Fickle Fans Jeopardize Another N.C. Track

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

 

Oh, those zany Carolina NASCAR fans.

In some parts of North and South Carolina, it’s risky to put a NASCAR bumper sticker on your vehicle, lest someone bearing a grudge over the loss of North Wilkesboro Speedway decides to shoot out your rear window for sport. Plenty of folks in the Carolinas still blame the Daytona Beach sanctioning body for the loss of their beloved speedway, which has laid engulfed in weeds since hosting its last NASCAR Winston Cup race in September of 1996. Following that race, Wilkesboro’s two NASCAR dates were spirited away - one to Texas Motor Speedway and the other to New Hampshire - following a nasty ownership tug-of-war between Bruton Smith and Bob Bahre that left each man the proud owner of half a useless racetrack.

Those wounds have been slow to heal, and the scars are still visible for all to see. And yet, somehow, the same fans that so loudly bemoan the loss of North Wilkesboro steadfastly refuse to buy tickets to the North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. Their fickle ways have long puzzled management at the track they call “The Rock,” and now, it may finally have cost the track one of its two annual NASCAR Winston Cup dates.

Last weekend was an especially difficult one at Rockingham. Monsoon-like rains forced Saturday’s Busch Series event to be postponed until Monday, when a sparse crowd of less than 5,000 fans turned out. Sunday’s Winston Cup race went off as scheduled, but an estimated 10-15,000 of the track’s 60,000 seats went unfilled, despite rumors that thousands of tickets had been given away in the days prior to the event. Rockingham has never sold out since increasing its seating capacity to current levels in 1999. Most Sundays, like last Sunday, it’s not even close.

All those empty seats added fuel to the rumors that Rockingham will lose one of its two races next season. Sources close to NASCAR say the France family will almost certainly move one of Rockingham’s dates to the California Speedway in 2004, leaving the historic North Carolina oval with only one Winston Cup event. Under the plan currently being discussed, California and Rockingham will swap spring dates, with Fontana hosting the season’s second race, and Rockingham taking the April slot now filled by California. California Speedway's second Winston Cup race will reportedly take place in late October; a date now held by Rockingham.

Just two weeks ago, NASCAR President Bill France, Jr., put the NASCAR world on notice that tracks like Rockingham and Darlington might lose a race next year. Fans of those tracks surely could not have missed the message. And yet, they stayed away from the “Subway 400” in droves Sunday, effectively handing NASCAR the bullet that could end up killing yet another historic speedway. After all, a track with one Winston Cup date is only half as valuable as a track with two. Does anyone believe that someone - Bruton, are you listening? - won’t make Rockingham’s owners a tasty offer for their struggling speedway, then ship its one remaining race away to one of his showplace, cookie-cutter racetracks in better demographic markets?

The writing is on the wall. Unfortunately, no one in the Carolinas seems to know how to read.

The fans had a chance to send NASCAR a message Sunday. Instead, they mowed the lawn, missing one of the best Rockingham races in years. Now, they’ll write a series of scathing, poison-pen letters to the various racing publications, lambasting NASCAR for its corporate greed and disdain for the “little people that made the sport great.” They’ll flood the local sports talk shows with calls, accusing NASCAR of packing its collective bags and slipping out of town. In truth, however, it’s the fans that handed them the keys.

Maybe Carolina fans will see the error of their ways. Maybe they’ll flood the turnstiles when the Winston Cup troops return to The Rock in October, forcing NASCAR to rethink its decision to shuffle the 2004 deck. Perhaps they’ll also show their support at Darlington, packing the stands at the “Track Too Tough To Tame,” in an effort to preserve two more of NASCAR’s most historic events.

Maybe, but I doubt it.

Most likely, they’ll take the traditional route. Sit home. Watch the race on television. Then bitch about NASCAR screwing another racetrack.

rrrr

A long and tragedy filled off-season for fans of the American-Canadian Tour got a little longer last week, when veteran ACT and Thunder Road official Tommy Guyette suffered a closed head injury and multiple fractures in a construction site fall.

At this writing, Guyette is listed in critical but stable condition at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, NH, after undergoing surgery yesterday to repair a badly broken hip. Tests earlier this week revealed Guyette’s brain injuries to be less severe than initially feared, but he still reportedly faces another one or two weeks in Intensive Care, followed by an additional 30-60 days in hospital, and possibly even a stint in a rehabiliation facility following that. Guyette’s injuries come just weeks after the tragic death of fellow Thunder Road official Ed Carroll.

