Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Thursday, August 26, 2010

GREAT News for Martinsville

Martinsville Speedway announced on Thursday that, thanks to a deal between International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and the Virginia Tobacco Commission, the 0.528-mile flat track will host two Sprint Cup Series races annually for the next five years.

The VTC will pony up $1.5 million for facility upgrades, which the speedway will match. As a result, ISC and NASCAR, which are both owned by the France family, will keep the Sprint Cup Series in southeastern Virginia twice a year through at least 2015.

According to the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin, upgrades to the track will include the creation of a new on/off ramp for race traffic that should help flow before and after the race. The money will also go to upgrading the track's concession and bathroom facilities along the frontstretch (as a fan who's attended the spring race at Martinsville annually since 2002, I can say these are sorely needed upgrades).

The first phase of upgrades will begin at the conclusion of the Sprint Cup race this October, and are scheduled to be completed by the time the series returns for the first Cup race next season on April 3. Track president Clay Campbell said the time between races made operating in phases necessary, and might explain in part the five-year deal.

Obviously, the fact that Martinsville is "safe" for the next five years will excite the local economy and hardcore NASCAR fans alike. Since Rockingham and Darlington lost races in the last decade in favor of larger media markets and tracks that produce arguably dull racing, some fans have feared Martinsville would be next.

Those fans dodged a bullet when ISC awarded Kansas Speedway a second Cup date in 2011 at the expense of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Attendance woes and a general apathy in southern California made ACS a prime candidate for contraction.

Rockingham and Darlington were also targeted because of low fan turnout and facility issues. Fans weren't buying tickets and the tracks were definitely showing their age. I love those two tracks, but the economics made the decision inevitable. Besides, Darlington has thrived with one Cup date, starting its own tradition by running a night race on Mother's Day weekend.

Something tells me Atlanta Motor Speedway (owned by Bruton Smith and his Speedway, Motorsports, Inc. company) will also benefit in the long run by only having one date.

But Martinsville is different; it is the last original NASCAR track, and it is the shortest track on the circuit. When NASCAR comes to Martinsville, it's like a blast from the past. Fans get to see what the sport was like in the early days, before multi-million dollar TV deals and sponsorship packages. There's an authenticity about Martinsville that few other tracks can duplicate, and I'm beyond thrilled that it still has its rightful place in the sport.

Memo to fans and track operators: this is how you keep your dates. Fans park their butts in the seats after buying tickets, and track operators re-invest their profits into making their facilities better. Martinsville has not sold out lately, but few tracks have -- in fact, Martinsville has largely been one of the better-attended tracks, in part because of the quality of racing and the fact that Campbell has lowered ticket prices in response to the economy.

Don't point to the attendance for the race this past March. Since the race was pushed to Monday by weather, the attendance figures would be slightly skewed.

Campbell has poured money into his track over the last several years. He's added seating, installed a new video scoring tower (rivaled only by the behemoth recently erected by Richmond International Raceway) and is now planning to make the experience even easier for the fans over several phases.

As a reward, NASCAR will keep bringing its premiere series twice a year for the next five years. And that's great news for everyone.

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