Originally created 11/14/97

Rain washes out racing activities



HAMPTON, Ga. -- Bruton Smith cannot get a break from Mother Nature.

After spending nearly $60 million in improvements at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Smith watched helplessly Thursday as a steady drizzle washed out the first day of activities leading up to Sunday's NASCAR season-ending NAPA 500.

The scene was reminiscent of the opening of Smith's grand Texas Motor Speedway in April. Heavy rain eliminated the first two days of qualifying and turned 60 percent of the parking areas into mud, forcing officials to spend $500,000 on a shuttle bus system to accommodate many of the estimated 200,000 spectators.

At Smith's Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, a rain delay caused the Coca-Cola 600 to be shortened 67 laps and end at almost 1 a.m.

Pole qualifying for Saturday's ARCA-series Reeses's 400 was postponed until today, but a stagnant cold front threatens both it and NAPA 500 qualifying. The weekend forecast calls for bitter cold and possible light snow.

"It isn't going to rain Sunday, so we'll be fine," Smith said. "We're going to have a great race."

A ribbon-cutting ceremony rededicating 37-year-old AMS took place as scheduled Thursday. Georgia Gov. Zell Miller was among the participants, and cited a study that claims the economic impact of the race track is greater than five Super Bowls or all of the other professional sports events in Atlanta combined.

Smith is chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which also owns and operates several tracks. He purchased AMS, formerly known as Atlanta International Raceway, in 1990 and, in seven years, has transformed a rundown facility with few amenities into one of the South's most stunning sports venues.

The latest project, completed only in the last few days, is the most impressive yet.

The track was reconfigured from a 1.522-mile tri-oval into a 1.544-mile quad-oval, and the start-finish line was moved to the other side of the track. A new, 37,000-seat grandstand, press box and luxury suites overlook what is now the front-stretch. Virtually no expense was spared on new garages and other infield upgrades such as a massive media center.

Even before the latest expenditure, Smith added 50,000 seats, a tower with 46 condominiums over what is now the fourth turn, 67 luxury boxes and miles of access and parking improvements. Some 150,000 spectators are expected for Sunday's race, which is sold out except for infield admission.

Jeff Gordon takes a 77-point lead over Dale Jarrett into the season finale and is assured of his second Winston Cup championship if he finishes in the top 18. Mark Martin is the only other driver still in contention, trailing Jarrett by 10 points.

Because of fresh pavement and a slightly longer front-stretch, testing speeds were 5-7 mph faster than Robby Gordon's one-lap track record of 186.507 mph, set last March in qualifying for the Primestar 500.

A 194-mph lap, which would be the fastest on the Winston Cup circuit this year, is possible for the NAPA 500 pole.

"We're definitely running too fast," Gordon said. "If we had our choice, we'd like to be running 185 to 190 mph. That would be safer. But (the conditions) are the same for everybody."

Said Martin, "I expect a younger and braver driver than me to sit on the pole."