Atlanta track owner promises exciting race or he'll pay up

Posted: Wednesday, September 04, 2002

HAMPTON, Ga. -- The window behind Ed Clark's desk provides a daily view of his greatest, never-ending challenge: filling every seat at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.

While the massive 124,000-seat facility is considered one of the benchmarks of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, it presents 124,000 obstacles to clear, 124,000 ways to make a sales pitch.

From his office in the towering Tara Place Condominiums above the fourth turn, Clark can see so much potential for his raceway. At the same time, he sees a myriad of problems to solve.

Traffic, parking and the economy are constant hurdles. So is the nature of competition or the lack thereof on the Winston Cup Series. A dirty restroom, a cold hot dog an unhappy ticket-taker can all destroy a year's worth of work and planning.

''It's not as easy as it used to be,'' said Clark, president and general manager of the track. ''There are so many things to consider these days, things you never thought about five years ago. Everybody's got a race now, so the only way you've succeeded is when on Monday, when that fan goes to work, they tell everybody what a good time they had on Sunday. That's when we've done our job.''

To enhance the speedway's chances of making a lasting impression, work will soon start on a road-widening project that will link the raceway with Interstate 75. Clark also is behind proposed legislation that would outlaw price-gouging by hotels during special events.

And if that wasn't enough, he's decided to do what no other racetrack would dare: to offer a refund if the NAPA 500 on Oct. 27 if it's not one of the most-competitive races of the year.

While individual tickets something Clarks calls ''twos and fours'' are the cornerstone of every speedway's success, the glut of corporate tickets often give a venue its margin of success.

Now that Corporate America is struggling, racing has lost that margin. The huge blocks of tickets once bought by business now are being peddled, two and four at a time, to the everyday fan.

And unlike the corporate fan, who is being rewarded for patronage or future business, the everyday fan is far more particular, especially since it generally takes a week's pay to attend a race.

While most speedways seem content with counting their money in the off-season, Clark and his staff have spent months working on ways for the NAPA 500 to distinguish itself from the other 35 regular-season races on the schedule.

The promise of 30 lead changes was a bold move, especially for a racetrack that's averaged only 27 lead changes a race in the last 10 events. Fans will get a $1 refund for every lead change less than 30, meaning if there are only 26 changes, everyone will get $4 off the purchase of next year's tickets.

''We're so confident that the NAPA 500 will be a thrilling race full of action and passing that if it's not everything we say it is, we'll give ticket buyers a discount on next year's race. It's a win-win proposition for the fans. Either they'll see one of the best races of their lives, or they'll save money on future race tickets.''

Only one of the first 24 races has featured at least 30 lead changes this year the MBNA America 500 at Atlanta in March. That race had 34 lead changes among eight drivers.

Clark has long been concerned about the growing prices of hotel rooms during a race weekend. For example, rooms that now rent for $49 a night on the Las Vegas Boulevard are being advertised for as much as $335 a night for next year's race.

Clark's staff has spent more than 18 months calling most of the area hotels to compare prices between nonracing weekends and racing weekends. What they found was alarming.

''We found places that charge $49 a night raising their prices to $250 a night during race weekend, and that's just not right,'' Clark said.

His staff, however, has compiled a long list of hotels that offer reasonable rates. In exchange, the speedway's Web site ( lists those hotels to make it easy for a family planning a trip.

''The twos and fours are the heart and soul of our business,'' Clark said. ''That's a lot of twos and fours when you consider 124,000 seats.''

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