Tradition, Racing Excitement Lost In NASCAR Labor Day California Cup Snoozer

The face in Victory Lane was the same ? that?s where the similarity stopped.

Jimmie Johnson won the Sharp Aquos 500 at California Speedway Sunday evening, but it wasn?t the last time he took home the trophy in a traditional NASCAR Labor Day event.

That came three years ago when the Hendrick Motorsports driver captured the final running of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Johnson?s victories all but bookend a tumultuous three years since NASCAR decided to end one of its oldest traditions moving its Labor Day event from the sand hills of South Carolina to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

To say the move has been a disaster for both NASCAR and its fan base is an understatement.

The Southern 500 at Darlington was first run in 1950 and was at the core of NASCAR?s soul. To many in the garage area, the fabled event was more important than winning the Daytona 500. A win on the ultra-tough, 1.366-mile Darlington oval was a badge of honor. Just to be able to compete there was a highlight on any racer?s resume.

The fans embraced Darlington?s traditions as well. Despite sweltering southern heat, they turned out in droves each year to support the event. Infield parties were legendary, just like the driver?s who mastered the egg-shaped track.

As the ?new? NASCAR evolved in the 1990s, Darlington became a less attractive venue for the sanctioning body. Forget the track wasn?t in a metropolitan location with mega media appeal ? Darlington was stuck in the heart of Dixie and represented all that was the ?old South? ? a label NASCAR was desperately trying to shake.

The new south, as in Southern California, seemed like a much more attractive locale and a better fit for the emerging sport. Movie stars and palm trees were a far more politically correct image to be showing the nation than palmettos and rebel flags.

So it came to be that on November 14, 2004, Johnson found himself standing in Victory Lane celebrating a win in what would come to be the final Southern 500. Part of a 2004 NASCAR scheduling realignment program that year, California was awarded the traditional Labor Day date (that race courtesy of Rockingham) in addition to its regular spring event.

Meanwhile, the Southern 500 was relegated to the next to last race of the 2004 campaign. One year later, the Southern 500 faded into history and the record books ? a 54-year tradition cast aside.

Since then, the California Labor Day NASCAR event has struggled. Crowds have been disappointing ? Sunday?s throng was an ?estimated? 85,000 ? probably not the real number – and hardly something to point to after drawing nearly twice that many to a track one-fourth the size of California a week earlier at Bristol.

Meanwhile, television ratings have also been dismal. Sanctioning body public relations people and media apologists alike have tried to explain why the race hasn?t been a success citing everything from multiple other events in the area (this year it was college football contests, professional baseball games and a Beyonce? concert to name a few) to the fact there are five Cup races in the area each season (two at California, two in Phoenix, one in Vegas).

Perhaps the real reason is that the races at California Speedway just aren?t compelling. Whereas every lap at Darlington was an edge of your seat experience, Cup races like the one at California Sunday night are not. Seven caution flags in the first 100 laps made Sunday?s event a pit stop contest and an even bigger snoozer. When the cars weren?t on pit road, they whizzed around the track rarely racing each other despite the oval having multiple grooves.

Throw in the fact the event came to its conclusion just short of midnight Eastern Time thanks to a television mandated 8:18 p.m. green flag start, and there just wasn?t enough action to keep the rabid NASCAR fan much less the average viewer/fan interested.

While Johnson?s win at California gave him a leg up in this year?s NASCAR Nextel Chase For The Championship (another self-inflicted, ill-conceived aberration of the sport), we?re betting here another Southern 500 trophy sitting on his mantle would be more satisfying to the driver ? especially when his driving days are over.

Unfortunately for Johnson and the rest of us, those days are in the past.

The Southern 500 ? one of NASCAR?s greatest traditions – has been left in the dust, exchanged for a lifeless, boring race and a chase for California television, media and marketing gold. For all its success in recent years, NASCAR swung and missed on this one.

Maybe they?ll remember that the next time they decide to mess with tradition.

Last Call ?

Lost in the media notes last week was the announcement that Hoosier Tires had extended its agreement with ARCA (Auto Racing Club of America) as the official tire provider of the division through the 2011 season.

While not an earth-shattering business announcement, the fact the long-time racing tire producer is going to provide radial short-track tires to the division is interesting. Through this season, ARCA has campaigned Hoosier radial tires on all tracks one-mile and longer (except for the two dirt races at Springfield and DuQuion) and bias-ply meats for the short tracks. The new short-track radial tire, currently in development and production, will debut next season.

Given the longtime competition and financial association between Goodyear and NASCAR, don?t look for Hoosier to try to buck its way into the Cup, Busch or Truck Series ranks anytime soon. But the new full line up of radials for all track distances ? along with less involvement in the company from the now 80-year-old plus founder Bob Newton – could eventually lead to Hoosier being an even bigger player in world of auto racing tires.

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