Atlanta Motor Speedway may be losing a race, but track president Ed Clark is undeterred. His goal is to make the track's one race, on Labor Day weekend, the biggest holiday celebration in the country.
Yahoo! Sports talked to Clark about the track's future, how Jimmie Johnson's dominance has impacted the sport and whether the Chase is a good thing:
1. Y! Sports: How was the news broken to you that Atlanta would be losing a race?
Clark: Marcus Smith, our chief operating officer [of Speedway Motorsports Inc.], called me and told me a couple days before we made the announcement to our staff and to the public. That's pretty much how we knew for certain.
2. Y! Sports: What was your reaction?
Clark: We'd read what was in the media like everyone else and had very little conversation within our company about it. I knew it was a possibility. Certainly it was – I don't want to say it was a shock – but it was disappointing when we got the news that we were the one track chosen to lose the date.
But, we can sit around and feel sorry for ourselves, or we can be even more determined to go to work and make these future Labor Day weekends really huge events. And our goal long term is to make Labor Day weekend the biggest sporting event each year in Georgia and the biggest Labor Day celebration in the whole United States. That's our goal, that's what we're working towards.
We've much enhanced our weekend of activities. Last year was huge – it was two days. Now we've stretched everything over four days. In addition to charitable events that we're doing, there'll be a lot of music, a lot of racing. We've added our 150-mile, late-model race on our quarter-mile track that is free to anybody with Saturday and Sunday tickets. We've got a question-and-answer session with David Ragan, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton.
We're gonna have Colt Ford, who's a well-known country entertainer. Drivin' N Cryin' will be inside on Friday night. And then Sunday we'll have Foreigner before the race.
The whole idea is to make this something that people look forward to. We're going to give a free breakfast to campers that stay around Monday morning.
We've added quite a bit of activity and next year we'll add even more.
3. Y! Sports: The racing at Atlanta is very good. So why do you suppose more fans weren't showing up?
Clark: I think it's several things. First of all, the first weekend March date, there aren't many areas in the country where you're going to have great weather. The weather we've had over the years has run the gamut from snow to sleet to cold to rain to cold and rain and snow. I think the date has probably played more into it than anything else.
The shame of this is with the schedule shaking around now, there may have been some possibility where we could have moved to a later time of year – a more moderate temperature time of year – and been better off. But when your campers are out there camping in 22-degree weather and things like that, it's not the same as when it's warm. That, I would say, is the biggest thing we ran into with the March weekend.
4. Y! Sports: What's your take on the Chase, and would you tweak it at all?
Clark: Mike Helton and I had some conversation at Bristol about this. I don't think back when we started the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, if you had told someone, "Look, we're going to go six years, and we're not going to have a championship battle that comes down to the last race with a couple of guys separated by a couple of points." If you told me you were going to do this six times and that would never happen, I'd say you're crazy. But that's what's happened. But we may turn around and have the next three be close and right down to the last lap.
I just think there's been a bad run of luck. You can probably credit some of that to Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson. They have been total experts at Chase racing, and they'll figure out how to win championships and not even have it close.
Has it been everything that was envisioned when it was established? I don't think anyone will tell you that it has. Is the potential there to, week-by-week, have people on the edge of their seats? I think the potential is there.
I know there's some discussion about possibly tweaking it. The only thing I'd say is that if they do, I hope they put a premium on winning. I still think, season-long, we don't have enough premium on winning races. That's why we're here. Nobody remembers who finishes second. They remember who won. I think there should be more of an emphasis on winning and more points for winning races. But that's one person's opinion.
I'd like to see that in the Chase, and sometimes I even wonder if a guy shouldn't have to win a race to even get in the Chase. That would probably make the race into the Chase more interesting.
Fans that I talk to do not want to see a driver finish sixth, get out of the car and say, "We had a great points day." They just aren't interested in hearing that.
You can't fault the teams. That's the system we set up. They're just playing the system. But I think fans and everyone alike would like to see a little more emphasis to encourage somebody. I know the drivers will tell you, "Well, I'm running every lap just as hard as I can." But let's say you got to win to get in the Chase, you get down to four races to go, you're going to see teams pulling out all stops to try to win a race to get in. It's going to make those races going into the Chase more interesting than they are now.
