More Than Just A Race
by Pete McCole

August 23, 2002

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Make The Winston more than just a race, make it hot.
Photo: Autostock

Lowe’s Motor Speedway will get one more shot to prove NASCAR’s all-star race should stay in Charlotte.

Officials from NASCAR and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. announced this week the 2003 running of The Winston, NASCAR Winston Cup racing's annual all-star event, will return to Lowe's Motor Speedway. The event, scheduled for Saturday night, May 17, will mark the 18th time in 19 years that the non-points special event has been run at the 1.5-mile superspeedway.

“R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and its Winston brand are pleased The Winston is returning to Lowe's Motor Speedway in 2003," said Ned Leary, president of Sports Marketing Enterprises (SME) at RJR.  "We have had a very productive partnership with the track and its location is convenient for our employees and the SME team.’

The good news for the Charlotte area comes with a catch.

“The cities of Charlotte, N.C., Concord, N.C., and other surrounding communities have answered the challenge to take The Winston to the next level ... to make it more than just a race.” Leary said, “Now, with the support of the area communities, the vision to make NASCAR's all-star event a spectacle unequaled in sports can become a reality."

“The objective is bold - make The Winston an all-star spectacle unequaled in sports. That's the challenge.”

A challenge that Lowe’s Motor Speedway president and general manager H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler and the staff at LMS are ready to take on.

“Obviously we are pleased with NASCAR and RJR's decision to bring The Winston back to Lowe's Motor Speedway where it belongs,” said Wheeler. “I think we made a strong statement in May for keeping the event with a record crowd and a great race weekend.”

“The fans and participants really stepped up and showed their support for keeping the event right here. Fortunately their voices were heard loud and clear and we appreciate their support.”

The Winston has been held at Lowe’s (formerly Charlotte) Motor Speedway every year since 1985, except for 1986 when the event was held at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The race was originally envisioned to travel to a different venue each year, much like the all-star events in the NBA and Major League Baseball.

Poor attendance prompted the race to move back to Charlotte in 1987, where Wheeler and the speedway staff pioneered many innovations to keep the race fresh and exciting, such as adding lights to the track to run the race at night, field inversions and an elimination-style format that debuted last year.

Last year’s record purse of $3 million made The Winston the richest race in motorsports, as well as the most attended, bringing in over 150,000 fans.

Wheeler has higher expectations for The Winston in 2003.

Rusty Wallace did his part to add some sparks to The Winston earlier this year.
Photo: Autostock

“Along with our partners at Winston, we have a lot of sweat equity in this event and plan to make it even bigger and better in 2003.” Wheeler said, “With strong support from Charlotte and Concord civic leaders, we have the opportunity to take this all-star event to a level that will be the envy of cities which host other major sporting events across the country.”

Still fresh from the sting of losing the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets to New Orleans, Charlotte can’t afford to lose another of the area’s biggest sports draws. The Winston and the Coca-Cola 600 are two of the most attended races on the circuit.

Beyond the attendance figures, and the revenue the speedway would lose, there’s also a good argument to make that losing The Winston would have a huge economical impact on area business, perhaps an even larger impact than losing the Hornets. The Winston anchors two weeks worth of events held at the speedway that pumps millions of dollars into the local economy

Fear of losing The Winston has prompted local city leaders to pledge money and support into the event.

Wheeler is not only looking for support from city officials, but from fans as well, to help persuade NASCAR and R.J. Reynolds to keep The Winston in Charlotte through 2004 and beyond.

“In the past, Charlotte and surrounding communities have put their best foot forward in hosting the NCAA Final Four and the NBA All Star game.” Wheeler said, “We're looking for that type of effort for The Winston. I look forward to seeing event flags on every street lamp in Charlotte and Concord, banners at the airports, billboards along the highways and race week events that will truly make the Charlotte-Concord area 'Racing's Vacation Destination' for fans across the country.”

“If we do it right, those 10 days in May will have the biggest economic impact in the history of our area's tourism.”

One major point for keeping the race at Lowe’s is that many Winston Cup teams, drivers, owners, and crew members live in the Charlotte area, most of them within an hour of Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Holding The Winston in Charlotte, along with the Coca-Cola 600 being run the following week at LMS, allows the teams the chance to stay at home with their families, rather than spend yet another weekend on the road – a widely favored respite during the hectic 36-event Winston Cup season.

“I can't think of a better place to have The Winston than at Lowe's Motor Speedway,” said Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet. “The NASCAR Winston Cup season is one of the longest professional sports seasons in the world. Staging The Winston in Charlotte, where a lot of the teams call home, is almost like a week off because we get to stay at home and spend more time with family and friends.

“It might not seem like a big deal to have one more weekend on the road, but when you have 36 points events, two special events and a handful of testing dates, that's a lot of time away from home and your family. Having The Winston return to Lowe's Motor Speedway just means a great deal to the teams.”

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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