DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - One of the worst-kept secrets in stock car racing is that the sport's two biggest power brokers don't particularly like each other.
The relationship between NASCAR president Bill France Jr. and Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith is described by insiders as chilly.
Although both men have made efforts through the media to quell talk of a rift, the tension between the giants is palpable.
Friday's announcement of a $3 million to $5 million undertaking in which lights will be installed at France's Daytona International Speedway is partly a natural progression in a sport growing by leaps and bounds. But it's also the latest move in a game of one-upsmanship being played between France and Smith.
Smith was the first to erect lights around a superspeedway, doing so at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1992 and then this year at his new Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. Night events at CMS, including The Winston all-star race and Coca Cola 600, have been hugely successful.
France isn't one to be outdone for long in the sport his family has ruled for five decades. Beginning next July 4, the midsummer Pepsi 400 will have a starting time of about 8 p.m. Moreover, there's a tentative contract with CBS to carry the race, which would make it the first Winston Cup event televised in prime time by a broadcast network.
At a press conference Friday, DIS president John Graham wanted to make it clear that the Daytona lighting project is bigger than anything done previously. Not surprisingly, there was a diagram showing 2.5-mile DIS encircling Smith's 1.5-mile Charlotte track. Your move, Mr. Smith.
Smith is an innovator and a risk taker. He built condominiums and upscale suites at Charlotte, and he's doing the same at his Atlanta and Texas tracks. Race track condos remain Smith's province (except for storied Indianapolis), but France has stepped up with some impressive tower suites at Daytona.
Smith landscapes his tracks with shrubbery and flowers. Until the last few years, landscaping at Daytona meant mowing the weeds. But now the Daytona grounds abound with perfect St. Augustine turf, newly planted palm trees and blooming begonias. Amenities for the fans and media have been upgraded substantially. Thank you, Mr. Smith, for showing the way.
Smith is a wheeler and dealer and a fearless borrower whose style contrasts sharply with the fiscally conservative France. During the '90s, Smith has acquired (through Speedway Motorsports) the tracks in Atlanta, Bristol and North Wilkesboro. He built the Texas speedway and obtained a lease at Sears Point Raceway in California. Massive expansion projects are currently underway at Atlanta and Bristol.
With control of eight of the existing 32 dates on the Winston Cup circuit and an estimated one-third of the circuit's seating, Smith has gained considerable clout.
France's father, the late Bill Sr., founded NASCAR, the sport's sanctioning body, and the France family owns International Speedway Corporation, which has the Daytona, Talladega, Darlington and Watkins Glen tracks. ISC was a sleeping juggernaut for years, but the company has become aggressive of late with projects such as the "Daytona USA" attraction at DIS last year and not-yet-final plans to build superspeedways near Chicago and Kansas City.
"Power struggle' may be too strong a term to describe the maneuvering by France and Smith. But behind-the-scenes battles are quietly being fought. To wit, Smith maintains he will obtain a second race date for his Texas track next year. And NASCAR insists it doesn't plan to expand the schedule. Something has to give.
Erecting 2,205 light fixtures at Daytona will help make a good midsummer race a better one. But not to be underrated is that it also will help France stay a step ahead of the feisty Smith.
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