Night moves

Jay Hart

AVONDALE, Ariz. – They helped make Richmond what it is today. They're in the process of saving Darlington. They've made the August race in Bristol the most sought after ticket in NASCAR. And Saturday night, they'll put Phoenix International Raceway, literally, in the spotlight.

It's a simple concept, really, lighting up a racetrack. But it seems wherever the switch is flipped, people come, drawn like bugs to a zapper.

Saturday's Subway Fresh Fit 500 kicks off a run of night races. Of the next five Sprint Cup races, four will be under the lights, first in Phoenix, followed by Richmond, Darlington and Lowe's.

NASCAR's first night race wasn't at Bristol – Nashville was the first in the sport's modern era – but the August race there is certainly the standard against which all night races are measured. When Cale Yarborough took the checkered flag under the lights in the Volunteer 500 way back in 1978, a spectacle was born.

Seating capacity at Bristol since that first night race has more than doubled. Today, the track seats around 160,000, and unless you're willing to pay a premium, tickets are impossible to come by. All this in a market where the closest major city (if Knoxville is considered a major city) is more than 100 miles away.

Nearly 20 years ago, Richmond International Raceway put up lights. Since then, 33 races have been run under them; the last 32 have sold out.

Just a few years ago, there was rampant speculation that Darlington Raceway was going the way of Rockingham and North Wilkesboro – on its way to closing its doors. Attendance was down, the track had lost its traditional Labor Day race and had been saddled with the undesirable Mother's Day date, which seemed a setup for failure.

But lights were installed in 2004. The last three races there were sellouts, and "The Lady in Black" is hot again.

"It's made Darlington more special," said Jake Harris, the track's director of public relations.

Not just Darlington, but Daytona, too. Lights have given the July race there an identity of its own, one that differentiates it from the Daytona 500.

Chicagoland Speedway is hoping lights will have a similar impact on its race. This past offseason, International Speedway Corp., which owns the track, footed a reported $12 million to put up lights for a night race in July.

This isn't to say lights are a foolproof way to success. California Speedway runs under the lights on one of the more desirable dates, Labor Day, in the country's second largest market, and yet every year it struggles to fill the stands.

But California is the exception to a rule that most would agree has only benefited the sport, which leads to the question: Are there more night races on the horizon?

Currently on the Sprint Cup schedule there are 10 true night races at eight tracks. (This doesn't include races like the season-ending event at Homestead-Miami Speedway that starts under the sun but ends under the lights.) According to NASCAR, there are no current plans to add more night races.

But if they were to add more, there are several tracks where night racing would seemingly be a no-brainer, most notably Las Vegas (which already has lights) and Dover.

Other tracks where lights might work include Atlanta (which already has lights and is hampered by lagging attendance), Martinsville, Talladega (can you say, party?), New Hampshire (remember, Bruton Smith is in control now), Indianapolis (it'll never happen) and Texas (which also has lights).

Saturday night's show will be only the fourth run under lights at Phoenix International Raceway. The fall event here, the penultimate race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, will be run during the day. But it shouldn't be.

As fascinating as it is seeing the lights flicker off the bodies of the cars, as cool as it is watching the brakes spew flames out from underneath them, and as lathered as one can get thanks to the extra few hours of tailgating, NASCAR has to consider adding more night races if for no other reason than to move out of the shadow cast by the NFL on Sundays in the fall.

That's one more reason to turn the lights on.