Cards and letters may be sent to Tommy Guyette, c/o Dartmouth Medical Center, One Medical Center Drive, Lebanon, NH 03756. E-mails sent to info@acttour.com will be forwarded to the Guyette family. Get well soon, buddy.

rrrr

Sources in the Toyota camp say former Penske Racing motor man Larry Wallace has been tabbed to head the engine development portion of the Japanese automaker’s 2004 NASCAR Winston Cup effort. Wallace recently moved back to his former shop in Mooresville, NC, after declining to renew his contract with Penske, and is reportedly set to oversee engine development for Toyota.

Toyota's NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series effort suffered an embarrassing setback recently, after engineers failed to adequately secure their Toyota Tundra race truck in a Langley, Virginia, wind tunnel prior to a planned series of aerodynamic tests. The truck broke loose and did serious damage to the facility, forcing it to close for two weeks for repairs.

rrrr

Short (Track) Subjects…

…Kevin Lepage was a spectator at Rockingham last weekend, and reported that there are no sponsorship irons in the fire at this point. “Everyone wants a 20-year old driver,” said Lepage, who said he has a half-dozen cars ready to roll right now, should sponsorship become available. “Apparently, experience doesn’t count for much anymore. I’d make some company a great deal right about now, but nobody seems to be interested.”

The Shelburne native said he has spoken with a number of potential backers here in Vermont, to no avail.

…Thunder Road Street Stock veteran Justin St. Louis is set to move up to NAPA Flying Tiger Sportsman class this season. “We had a strong team in the Street Stocks, and I think we can be a strong rookie team in the Tiger
Sportsman division,” said the 19-year old Bolton driver. "But it's going to be a learning experience, I'll tell you that. These cars are in no way similar to the Street Stocks, and we're going to have to buy some notebooks to keep up with ourselves.”

St. Louis will concentrate primarily on the weekly wars at Airborne Raceway, beginning with the April 27 Remington "4-10" Shootout. The NAPA Tiger Sportsman division already boasts 62 registered drivers for the 2003 racing season.

…In other Tiger Sportsman news, ACT has released the 2003 Subway "Grand Slam" Series schedule, with five extra-distance, added purse events on the docket. Airborne Raceway will host the series twice, with the “McDonald’s 100” on Saturday night, June 14, and the “Dick Nephew Memorial Budweiser 100” on Saturday, August 23. White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, hosts the Tiger troops on Sunday, July 6, while Thunder Road (7/24) and New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway (9/6) will also host solo events.

…ACT also announced this week that there will be a Street Stock tire rule at Thunder Road and Airborne Raceways in 2003. "We have ordered `Towel City 14’ racing slicks, that will be mandatory equipment," said ACT President Tom Curley. "The tires use the same compound as our Renegade division tires, which have proven to be very durable. They will cost $58 apiece, pre-mounted."

…Bear Ridge Speedway owner/Promoter C.V. Elms will debut a new series in 2003. The “Tri-Track Enduro Series” will run at Bear Ridge, and on both the Canaan Fair (NH) Speedway’s dirt and asphalt tracks. The series will consist of nice total races; three on Canaan asphalt, three at Bear Ridge, and three on the Canaan dirt track. “The Home of the Coupes” will kick off its 2003 season on Saturday, May 3, with Canaan Fair Speedway raising its curtain the day before. The Canaan asphalt track is set to debut April 19th.

…A bill before the Maine state legislature would allow the state to erect signs in Newburgh, Maine, honoring hometown boy Ricky Craven. Lawmakers on the transportation committee are being asked to authorize the signs honoring Craven, who was NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year in 1995, and has one career Winston Cup win. Craven finished fourth in last Sunday’s “Subway 400” at Rockingham.

…Three of the four skydivers injured during Sunday’s pre-race ceremonies at The Rock have been released from area hospitals this week. The fourth, Col. Leonard H. Kiser, was reported in good condition at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte with a spinal injury and broken bones. The four men were injured while attempting to parachute into the track’s infield, despite sustained winds estimated at 40-50 mph. A horrifying series of high-impact landings - including at least two that saw skydrivers crash headlong into tractor-trailer units in the track’s infield - forced officials to delay the start of Sunday’s race slightly, while emergency crews tended to the injured.