What NASCAR and Tech Football Have in Common
by Jim Alderson, 4/20/04

Itís Spring Game time! Tech fans get to take a break from studying NFL draft projections and arrest reports and spring into action by actually watching something that is a passable rendition of football, at least for this time of year. At a football school like Tech, the annual spring football fling has become something of a social event. Spring football provides a backdrop for what has become the far more interesting aspect of the weekend, the Spring Game tailgate.

The coaches might show a marked disinterest in playing the game and approach the afternoon with the prime motivation of showing nothing and getting it over as soon as possible, but not the fans. Tens of thousands will gather to get in some solid tailgate practice, the most avid of which will be me, as I get to partake of an icy adult beverage provided by Hokie Kev and others who finished far behind Hokie Jay and me in our annual NCAA Basketball Tournament pool. The beer always tastes better when somebody else is paying for it.

The Tech game is being staged at a later date than most of our ACC neighbors. The Hoos held their annual Football Festivus last Saturday before that whopping crowd of over 8,000 people. The airing of grievances by algroh seemed to center mostly on his squadís pronounced lack of an NFL quarterback. NC State held their game on the same Saturday as the NCAA Tournament semi-finals, as Chuck Amato correctly determined that Wolfpack fans would have nothing else to occupy their attention on that day.

Last Saturday would certainly have been a great day on which to hold Techís game; the weather was marvelous. Forecasts for this Saturday seem to mention rain. Oh, well, itís not like Tech fans havenít seen worse. When youíve done a hurricane what are a few rain showers?

I suspect a reason, if not the reason, for Techís game being held this Saturday instead of last is that there was another event held in the region last weekend, the NASCAR race at Martinsville. Over 90,000 people gathered to watch the race and were treated to the added bonus of sitting in the hot sun for almost ninety minutes watching cement dry. While some might argue that watching cement or paint or any other kind of construction material dry perfectly captures the competitive essence and excitement of NASCAR, those who attended the race didnít think so. Races at Martinsville have become an enormous contributor to the economy of Southside Virginia. Motels in Danville were packed for the weekend and finding a table in a local restaurant or stool at a bar was a very dicey proposition.

I had occasion to venture to the local Wal-mart Saturday morning and the sense of dťjŗ vu was powerful as I gazed at the forest of recreational vehicles that dominated the end of the lot that normally contains very few cars. I thought I was at Tech and began searching for a silver Airstream to receive my game day morning adult beverage of choice, a Bloody Mary. I didnít find the RV but did procure my vodka and tomato juice fix from a couple from New Jersey who were every bit as friendly as most everybody I encounter at Tech football games. They found the stranger from Virginia quite receptive to their gracious offer of, "Would you like a drink?" I have succeeded in tailgating before shopping.

My hosts were teachers, both graduates of Trenton State and were indulging in one of their two passions, NASCAR and Giants football. Like most everyone else from the Garden State they exhibited little interest in Rutgers football, offering only that "they sure lose a lot" but were aware that Virginia Tech has a pretty good program and is located somewhere in the vicinity of Martinsville and Danville. When you have driven ten hours on a Friday night from New Jersey to Virginia, Blacksburg could be considered to be Ďin the vicinityí of Danville.

The continuing windfall for the area hospitality industry, among others, that is provided by the Martinsville races is in question, as news stories throughout the week speculated as to whether the small track located in a small market could continue to operate two NASCAR races each year. They were stories I found quite familiar. NASCAR has experienced a building boom as new tracks have sprung up all around the country, every one in what is considered a major media market. The old tracks situated around Virginia and North Carolina that were the backbone of NASCAR are feeling pressure as the new tracks make demands for the limited resource of NASCAR race dates. The venerable old track at North Wilkesboro has already been consigned to the NASCAR dust bin and many people want Martinsville to be next. It sounds very much like the big media argument made during the conference expansion wars.

As NASCAR marches to the big cities they are finding two things have popped up: empty seats and declining television ratings. Few of the new tracks in the big media markets are selling out, instead resembling Boston Collegeís Alumni Stadium during a football game. Like BC sports in Boston, few people in the big cities care about NASCAR. The new tracks, all similar in their design, are not conducive to exciting racing either, even for those who actually like the sport. Their one racing groove leads to very little actual racing, instead a parade of cars circling the track in single file prominently displaying the names of sponsors. This is creating a lack of excitement that does not translate into high television ratings. These are the same reasons Fredo rarely finds himself on ESPN unless he is playing Tech, and then usually only if the game provides the excellent theatre of being played in the charged Lane Stadium atmosphere.

The problem of lack of interest is definitely not a problem at Martinsville. Unlike NASCAR racing or college football in big cities, where the sport is simply another choice among many entertainment ones, racing weekends dominate Martinsville and the nearby towns exactly as Tech football game days dominate Blacksburg and environs. There are not many places outside of Martinsville and the SEC where a town of 15,000 can grow by 90,000 on a single afternoon.

An argument made during ACC expansion was the economic impact Tech football has on the New River Valley, which is enormous for an area no larger than it is. That simply could not be sacrificed with Tech being relegated to a lesser athletics existence in CUSA or the Liíl E. The same holds true for Southside Virginia and NASCAR. It is the Tech football for the area. For a region that struggles with mounting unemployment and absorbs one economic body blow after another, it is vital that the tourist dollars injected into the area continue. Perhaps NASCAR needs to be reminded, as was the ACC, that it is not always the market.

Now, I will grant you this column has had precious little to do with Tech football and much to do with economic development for a region of the state whose economy is markedly different from the bustling ones of NOVA or Hampton Roads. The economic lifeblood of Southside Virginia has traditionally centered on tobacco, textiles and furniture and none of those industries has a bright future, to say the least. The area is attempting an economic transformation and Tech is heavily involved in the effort, being a major player in the establishment in Danville of the eDan, a high-speed Internet hub that one day just might turn our area into a major Internet player and change a future that looks a lot like it will involve increasing hand-outs from the rest of the state. The tourist dollars brought into the region by NASCAR racing at Martinsville are another piece of the puzzle. Tech football is a huge economic engine for the New River Valley, injecting a lot of dollars into the economy. Martinsville NASCAR races do the same for Southside and it is important to us that they continue. One takes his soap boxes where he can find them and this is mine.

Enjoy the game this weekend, and anybody upset that I have used my corner of TSL to attempt to raise awareness about economic development in my area of Virginia can feel free to raise their objections to me at the tailgate. Hopefully they will be accompanied with an icy adult beverage; the couple from New Jersey discovered that I never turn them down. See you at the Spring Game.

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