in the sport that sent the holiday date to California in 2004.
That left the track with only one race that was moved to the Saturday before Mother’s Day and this year was moved to early April.
Both Bristol and Darlington will have an easier time selling tickets next season. April temperatures in Bristol average in the 70’s and that will make the date much more attractive to fans. Darlington can promote its race as a return of one of the most historic events ever to be on a Sprint Cup schedule. The media coverage leading up to the Labor Day event should really boost ticket sales. Atlanta may find itself in survival mode as the selling of tickets in March was once a problem and there is no reason to believe that it will be different this time around.
Event: Oral-B USA 500
Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway (1.5-mile tri-oval, 24 degrees of banking in the turns)
Date: Aug. 31, 7:45 p.m.
Defending Champion: Kyle Busch