CONCORD, N.C. - The Southern 500, one of stock car racing's oldest and most traditional events, might become the Southern California 500 in 2004.
According to sources in NASCAR, a deal involving three racetracks will result in the addition of a race - the Southern 500 - at California Speedway, a two-month move in the lineup at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, and the loss of a race at North Carolina Speedway at Rockingham.
The Southern 500, a Labor Day weekend staple at Darlington Raceway since 1950, might become a night race at the two-mile raceway 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
Although NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. said the schedule should be revamped next season to make better use of television and popular venues, he specifically mentioned North Carolina, Darlington, Atlanta and Lowe's Motor Speedway as racetracks that might want to consider moving dates.
The change involving North Carolina, Darlington and California, however, apparently will be the only significant change on the schedule. Darlington will assume North Carolina's lost November date.
"We typically make just one or two changes (in the schedule) at a time, and we'll stick to that for next year," said George Pyne, NASCAR's chief operating officer. "There will likely be changes in the schedule. We haven't begun the sanctioning process yet, so it would be premature (to confirm the change). We will look at taking races where there is more demand than supply."
Pyne said there is a strong desire at NASCAR to add races in major markets such as Los Angeles.
"New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have the highest concentration of NASCAR fans," he said. "Other than Lakers games, NASCAR is the most-watched sporting event on television in Los Angeles."
The news was disheartening to many in the garage area, especially to those who revere the Labor Day weekend as the sport's most sacred races of the year, much like golf's Masters Tournament.
"This was a hot rumor in the garage about a month ago and then it died down," said Len Wood, a car owner for Ricky Rudd's Ford. "But nobody thought they'd ever touch the Southern 500."
Sterling Marlin saw his first Southern 500 in 1969. He didn't like it when NASCAR moved the race to Sunday.
"When I was a kid, you always had Labor Day," he said. "You got to the track on Wednesday, and the track wasn't even open on Sunday. You went to Myrtle Beach on Sunday and rode go-karts and went swimming. Then you raced on Monday.
"Now we're moving it away from Darlington. I hate to see it."
Pyne said no matter what happens, "There will a Southern 500 next year."
He just wouldn't say where or when.
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