David Caraviello, Charleston Post & Courier
After the Texas lawsuit, NASCAR was never the same
FORT WORTH, TEXAS, APRIL 4, 2010 – It’s always nice to visit one of NASCAR’s classic tracks, those timeless facilities where memories of past races lurk in each corner, and the very asphalt evokes images of drivers and times gone by. Unfortunately, Texas Motor Speedway is not one of those places. But in the wake of the great lawsuit of 2004, it qualifies as a veritable dinosaur.
Things used to be different. Back before corporations and lawyers took control of it, NASCAR’s top series competed in a few small places like Rockingham, N.C., Martinsville, Va., and Darlington, all short on population but long on lore. No, they weren’t in major markets. They weren’t sparkling new facilities with skyboxes and corporate suites and condominium towers looming over the backstretch. They were just great racetracks, places that humbled drivers and wowed spectators, and helped turn a regional stock-car racing series into the juggernaut it is today.
Now they’re gone, relics of an era this sport sped through with nary a backward glance. Everything changed in 2004, when the lawsuit brought against NASCAR by Francis Ferko ó a disgruntled shareholder of Speedway Motorsports Inc., Texas’ parent company, who wanted to force the sanctioning body to award the Fort Worth track a second Nextel Cup date – finally went to trial.
What a spectacle that was. NASCAR was forced to open its financial records, which exposed the association’s controlling interest in not only its racetrack arm, International Speedway Corp., but also of three Atlantic City casinos, two first-division Italian soccer clubs, USA Today, the Teamsters Union, and the entire nation of Paraguay. The verdict for Ferko was swift. Lead plaintiff attorney Johnnie Cochran thanked God, UCLA law school, the guys back at the office, Cadillac and Frito-Lay as Dick Berggren interviewed him on the courthouse steps and his partners emptied bottles of Perrier over his head.
The court ordered NASCAR to pay several billions of dollars to Bruton Smith, the owner of the Texas track, to make up for the revenue a second date would have brought in. Short on cash and effectively blackmailed by sponsors who wanted their logos displayed in only the biggest cities, NASCAR began a panicked rush toward untapped major markets, and left the last vestiges of its heritage behind.
Darlington was converted into a stock-car museum and theme park, and its two races were moved to the new Rocky Mountain Raceway outside Denver. Rockingham was bulldozed and turned into the largest John Deere dealership in the Southeast, and its one Nextel Cup event was shifted to the new Puget Sound Speedrome near Seattle. And so it went, with Martinsville, Pocono, Watkins Glen and Dover giving way to Houston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, New York – and, of course, Texas.
All the new tracks are very nice, a collection of shiny 1.5-mile tri-ovals with roomy motorhome lots and infield helipads. Architectural critics are praising the new Gotham City Speedway in midtown Manhattan, which has no grandstand seats. There are only luxury boxes and corporate suites, climbing 30 stories high, all with exquisite views of Central Park. The wave of the future, they’re calling it. Perfect way to keep out all those commoners, who might wear Dale Earnhardt T-shirts and drink beer – out of a can!
But for those who remember how things used to be, it’s a sad sight. For years NASCAR tried to walk a tightrope between history and progress, attempting to please both the purists who backed the sport long before it became a network television staple, and the corporate check-writers who launched it into the stratosphere. They did the best job they could. Then came the Ferko suit, and that tightrope was snapped.
People will remember Texas Motor Speedway not for its leaking asphalt, not for its multiple repavings, not for its winners. This 1.5-mile tri-oval will be remembered as the place where NASCAR was forced to face its future, one almost devoid of the rich character of its past. The best and worst of NASCAR is on display at Texas, which can draw 150,000 fans for a Cup event but has to filch the past to get a race date. Texas is where America’s most successful racing series first began to realize that its best days were behind it.
Maybe it’s not too late to reverse course. They say the new track under construction in Minneapolis is going to be a throwback, like all those Camden Yards-type ballparks that sprung up when major league baseball teams realized how much fans hated bland, antiseptic sports facilities. It’s going to be a 1.3-mile, egg-shaped oval, with just 60,000 grandstand seats to keep ticket demand high. It’s being hailed as the most original racetrack design in over 50 years. They expect it to be a huge hit.
Richmond the model of what Darlington could be
RICHMOND, Va. – Richmond International Raceway is far from the most impressive facility on the Nextel Cup tour. It is very much a fairgrounds short track at heart, a three-quarter-mile ribbon of asphalt encircling cramped infield facilities and surrounded by a sea of aluminum bleachers. Anyone expecting the awe of Bristol, the opulence of Texas, or the spit and polish of California will be disappointed.
Richmond is very much old NASCAR, a track that traces its roots back to 1946, a place with more historical ties to Rockingham and Darlington than anywhere else. But unlike those two facilities, the first of which has lost two NASCAR weekends and the second trying desperately to hold on to one, the specter of schedule realignment has never loomed over this track. The reason why becomes obvious when the sun goes down, the lights go on, and Richmond is transformed.
