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Attendance an issue - and Smith knows it

LIFE IN THE TURN LANE

- dpoole@charlotteobserver.com
Tuesday, Mar. 10, 2009

Bruton Smith blew into the media center Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway and held court with reporters for quite a while. The military would call this a diversionary tactic.

I drifted in and out of the gaggle, making sure I wasn't missing Smith plowing any new ground. He talked about how NASCAR should take the final race of the Sprint Cup season away from Homestead - or, as he likes to call it, Homeinstead - and move it back to Atlanta or out to Las Vegas. He talked about how the Cup banquet should be in Las Vegas and not New York. He talked about a lot of stuff.

I didn't write about any of it (until now, I guess) because it wasn't anything I hadn't heard before and because I had a good idea what he was up to.

For weeks leading up to Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500, there had been whispers all around the sport about how few tickets had been sold for the race at the 1.54-mile track located south of downtown Atlanta. The weather was perfect and there was a huge walk-up crowd (when compared with other years) and they still might have sold half the seats.

OK, let's be totally fair here. If Atlanta Motor Speedway had 75,000 or so, which is where I would put the crowd I saw (NASCAR's estimate of 94,000 on the official race report was WAY high), that's still more than fans than there would be at a sold-out Homstead-Miami Speedway. It's about what California had, maybe a little less, and about what places like Kansas and Chicagoland will hold later this year.

I say that people who see the stands half-empty at Atlanta and think the crowd is "terrible" need to keep in perspective that 75,000 for any professional sports event in the Atlanta market is not shabby. But it's not good, either.

Smith keeps insisting that the track will sell out its second date this year, which moves to Sunday night of Labor Day weekend. People at the track say they're encouraged by the response to that new date, moved back from around Halloween weekend in previous years.

We'll see.

Some of the drivers were asked about the empty seats after Sunday's race and they said they're baffled. Racing at Atlanta is usually not terrible and it's a great facility. Traffic there used to be awful and maybe that reputation lingers despite the fact that there have been improvements made in that regard. The track has tried everything reasonable in terms of ticket and concession prices in this tough economy.

This ain't Bruton Smith's first rodeo. By chumming the waters with talk about how NASCAR ought to do this and that with other races at other places he got some of the heat off of his track at Atlanta, at least for a little while, over the weekend. But he's smart enough to know that nobody's going to have their attention fully diverted, at least not for long, from how many seats went unsold Sunday.

Smith would like to have a second race in Las Vegas and he's promised up and down that he'll bring Cup racing to the track he bought in Kentucky last year. He might be singing the song that one of those dates "should" come from one of International Speedway Corp.'s tracks, but he knows as well as I do that's not going to happen.

If Kentucky gets a date next year, Smith will put it there from within the Speedway Motorsports portfolio. And after seeing the crowd Sunday at Atlanta, that track has a great big target locked on it, no matter how many countermeasures Smith tries to deploy.

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