5. Y! Sports: Is Jimmie Johnson's dominance good, bad or indifferent for ticket sales?
Clark: Well, you need somebody to be on top for someone else to knock off. I think probably the first couple of years Jimmie won the championship, people looked at it like, "Hey, nice guy. A lot of talent. Nobody doesn't like this guy. Pretty good champion."
But he's kind of become like a bully. He wants it every year, and now he's won four in a row. You got to consider him a favorite this year.
I don't know that that's overall good for the sport, but it's good for his team. They've earned it. You can say what you want to – best equipment, best crew chief, best driver, whatever, – you still gotta go out there and perform.
But I've been in this business long enough to see these cycles turn and the [bad] luck we're seeing Jimmie have right now is gonna do one thing or the other – it's either going to make them stronger and make them even more powerful getting into the Chase this year, or it may continue and it won't be their turn and they may not even finish in the top three or four in points this year.
But I think there's a lot of anticipation as we go into the Chase.
6. Y! Sports: What was going through your mind when you saw Brad Keselowski go airborne back in March?
Clark: I will be honest with you, I didn't see it at is occurred. I saw the replay. Obviously nothing really bad happened, or bad beyond getting up in the catchfence or everything.
But that's always a concern for any track manager. Safety of the spectators at your track is of concern. But I will say our company has done a great job with our catchfencing and cabling system around the track. It would take a major scenario for anything terribly bad to happen.
But it does concern you. You don't want to see anyone injured. I think every fan will tell you that they don't come to races to see anyone get hurt. They like to see maybe a spectacular accident, but then they want the guy to walk away.
We've got a great safety record right now, and I think that's a tribute to a lot of people who have been involved in making these cars and seats and everything about them safer.
7. Y! Sports: What is it like having Bruton Smith as your boss?
Clark: It is an absolute pleasure. Bruton has taught me a lot of things, and one thing that he's taught me is don't ever say something can't be done. There's a way to make it happen. You just got to be smart enough to figure out a way to get it done. He really believes that, he preaches that and he's contagious in that attitude. And it's shown in his success in business in both the race-track world and the automobile-dealership world.
Number two, Bruton has the philosophy that if we can't do things the right way, let's don't do it. I very strongly feel that way.
He's just willing to invest in the facilities to make them first class for the fans. The side of Bruton that people don't see is that he's a huge fan himself. He thinks like the fans think and he wants first-class amenities and first-class racing at his facilities for the fans.
Like this breakfast on Monday morning, we're calling it "Breakfast on Bruton" because it was his idea. Give them something back that they don't have to pay for to say thanks for coming to our events and supporting our events for 50 years.
8. Y! Sports: How long have you been involved in racing?
Clark: I've been involved full time since 1977. I started at Bristol about a month before I graduated from Virginia Tech. I've actually been covering races since 1972. As a kid I worked for a little bi-weekly newspaper, and I would go cover races at Richmond and Martinsville. … I guess that's how I got into the business.
Racing myself, I ran Goody's Dash Series race at Rockingham in '79 or '80. My boss raced in that series, and as a thank you for working he let me drive his back-up car there. Dale Jarrett and Phil Parsons were in that race.
I didn't race again until about seven years ago. I've been running consistently at our track and up to Charlotte a few times. It's a good mental therapy to get out there. And I appreciate that side of it. It's fun. I think the guys that I race against think it's fun that I go out there and race against them.
I've won I think five championships and 28 feature races so far. So, it's been pretty good.
9. Y! Sports: How critical is your race coming up?
Clark: With the intermediate tracks you're going to see in the Chase, it's going to be critical that you come in here and run well. Plus, you've got those guys from 10th to 15th – critical, critical event for them. I don't think you can wait for Richmond and try to race your way in. You gotta do it here. We saw Kasey Kahne last year win the race and put himself in the Chase.
9½. One thing people don't know about my job is …
Clark: Through the years, I've had experience with about every department that makes up a racing event. Operations, concessions, souvenirs. I used to even oversee PRN [Performance Racing Network]. I'm very hands on. I still, from time to time, more than anything for a mental break, go out and prune the shrubs out in front of our office building. I like to get out with our staff and spend time with them and get involved with all aspects of what we do.