As has been the case with sporting events across the board, the Southern Nationals have been cancelled due to safety concerns with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The event, slated for May 15-17 at the Atlanta Dragway in Commerce, was removed from the schedule by the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) as it reduced its top competition series from 24 to 19 events in response to the public health crisis.
Based on past years’ ticket sales, between 60,000-75,000 fans were expected to attend the Southern Nationals over the course of three days.
“All indications were with our early tickets sales that we were well on track to see that type of crowd this year,” said Kasey Coler, the NHRA’s vice president of track management and operations. “So, that’s the tough part. We don’t get to have the professional drag racers come through Atlanta only but once a year, so it’s not like there’s a fall date that they can fall back on.”
“We know we’ve got a lot of disappointed fans,” Coler added.
Coler said no reschedule dates were available “that would work within the overall calendar.”
This was to mark the 40th year of the event, so the NHRA had planned to celebrate the moment. Coler said the NHRA will put added emphasis on the Atlanta Draway’s Night of Fire on June 27, noting “a long tradition there” with that event.
The NHRA will honor the 40th anniversary next year when the Southern Nationals return.
Coler said the NHRA was forced to make a tough call about the Southern Nationals several weeks out, not knowing what the status of the COVID-19 outbreak might look like in mid-May. Coler noted that while most fans drive in for the event, others would have to make more involved plans in advance. About 20 percent of attendees fly in for the Southern Nationals and book hotel rooms.
“It’s really unfair to them to be hanging them out there waiting to make a decision … so I think we tried to make the responsible decision of saying, ‘Look, let’s not make this a 25th-hour decision. Let’s do the sensible thing,’” Coler said.
While the Southern Nationals have been scrapped, the Atlanta Dragway is tentatively set to re-start its schedule on April 17, about a month before the Southern Nationals were set to run.
Those hope is that smaller events can resume, even though the Southern Nationals — with its vastly larger crowds — have been cancelled in advance.
“These are smaller, grassroot type of events,” Coler said. “So, it’s not 60,000-70,000 in the grandstands. But we do recognize that it’s more than 10-15 people, so we’re going to make the smart and right decision when we get closer to that date.”
To that end, the April 17 re-start date is being examined closely.
“We’re certainly taking that as an hour-by-hour, day-by-day approach of working with local authorities, understanding where the state stands and each of the markets that we race in,” Coler said.
As for the cancellation of the Southern Nationals, Coler stressed the difficulty of the decision and said the NHRA “is strongly committed to the Commerce and Atlanta Dragway markets.”
“Drag racing and the sport is extremely important to us,” he said. “We know that this is unforeseen circumstance. It was not an easy decision, I can guarantee you that. We did anything and everything we possibly could to try to make that event work with the parameters we were stuck with.”
Coler added that he’s “excited” the plans being put in place for the 2021 event.
NOTES: Tickets for this year’s Southern Nationals may be used at the 2021 event or may be exchanged for the Night of Fire (for further inquiries, contact NHRA ticket services at 800-884-6472 or firstname.lastname@example.org).