NASCAR sells its soul for rock and roll

NEW YORK CITY, NY - NASCAR just took fifty years of tradition and threw it in the ditch, covered it with glitter and resurrected it Southern California style. The Southern 500, a 53-year NASCAR tradition will lose its coveted Labor Day weekend...

NEW YORK CITY, NY - NASCAR just took fifty years of tradition and threw it in the ditch, covered it with glitter and resurrected it Southern California style. The Southern 500, a 53-year NASCAR tradition will lose its coveted Labor Day weekend spot in 2004 to California Speedway.

The Southern 500 was NASCAR's first 500-mile event held on pavement on September 4, 1950. Johnny Mantz won that event from a field of 75 drivers, and with that win was born a stock car racing tradition. But next year all of that will change.

NASCAR warned earlier this year to expect changes in the 2004 schedule. Their marketing goal clear, to reach new markets, garner new fans, and transport the sport out of its roots steeped in Southern tradition, and bring it to the masses.

Many garage insiders speculated that the new television package instigated the shifting of races for next season.

The 2.8 billion dollar TV package NASCAR entered into at the beginning of the 2001 season with NBC, TNT and FOX has been filled with bells and whistles pulled out by all the networks, to broaden overage of qualifying, happy hour and pre-race hi-jinx.

Networks certainly did their part to bring the driver's personalities to the forefront of auto racing in a way that viewers had not seen before, and highlight race action with innovative digital tracking. The networks, albeit expecting it, lost money last season, although NASCAR president Mike Helton reports that their fan base grew by some 15 million viewers and is now second only to the NFL in ratings.

Darlington Raceway, the hosts of the Southern 500, announced today that the Southern 500 is moving to the fall weekend traditionally hosted by Rockingham. Rockingham will lose its second Winston Cup date. Darlington does retain its spring date.

California Speedway, which was first added to the schedule as an April date in 1997, gains a second date. The Labor Day weekend spot. It will become a Sunday night race.

There is no arguing that California is a splashier affair. Rock stars and Playboy bunnies flitter through the garage signing autographs and hobnobbing with the elite stars of the sport. Bloody Mary stands sit side- by-side with T-shirt vendors, and it's the only track that I have been to where you can get a cappuccino. But, the race itself leaves something to be desired. People that say stock car racing is just 43-guys driving around in a circle may just think that's true watching the California 500.

NASCAR's marketing machine churns on in its attempt to find more viewers in big cities willing to spend big money. In its pursuit, however, they run the risk of alienating their core legion of fans. Fans who supported the sport when drivers draped in the confederate flag accepted trophies, and Miss Winston got to French kiss the winners. Fans who stood by NASCAR when it wasn't politically correct, when it wasn't trying to fit itself into the image of major network TV executives, and appeal to a mass viewer-ship that would squirm at such victory lane activities.

Yet when I look around the infield at many tracks on the circuit, whether it is Pocono or Daytona; I still see the familiar NASCAR die-hards with the usual race weekend accouterments poised on top of their camper.

Things change and people and institutions transform with the ebb and flow of pop culture. Maybe it is NASCAR's time to step out of its outdated notions and shine in a warmer light. For the people, those who have spent so many years as loyal followers to stock car racing, more a religion that a sport, today is a very cold day indeed.

The remainder of the 2004 schedule is expected to be announced later this summer.

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Series NASCAR Cup