Originally created 03/12/98

No easy answer to weather woes in Atlanta



ATLANTA -- All outdoor sports are vulnerable to the elements, but none more than big-time stock car racing.

While a baseball game or a golf tournament can continue in a drizzle, a stock car race is halted with practically the first sprinkle. Delays are doubly long because the track has to be almost moisture-free to grab the slick tires.

Bad weather poses a greater hardship on racing fans because there are fewer places to seek refuge and much longer waits in traffic getting to and from the track. Many fans come great distances and can't return for a rain makeup.

This brings us to Atlanta Motor Speedway and the fact that a lousy date for its "spring" Winston Cup race makes it far more likely to get pounced on by Mother Nature.

Four days of rain played havoc with the Primestar 500 events last week, and only about 45,000 fans saw Bobby Labonte drive into Victory Lane when the main event was run on Monday. Rain washed out two rounds of qualifying and knocked the Busch Series 300-miler to later in the year.

This wasn't the first time that inclement weather spoiled the early race at AMS. Actually, it was the third time in the last eight years. The '91 Motorcraft 500 was run on Monday, and 25,000 fans saw Ken Schrader beat Bill Elliott on fuel mileage. In '93, a blizzard pushed back the Motorcraft 500 a week, and around 40,000 watched Morgan Shepherd win.

So, one might ask: As important as the Atlanta market is to racing, why wouldn't NASCAR give AMS a better date for its early race?

The answer is that NASCAR probably would if it could. All of the choice dates in the spring are either taken or left open for a reason. April 12 is open, but that's Easter Sunday. May 10 is open, but that's Mother's Day. Every other Sunday between March 29 and July 19 is booked.

"You can't ask somebody that has a good date to give it up," said AMS general manager Ed Clark. "I think NASCAR understands that there's a chance you're going to have (bad) weather here in March. Just look at the history. But where would you move it to?"

AMS does have one of the most coveted dates on the calendar, the season-finale in mid-November, and that's always a huge draw. The spring date is a tough sell, and largely because of the unpredictable weather.

Clark could have taken this coming weekend rather than March 6-8, but any March weekend in Georgia is a gamble.

"Weather can make you look like the smartest person in the world or the dumbest, and it's not anything you do," Clark said. "If you've got a beautiful sunny weekend in the early spring, people are busting to get outside and you've got packed grandstands -- everybody's smiling. If it rains you look like you don't have a clue."

For now at least, AMS is stuck. That's too bad because owner Bruton Smith has poured some millions into the once-dumpy speedway to make it one of the better facilities on the circuit.

The best hope for AMS is that through the addition of new tracks and the deletion of some smaller ones a more favorable date becomes available.

"I keep hearing that Miami (Homestead) might get a date," Clark said. "Well, (early March) would be a a great week for Miami. I'm not looking to give Miami our date, understand, but if they were thinking about something later in the year, the early date would work better for them and the later date would work better for us."

A washout like last weekend's can have a residual affect on an event. Fans who sat in hours of traffic and then hours of rain without ever seeing a lap turned will be less likely to order tickets next year when their brochures come in the mail.

NASCAR has begun helping tracks that have bad dates. Richmond's early race, often run in bitterly cold weather, was moved to June this year. Talladega's summer event -- no place on earth is hotter than Talladega in late July -- was switched to October last year.

All races are vulnerable to inclement weather. But AMS has a particularly bad date that needs to be changed.