Stock-car racing made another bold move in its furious drive for national acceptance yesterday as NASCAR officials announced plans to strip two races from storied, small-market tracks in the Carolinas and award them to superspeedways in Dallas-Fort Worth and Phoenix in 2005.
In addition, NASCAR is shifting more races from Sunday afternoon to Saturday night, which should reel in more West Coast viewers and boost TV ratings in the fall, when stock-car racing goes head-to-head with the NFL.
In retooling their 36-race Nextel Cup schedule, NASCAR officials say they're responding to stock-car racing's current popularity boom and positioning the once regional sport for more growth down the road -- most likely in the Pacific Northwest or metropolitan New York.
Left by the roadside, however, is Rockingham, which joins North Wilkesboro as the second North Carolina town to lose both of its NASCAR races -- and with them, a large measure of its economic lifeblood and cultural identity -- in the past decade.
Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, NASCAR's oldest superspeedway, will lose its most venerable race, the Southern 500, in 2005. And Virginia's Martinsville Speedway may eventually lose one or both of its races, though International Speedway Corp., which bought the track in a deal that was also made public yesterday, insists it has no plans to shutter the half-mile oval.
All the gyrations boil down to the simple fact that there are a finite number of weekends with suitable weather for racing, and NASCAR's current 36-race schedule can't expand much more. So if NASCAR wants to race in major markets, it must move existing race from smaller markets. The over-saturated Southeast, which gave birth to the sport, is the logical place to begin.
It's a delicate balancing act for NASCAR and its corporate backers, who covet big-city demographics but are loathe to alienate the sport's traditional fan base.
Few understand that tension better than third-generation racer Kyle Petty, who was reared in Level Cross, N.C., an easy drive from 14 or 15 NASCAR races when he was a child.
Starting next year, North Carolina will host only two major NASCAR races -- down from six in 1996. California will host three.
"I think it's better for the sport," Petty told reporters at Richmond International Raceway, where the schedule was announced. "It opens up the possibilities of going to Seattle or to the Midwest for more events. You hate to see things go away, but that's just part of life."
Such changes would have been inconceivable a decade or two ago. But stock-car racing isn't the hard-luck, hardscrabble sport it was a few decades ago.
Buoyed by a national TV deal and telegenic young drivers such as four-time champion Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR counts 75 million Americans as fans. They're better educated than most think, more affluent than many suspect and brand-loyal to a fault, which explains why politicians now court their votes and Madison Avenue covets their buying power.
Traditional fans may bristle at references to NASCAR as a "product," but that was the buzzword Friday as motor-sports promoters, TV executives, stock-industry analysts and drivers dissected the news that NASCAR was pulling up more of its Southeastern roots and heading for bigger markets out West.
"The demand is there, the population is there, the fan base is there and we're going to take our races there," said NASCAR Chairman Brian France, whose grandfather founded the all-powerful sanctioning body in 1948, during a conference call.
In marketing terms, as one insider put it, NASCAR has gone from being a regionally distributed product -- like Goody's headache powders, Moon pies and Sun Drop soda -- to a national product worthy of national distribution.
But NASCAR's westward expansion was only part of the story that boosted stock values of the publicly traded companies that own the Texas and Phoenix tracks.
The scheduling change also represented a settlement to a contentious and potentially calamitous lawsuit that was filed in 2002 against NASCAR and ISC, which owns many of the circuit's tracks. The suit, which was scheduled to go to trial in July, alleged that NASCAR had violated antitrust laws in refusing to grant Texas Motor Speedway a second Nextel Cup race.
Under a settlement filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Sherman, Tex., the Texas track will get a second major NASCAR race in 2005 -- a victory for both Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns the track, and corporate sponsors who bankroll the sport and have long urged NASCAR officials to abandon small markets for bigger, more affluent ones.
"It's a tremendous thing for us," said Interstate Batteries Chairman Norm Miller, whose Dallas-based company sponsors Joe Gibbs's No. 18 Chevrolet.
"Our entertainment tent has around 1,200 people during the spring race. Now, we're doubling that."
But it was a grave disappointment to Gene McLaurin, mayor of Rockingham, N.C., whose track will lose its only remaining NASCAR race as a result. "This is a part of NASCAR's heritage," said McLaurin, 47, who as a child attended the track's first NASCAR race in 1965. "We're a part of what made the sport what it is today."
NASCAR officials stripped Rockingham's North Carolina Speedway of one of its two major races last year. As part of the settlement filed yesterday, Speedway Motorsports Inc. bought the Rockingham track from ISC for $100 million to acquire its chief asset -- the lone remaining race date -- which it will move to Texas next season.
ISC, in turn, bought Martinsville Raceway for $192 million to acquire its two race dates, which gives the company one more race in its portfolio after losing the Rockingham date in the sale.
And if fans keep flocking to the tracks, more changes are sure to follow.
"We can sit here and talk tradition all day long," Petty said. "Bits and pieces of it fall by the wayside. I think when you look at a sport like this, we're going to lose part of our history. It'll be there in the books, and it's up to us to protect it and make sure it gets told. But we don't have to go back and hammer those places year after year just to keep the history and the respect of the sport."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.