Saturday, May 15, 2004

RICHMOND — Tracks in two southern states will lose Nextel Cup races, and venues in Texas and Arizona will get them as part of a lawsuit settlement and sweeping NASCAR realignment in 2005.

NASCAR said yesterday that North Carolina Speedway and Darlington (S.C.) Raceway each will lose a race, leaving the track in Rockingham, N.C., without any races and sparking a series of track sales and wrangling that NASCAR hopes will solve a number of nagging problems it faces.

Among the changes, North Carolina Speedway will be purchased by Bruton Smith-led Speedway Motorsports Inc. for $100.4million as part of a settlement of a lawsuit that has dragged on for about two years.

Francis Ferko, a shareholder in SMI, claimed in the suit that NASCAR had breached agreements by not awarding a second Cup race to Texas Motor Speedway. Texas will get a second date next November in the settlement.

The date “is a result of the Ferko settlement, but at the same time, it fits in perfectly with our realignment plans,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said during a press conference at Richmond International Raceway.

He said the settlement effectively makes the lawsuit moot.

“It’s a spectacular day, to say the least,” Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said, adding that there have been times over the past eight years when he wondered whether a second date would ever come. “I think once we started mediation sessions last summer, we knew where we would end up. It was just a matter of getting there.”

Said Smith, the SMI chairman, who was not involved in the lawsuit: “My desire, as it has always been, is to continue to help NASCAR build the sport of stock car racing. Working together will help build a better sport for fans, participants and corporate partners.”

Phoenix International Raceway also will gain a second race weekend under the realignment, adding a spring race to the one it has Nov.13.

“This is another example of us increasing our visibility in an area of the country that is truly a hotbed for NASCAR fans,” France said.

Further, Martinsville Speedway, half-owned by the France family, will be purchased outright by International Speedway Corp. for $192million with money from the Rockingham sale and another $91.6million. ISC is about 60 percent owned and controlled by the France family.

“There comes a point in time when you’ve got to look at change, and I think change in this case was inevitable,” said Martinsville president Clay Campbell, whose grandfather, Clay Earles, opened the track in 1947. “I think [ISC] can carry Martinsville a lot further than we could ever carry it.

“Anything that’s been family owned for so long like that, definitely it pulls on your heart a little bit,” he said. “But you can’t let your heart make a business decision at all times. … We’re looking at the bright side rather than the sentimental side.”

Martinsville will retain both of its race dates in the 2005 season, and Campbell also will remain as president under ISC’s ownership.

The schedule also answers many other questions about 2005.

California Speedway will replace North Carolina as the second stop of the season, and the Nextel Cup all-star race will return to Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., now host to the only races in North Carolina.

The Nextel Cup All-Star Challenge will be run May21, a week before the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s, NASCAR’s longest race of the season.

France defended the moves as in the best interest of the sport and said he regrets racing at North Carolina Speedway and Darlington struggled to sell out despite some of the smallest seating capacities.

“We’re disappointed that the events didn’t work as well as they’ve worked in California and other markets,” he said, adding that race fans in the Carolinas still have a number of tracks within traveling distance.

Drivers lamented the loss of two more races in the Carolinas but largely viewed the changes as ones that could help the sport grow.

“I think it opens up the possibilities of going to Seattle or to the Midwest for more events,” Kyle Petty said. “I think it’s better for the sport. You hate to see things go away, but that’s just part of life.”

France also doesn’t expect the lawsuit that sparked the changes to inspire other lawsuits as tracks look to add additional races.

“We have a history of being very aggressive in defending NASCAR’s business practices,” he said. “We were aggressive in this case, and we’ll continue to be aggressive. There was a solution in this case that was unique. We were able to find that it would work for everyone.”

The changes mean North Carolina Speedway will have lost both of its Nextel Cup weekends in the span of a year. The struggling track’s other date was given to California Speedway at the start of this season.

Darlington, the original NASCAR superspeedway and host through this year of the prestigious Southern 500, would be left with only one race — on Mother’s Day weekend — for the first time since the 1960 season.

The Southern 500 Labor Day date moved this year to California from Darlington, which had its second race pushed back to Nov.14.

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