Lights saved Richmond, turning it from an entertaining but overlooked racetrack into one of the most popular speedways in NASCAR. Before Richmond put up lights in 1991, the track’s seating capacity was 50,000 and sellouts were anything but guaranteed. Saturday night’s race was run before a crowd of over 107,000, and the place was sold out for the 26th consecutive time.
“This place, before they paved it, was a half-mile fairgrounds dirt track, and they ran Grand National races under the lights here,” said NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter, a former VP at International Speedway Corp., Richmond’s parent company. “When they paved it, they went to day races, and it didn’t have near the aura of excitement. They didn’t draw nearly the number of people that they have drawn by going to nights.”
Harry Gant won Richmond’s first night race in September of 1991. The sellout streak started the next year, when Rusty Wallace won before a grandstand recently expanded to 64,000 seats. By 1998, Richmond had moved both of its annual events to nighttime, and established itself as one of the toughest tickets in the sport. It provided the perfect arena for Saturday night’s climactic event, which decided the drivers who will compete for the Nextel Cup title beginning next week.
It also provides the perfect model for another traditional track looking to lights for survival. Much like the Richmond of the late 1980s, the Darlington Raceway of today is an old-guard NASCAR facility struggling to sell out daytime events. Darlington will host its first night race in November, a Craftsman Truck Series event that will serve as prelude to the track’s inaugural nighttime Nextel Cup tour stop in the spring.
Richmond is a steel and concrete testament to the popularity of night racing, the best-case scenario of what Darlington could become. Night racing at Darlington, with sparks flying as the cars bottom out through the turns, promises to be every bit as mesmerizing as night racing is here. But will the sellouts and consequent grandstand expansion, so critical to Darlington’s survival, follow suit?
“We’ll get some idea when they run the trucks at night as opposed to four o’clock in the afternoon,” Hunter said. “But I think the real test will be the next year, that Saturday night of Mother’s Day weekend.”
It’s probably an overstatement to say that one night will decide Darlington’s future. But it will be the first step in determining whether Darlington becomes another Rockingham, sitting idle. Or another Richmond, which packed in 107,000 people Saturday night.
In Darlington, quiet and a sense of foreboding
DARLINGTON – They are sounds not normally heard around Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend. The chirping of birds. The wind whistling through trees. The low hum of the few cars passing on Harry Byrd Highway, which runs right past the oldest major speedway in NASCAR.
Such pastoral stillness is usually drowned out by the clatter of pedestrian and automobile traffic, the thumping of live music from the track’s hospitality village, and the roar of cars competing in the Southern 500. But this Labor Day weekend, for the first time in 54 years, Darlington is quiet. All the action is 3,000 miles away in Fontana, Calif., where NASCAR believes the holiday event will find a more profitable home.
Saturday, the gates to the old track were padlocked shut. The marquee advertised appearances by drivers Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt Jr. ó on Nov. 14, the day of the final Southern 500. The few visitors to Darlington’s impressive stock car museum, which includes Johnny Mantz’s winning Plymouth from the first Southern 500 in 1950, and the Ford in which Bill Elliott claimed the sport’s first $1 million bonus in 1985, included a family from Ocala, Fla., fleeing Hurricane Frances.
Darlington resident William Strawn was at the raceway Saturday buying tickets to the Nov. 12 Craftsman Truck Series event, the first under the track’s new lighting system. He said losing the Labor Day race still stings many in this small town, and there are growing concerns it may soon lose much more.
“I understand. It’s all about money,” said Strawn, 49, who has attended Darlington races since he was 14. “The people around here are kind of ticked off about it, because (NASCAR) sold them out. Why did they put the lights up? They’re going to shut it down. We know that’s going to happen. Look at Darlington and the surrounding areas. We don’t have enough people to put 150,000 seats in here.”
Local businesses are already feeling the pinch of losing an event that brought an estimated 100,000 people into the region, and a financial boost in the area of $50 million. There were only a few customers Saturday afternoon at Val’s, a small restaurant across the street from the track.
“The owner of the building told me that the previous people who had rented it from him were making a killing during race weekend,” proprietor Rick Bramlett said. "But as you can see, business is down everywhere, because we’re down to one race now.”
In neighboring Florence, Mike Alexander can commiserate. Saturday afternoon, there were 16 cars in the parking lot of his Hampton Inn and Suites, which is normally sold out for the weekend. Alexander estimates he’ll lose nearly $40,000 this weekend, and any chance of offsetting the deficit with a strong Labor Day crowd was scuttled by the looming hurricane.
But Alexander understands why NASCAR made the move. “It’s a business decision,” he said. “We hate it. I’m not sure it was the right thing to do. In the short term, I can understand. They’re going to make a lot more money. But long-term, I think it will hurt them.”
Across town at Redbone Alley, a bar and grill that’s usually packed every night of race weekend, business is also down. Losing the Labor Day race will cost the establishment about $30,000, and the addition of a night event – which will steal the dinner crowd ó offers little solace.
