Atlanta gets ready to become a one-race town

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HAMPTON, GA. (AP) - This isn’t the way Atlanta Motor Speedway wanted to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

The high-banked track has traditionally hosted two NASCAR Sprint Cup races each year, but that’s changing in 2011. Track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc. decided to shift the attendance-challenged spring date to another of its facilities, Kentucky Motor Speedway.

As amazing as it may seem, Atlanta is about to become a one-race town _ despite being one of the largest markets on the circuit and right in the heart of traditional NASCAR country.

“I started coming here in the 1980s,” said 51-year-old Mark Martin, the oldest regular driver in the series. “I love this place. I hate to see it come to that.”

He’s not the only one. The 1.54-mile quad-oval has long been one of the most popular in the series among the drivers, who love its hair-raising speed and multiple passing grooves.

“I wish we raced Atlanta every other week, maybe three times a month,” Carl Edwards said. “I really, really like this place.”

But there’s more to racing than just racing.

The spring event at Atlanta was traditionally plagued by poor weather and struggled to draw fans. Track officials tried all sorts of marketing gimmicks and even slashed ticket prices, but nothing helped. Finally, SMI owner Bruton Smith had to make a hard business decision: If he wanted a Cup race at Kentucky, it would have to come at the expense of another of his tracks.

Atlanta was the most logical candidate, despite its long, proud Cup history.

“There’s no way you’re going to convince me this decisions was done because we’re the worst market,” track president Ed Clark said. “It was simply who owned what, and a choice had to be made. Bruton ran out of options. There was no other thing he could do.”

Still, there’s no denying all those empty seats. Even the race Sunday night, the Labor Day weekend event that Atlanta will be keeping in 2011, isn’t expected to be a sellout.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s necessary,” Kyle Busch said. “When you can’t sell seats, you don’t deserve to go to that race track twice. It’s all about getting butts in the seats.”

NASCAR has juggled its schedule dramatically over the past decade, delving into new markets that go beyond its Southern roots. Darlington, the most historic track on the circuit, lost one of its two races in 2005. North Wilkesboro and Rockingham were kicked off the circuit altogether.

The newer tracks aren’t guaranteed their events either. As part of the scheduling shake-up for 2011, NASCAR also took away a race from California Speedway near Los Angeles, plagued by thousands of empty seats despite being the second-largest market in the country, and gave it to Kansas Speedway.

“We go to some places that might not be so exciting of a race,” Busch said. “But the infield looks great because there’s a lot of people there. The grandstands look good because there’s a lot of people sitting there. That’s why racetracks keep their races. If you don’t have support in a given area of the country, it ain’t going to last. California’s in the same boat. How many million people live around California? But they can’t fill the race track.”

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