The Southern 500: A Lesson Not Learned

[media-credit name=”David Yeazell” align=”alignright” width=”261″][/media-credit]For those who think that the races at places like California, Chicago, Kansas, and any number of what has been called the “cookie cutter” tracks, I give you Darlington. For every boring finish at one of those clones, we get one Darlington (and luckily, thank God) two Martinsville’s. It’s not fair that we only see one race at the track “too tough to tame,” but that’s all we have. It’s money that matters.

Instead of two cars piggy-backing on each other to create speed, as we saw at Daytona and Talladega (and it seems is the favorite of the fans), we saw real racing and lots of action. We saw a Ford Fusion open up a Toyota like a can of tuna. We saw the usual suspects run in the back while others ran up front. We saw beating and banging, temper flaring, and even extracurricular action. We saw a race that can’t happen when everyone has four lanes to run in and it’s an easy place to run.

It seems that after NASCAR became “the thing” back in the early 90’s that the sport went out of its way to make things easier for the drivers. No longer was it a challenge for the drivers because it didn’t matter so much. The important thing was that the stars of the sport were there and were successful. It wasn’t about the racing. It was more about the money. All of a sudden, International Speedway Corporation and Speedway Motorsports began to either take over or build new tracks. Bruton Smith did it two ways. As the CEO of Speedway Motorsports, every track he built was a clone of Charlotte Motor Speedway. You know the drill. Moderately banked tracks with a tri-oval approximately 1.5 miles in length. To give Smith credit, he did change it up a bit at Las Vegas by reconfiguring the track when it didn’t race like the fans wanted and changed Atlanta also. But he changed Bristol to “offer more room to race,” which has been a disaster for fans and the attendance at the races there show it. Fans didn’t want more room to race. They wanted to see the action. I really am sad to report this, but the last two races at Bristol nearly bored me to sleep.

International Speedway Corporation seemed to create tracks in the image of Michigan International Speedway. When they bought Roger Penske’s tracks, that seemed to be the formula. California, Chicago, and others seemed to fit that mold. Easy on the drivers and less action were the key. They didn’t have to worry about the fans, they were going to come anyway.

Fast forward to 2008. The economy was in the dumpster. Ticket prices were through the roof and fans for the first time had to wonder if spending $1,000 dollars for a weekend was worth it . Attendance suffered and TV ratings went way down. Smith closed Rockingham and NASCAR took away one of its iconic races at Darlington to get other races at his newer clone tracks. Attendance was listed as the problem, but when attendance at California and other tracks didn’t improve the situation, excuses were there in spades. Excuses cannot change what has happened over the last ten years. History be damned. While baseball loves Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, NASCAR put its history in the trash can in favor of more modern facilities and the revenue that could be generated. It’s sad.

Tonight, we saw why fans rushed to NASCAR. Action. We saw it at Martinsville in March, and we’ll see it again in the fall when we go back there. We sacrificed the iconic tracks that made the sport what it was for luxury suites and bling, even if the racing was less than good. And so it goes.

Maybe there’s a lesson here, but I doubt it. A friend who has gone to Charlotte for eons told me this week that he got his Charlotte tickets for the 600. The tickets had raised by nearly $20. He was trying to sell the tickets and could not find any takers. Maybe the economy will improve and people will have more disposable income in the future and NASCAR will rise again, but if that magic doesn’t happen, it won’t change the fact that places like Darlington need to be put in place as what NASCAR is and should be. Taking a race from Darlington was wrong. Taking away the Labor Day weekend from Darlington was criminal. When will they learn?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of

Ron Fleshman
Ron Fleshman
Ron Fleshman has followed NASCAR racing since attending his first race at Martinsville Speedway in 1964. He joined the Motor Sports Forum on the CompuServe network in the 1980s and became a reporter for Racing Information Systems in 1994. In 2002, he was named NASCAR Editor for RIS when it appeared on the World Wide Web as He can now be found at Ron is a member of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association. You can find Ron following and reporting on the top three NASCAR divisions each week. As a lifer in his support of racing, he attends and reports on nearly 30 events a year and as a member of the motor sports media, his passion has been racing for 47 years. He lives with his family in rural West Virginia and works in the insurance industry when not on the road to another track.


  1. Great points. The Showtime 500 was ironic in that this is the Rebel 500 in that a team that’s a true rebel in that it’s based in the Rockies won.

    Kyle Petty said in preparation for the November 2004 Mountain Dew Southern 500 (the November race NASCAR had envisioned would become the signature Chase race before being sued off in Ferko) that it was the difference between the U. S. Open and standard golf tournaments; where golfers were shooting 60’s consistently on manicured courses on the major tours, they were barely breaking par in the National Championship. In golf, that’s called a TPC course. In F1, it’s called a Tilkering. In baseball, it’s a symmetic outfield.

    I can see Fontana with a race and Chicago being held in the Chase but why not call rename the trophy for Fearless Freddie and celebrate too Duryea’s first auto race? Darlington deserves that fall race at the end of the season where chokers lose. All the Jimmie whining could stop when you consider Jimmie’s Southern 500 win was a clutch win that proved he was Mr. Clutch. Darlington deserves a spring race away from this Mother’s Day weekend and a fall race near the end of the Chase.


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