“It’s definitely going to have an impact,” said assistant manager Alan Hyman. “This is the hot spot for a Darlington race. Every year we have drivers and crews here. People make reservations here every night of the weekend. It’s definitely going to have an impact on businesses all around. It’s going to kill Darlington. That’s their big thing of the year.”
In Darlington, where even the police cars sport checkered flags, the Labor Day race was a large part of the town’s identity. Mayor Tony Watkins can remember when the event was contested on Labor Day because of blue laws. He remembers the days before the hotels sprung up in Florence, when his father opened his movie theatre to fans who didn’t have a place to stay.
Saturday, Darlington’s downtown was desolate, full of storefronts either closed or out of business. The tidy brick lane containing the handprints of former race winners was empty. Watkins has hope for the future, citing the track’s new lighting system and an upcoming economic development meeting. But this weekend, the silence speaks volumes.
“It’s a tradition,” Watkins said of the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. ?I know people are going to be sitting around (today) thinking, ’It’s mighty quiet around here.’”
Dorton’s legacy lives within garage
HAMPTON, GA. – The voice over the radio asked Jimmie Johnson to take it easy, but the rookie driver wasn’t listening. He was too busy mashing one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake, ripping a burnout down the frontstretch at California Speedway after his first win in NASCAR’s top series.
His No. 48 car limped into victory lane, oil leaking everywhere. The first person Johnson saw there was Hendrick Motorsports engine builder Randy Dorton, whose carefully constructed, painstakingly produced power plant had just been cooked in an overzealous celebration.
“I felt horrible then," Johnson remembered.
So Dorton and his team would just build another engine, usually better than the last, and continue the tradition of excellence in what is widely considered the most consistently strong motor department in Nextel Cup racing. Few outside of NASCAR know much about the unassuming Dorton, one of 10 people killed when a Hendrick team plane crashed last Sunday. But every race fan knows his handiwork.
Randy Dorton was nothing less than the John Wooden of his profession, an engine man whose procedures, initiatives, or proteges can be found under the hood of almost every car that will start today’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He was among the first people Rick Hendrick hired 20 years ago, when the young car owner rented a little shop owned by former crew chief Harry Hyde. Dorton was renting an adjacent space. It is by such coincidences that history is made.
“Any time there’s a great person, they influence what happens in this sport,” said car owner and former Hendrick crew chief Ray Evernham. “Randy Dorton had a major influence on everything that happened and will happen for some time to come in this garage area as far as horsepower goes.”
Richie Gilmore, who started the engine program at Dale Earnhardt Inc., is a former student of Dorton’s. Gilmore and 10 other people at DEI worked directly with Dorton at Hendrick. So did Mark Cronquist, who builds engines for the two cars as Joe Gibbs Racing. So did Evernham, who owns two cars and oversaw development of the entire Dodge fleet. Doug Yates, who builds engines for the Ford teams of Jack Roush and Robert Yates, adopted some of Dorton’s procedures and led a group of 100 people to the funeral.
“If you look at how DEI’s engine program is laid out, look at Gibbs, even Doug Yates talks about how much Randy influenced how he runs his day-to-day operation. Randy was a huge influence on everybody. Randy was a guy that if you had 10 failures like they did this year, they had Plan B and Plan C without the guys working long hours and rebuilding all the motors,” Gilmore said.
“Randy always had a plan to get the guys home on time. That was the second place I worked in the sport, and it was amazing how many engines we built in a year, and the guys worked 8 to 5. That’s what I carried away from working with Randy, that you can do this and you can still have a life.”
Dorton was the kind of guy who kept up with technological advances in Indyracing and Formula One as well as NASCAR, who when a new floor was installed wanted to know more about the adhesive than the wood, who would greet acquaintances not with a hello, but a “what do you think of the new gear rule?” He was also a guy who wanted his employees to have something close to normal lives, who would check in on former co-workers when they were having difficult times personally, and who would read to Evernham’s son on flights home rather than worry about the next race on the schedule.
“Randy and I had a deal,” said Robert Yates, whose daughter introduced Dorton to his wife Diane. “We didn’t trade secrets the teams would be mad about, but I always knew I could call Randy if I had a problem, and he could always call me. Probably nobody knew that. But I always felt like I could ask Randy about the most personal question, and he would give me an answer.”
The crash of the Hendrick plane is the most jarring tragedy for NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. But it’s jarring in a different way. Earnhardt, Robert Yates said, was the magnet in the sport’s center, while the Hendrick organization wraps around the sport. And no part of the Hendrick team was more permeating than Dorton, whose legacy lives every time an engine is cranked in the Nextel Cup garage.
“I worked for Randy for eight years,” said Gilmore, who is now DEI’s motorsports director, but still builds engines for Dale Earnhardt Jr. “He was probably the nicest man in this sport. He was always looking to help and do what he could for the sport and the people who were in it. So it’s been a tough week for everybody.”