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On the chopping block

Rockingham a prime target to lose race next season

Posted: Thursday February 20, 2003 1:22 PM

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (AP) -- What was long a whisper in the NASCAR garage has quickly turned into a shout: North Carolina Speedway is in danger of losing one of its Winston Cup races.

Since NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. said last month that the sanctioning body is looking at realigning its schedule in 2004, the tiny 1.017-mile high-banked oval known as "The Rock" has been on the endangered species list.

Unable to sell out a race since expanding seating capacity to 60,113 in 1999, the track is a prime target for France to swipe a date and move a Winston Cup race into a larger market.

Speedway general manager Chris Browning won't think about the possibilities as the track prepares to host the Subway 400 on Sunday. But once the racing weekend is over, Browning knows Rockingham's fate could be decided.

"I'd expect that after the weekend, [realignment] will start to become more of an issue," he said.

In setting the upcoming schedule, NASCAR normally begins the sanctioning process with its tracks in early summer.

But Browning expects talks to begin within the next month or so as International Speedway Corp., a France-family owned company that controls Rockingham, decides what to do.

North Carolina Speedway sits in the middle of a saturated market -- Darlington Raceway in South Carolina and Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte are easy drives and combine to host five other Winston Cup events -- and NASCAR wants to reach other parts of the country.

So even though there's nothing really wrong with Rockingham, NASCAR knows it could do better by filling seats in a larger market. Those likely to benefit if Rockingham loses a race: New ISC-owned facilities in Fontana, Calif., Kansas City and suburban Chicago.

With sagging ticket sales and a limited hotel and restaurant base, Browning knows Rockingham is in trouble.

"From a facility standpoint, we're right up there with anyone except those brand new tracks," Browning said. "The things that are really impacting us in this decision are things that are beyond our control.

"We're not in a major market and you can't pick the track up and take it to one. We're in a saturated market, which is frustrating for both us and our competition. And then there's our dates."

Weather is always a factor surrounding both of Rockingham's dates -- the track also hosts a Cup event in chilly November. It's never really warm and rain, which is expected this weekend as well, is usually an issue.

Still, competitors generally like Rockingham because of the emphasis it puts on driver skill. Because of a gritty surface that chews up tires, handling is at a premium.

As the second race on the schedule, following the season-opening Daytona 500, Rockingham is generally considered the first event a team can get a true assessment of where its program is this season.

"What you do at Rockingham is solely based on what you and your team can do with your race car, not what drafting line you're in or how the car behind you is going to affect your next move," said Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart. "That's a track where you don't really worry about what everybody else's car is doing, you worry about what your car is doing. You're racing the race track. You're not racing everybody else."


 
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