By Jerry Bonkowski
I’m not one to create – let alone spread – rumors. I’m also not the type of person to kick someone or something when they’re down.
But I have to really wonder about Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race at Dover Motor Speedway (formerly Dover International Speedway). Speedway Motorsports Inc. quietly purchased the one-mile all-concrete track after the 2021 season.
And now, come Sunday, we will have the second straight year where Dover holds just one race per season, after hosting two races per season from 1971 through 2020.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Dover (known in those days as Dover Downs International Speedway) was the biggest NASCAR track on the Eastern seaboard. Its seating capacity was a very stout 135,000 – and countless Cup races sold out.
But since about 2004 or 2005, something has happened to Dover that leaves me less than excited or positive-minded about its future. To put it bluntly, fans just seem to have forgotten about the old girl, with the track seeing many Cup races in recent years that have barely been half-full in attendance.
Even though the racetrack is attached to a great hotel and casino – which should be an automatic lure to bring fans through the gates – such has not been the case. I honestly cannot think of when the last sellout was at Dover.
What’s more, those 135,000 seats? The capacity is now said to “officially” be 95,000, but I’d be more inclined to believe a number closer to 75,000, maybe even less.
Sure, Speedway Motorsports Inc. came in and rescued the place by purchasing it last November. But something in the pit of my gut just keeps saying whether SMI’s long-range future plan truly includes Dover.
Instead, I’m really wondering whether Dover may go the way of North Wilkesboro Speedway. After SMI purchased half of the latter place in 1996, it promptly shut the track down and moved one of its two Cup race dates to Texas for the brand spanking new Texas Motor Speedway the following year. North Wilkesboro’s other Cup date went to New Hampshire International Speedway to give it a second race date per season.
Or how about the way SMI took away the lone Cup race date from Kentucky Speedway (after just 10 Cup events there from 2011-2020) and moved the date back to Atlanta Motor Speedway, to once again give the latter track two race dates per year (as a prelude to its redesign and repaving after last season)?
And even though SMI doesn’t own it (NASCAR still does, at least for now), let’s not forget Chicagoland Speedway, which has not seen a Cup race – let alone ANY NASCAR race – since 2019, and likely never will again.
It’s expected that CLS (and the adjacent Route 66 Raceway dragstrip) will be torn down sometime this summer to make way for a combination of several large industrial warehouses, as well as the reported construction of a massive 1.6-million square foot Amazon Distribution Center.
The reason is simple: the warehouses bring in a lot more tax dollars for the city of Joliet, Illinois, than Chicagoland and Route 66 ever could.
Honestly, I have a strong suspicion that what is now known as Dover Motor Speedway potentially may be hosting its final NASCAR race (and first one under its new name) this Sunday, and that SMI will then take Dover’s lone remaining Cup date and move it elsewhere.
Where, you might ask? I wouldn’t be surprised if Dover’s lone remaining Cup race date is shifted in 2023 to the 118-year-old Fairgrounds Speedway in downtown Nashville.
Dover already moved one of its two Cup race dates to Nashville Superspeedway – about 35 miles from Fairgrounds Speedway – last year (several months before Dover’s sale to SMI).
Here’s where it gets somewhat complicated: Even though it has a four-year deal through 2024 to host a Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway (in suburban Lebanon, Tenn.), SMI has also been trying to host a race at Nashville's downtown Fairgrounds Speedway for the last several years.
After considerable political pushback and wrangling, it appears we’ll see NASCAR also racing at the Fairgrounds as early as next year (pending a significant and quick capital improvement program).
And if that happens, it appears Dover’s history of hosting NASCAR from 1969 through 2022 will come to a quiet, almost whimper-like end, just like we’ve seen at North Wilkesboro, Kentucky and Chicagoland (although to its credit, SMI is bringing North Wilkesboro back and rejuvenating it for local short track racing starting later this year, with a major repave heading into 2023).
While I’d love to be wrong about Dover Motor Speedway’s future, I’ve been around the racing world far too long to not see what I consider the rather obvious signs. So, if you’re fortunate enough to visit DMS in-person this weekend or just watch Sunday’s race on TV, let’s hope it’s a last race to remember, rather than a last one to forget.
If you don’t fully believe my prognostication here, let’s go back to last November when, shortly after the sale of Dover International Speedway to SMI was announced, NASCAR president Steve Phelps made a VERY telling prognostication of his own.
Phelps may not have mentioned Dover or Nashville or other places by name, but his words didn’t have to – the implication was already there: “I don’t know what the ’23 schedule is going to look like, but I know it’s not going to look like the ’22 schedule.”
That raises yet another question: can Music City support Cup races at two different tracks in the same season? But that’s a query for another time and place. Not to mention provide a storyline and lyrics for a potentially great country and western song.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski