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Winning traditions: Southern Sports Events

Courtesy Atlanta CVB

During the last weekend of October or the first weekend of November every year, Jacksonville, Fla., becomes the focal point of the South’s favorite sport: college football.

More than 84,000 fans pour into Jacksonville’s Municipal Stadium for the Florida vs. Georgia Football Classic — or the Georgia vs. Florida Football Classic, depending on which is the home team. The game has become one of the country’s favorite collegiate rivalries.

“This game has been held in Jacksonville every year since 1933, except in 1994 and ’95 when the new stadium was under construction,” said Lyndsay Rossman, senior director of corporate communications for Visit Jacksonville. “You don’t have to be a fan of Florida or Georgia to enjoy the game; it’s always a great time.”

The spirit of fun and competition that fills the air at this annual game is part of the South’s love affair with sports. Whether it’s high school, college, minor league or professional, Southerners love watching and playing sports.

Travelers to the South can join in the fun by attending games, races and other sporting events throughout the region or even playing themselves. Experience one of these six iconic Southern sports experiences during your next trip.

Florida vs. Georgia Football Classic
Jacksonville, Fla.

The Florida-Georgia game is so popular that many Jacksonville locals have trouble landing tickets, although Rossman says that groups with ties to alumni associations or booster clubs have a chance of getting seats. But even for those who don’t, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the game and the days of festivities that surround it.

              Courtesy Visit Jacksonville

“It’s a weeklong event, with all sorts of things taking place during that week,” Rossman said. “People will come and sort of squat a little bit.”

One of the interesting places for groups to visit is RV City, an area where hundreds of people bring recreational vehicles to camp and tailgate in the days leading up to the game. There is live music throughout the area, as well as a competition where owners decorate their vehicles in Florida or Georgia garb to show their school spirit.

On game day, groups can enjoy the fun outside the stadium at the Championship Dreams Festival.

“This takes place outside the stadium, beyond the south end zone,” Rossman said. “There are Jumbotrons there for people who want to hang out and watch the game. They also have football throwing games, food vendors, autograph sessions and a place where you can have your picture taken with the Heisman trophy.”

Lexington, Ky.

The great sporting heritage of Kentucky is thoroughbred horse racing. Although the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville has become a world-famous event, groups can enjoy live racing action at a number of tracks throughout the state at various times of year.

               Courtesy Lexington CVB

There may be no more traditional place to attend the races than Lexington’s Keeneland race course, where the sport of kings has been practiced in all its pomp for more than 70 years.

“Keeneland is largely unchanged from when it was first built,” said Dennis Johnston, vice president of sales at the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The outriders are all dressed in uniform, which you don’t see at other tracks. And it’s the only track in America that still has a live call to the post for every race.”

During the meets, held in April and October, a day at Keeneland is a great activity for groups, which can get reserved grandstand seating and other special amenities. Many receptive operators and step-on guides in Lexington will accompany visitors to the races and teach them how to bet.

Even when meets are not in session, groups can visit Keeneland to admire its pastoral grounds and landscaping and to take a guided tour of the track.

“The guides take you in and show you the track and give you a lot of the history and folklore that surrounds it,” Johnston said. “You also see the grandstands and the paddock area.”

Indy Grand Prix of Alabama
Birmingham, Ala.

Starting this year, the Indy Racing League comes to Birmingham for a series of three annual races that local officials hope will lead to a long-term racing tradition. The Grand Prix of Alabama will bring tens of thousands of fans from across the country to Birmingham’s Barber Motorsports Park and will introduce a different style of auto racing to Southerners.

          Courtesy Barber Motorsports Park

“Down here, you’ve got NASCAR going around in ovals, but this is completely different,” said David Galbaugh, director of sports sales and marketing for the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a road-racing track with 17 turns and an 80-foot change of elevation around the track. You have great vantage points from the different curves.”

Racing fans can meander to various places around the track, watching the action from a variety of different angles. They can also visit the paddock area, where they can see the race control headquarters and checkered flag.

While at the race or when visiting on nonrace days, groups can take a spin through the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. This track hosts a number of motorcycle races throughout the year, and the museum has plenty of racing bikes on display.

“Coupled with the track, you have the museum, which has 1,000-plus motorcycles,” Galbaugh said. “From what I understand, it’s the largest motorcycle collection in the world. There’s a working garage inside the museum, and it looks out over the racetrack.”

Audubon Golf Trail

Throughout Louisiana, visitors who come for food, history or Mardi Gras can also enjoy a round of golf at one of the courses on the state’s Audubon Golf Trail. Created in 2001, the trail highlights high-quality golf courses to visitors already in the state.

        Courtesy Louisiana Office of Travel

“The genesis of the trail came through the state tourism department,” said Eric Kaspar, director of the Audubon Golf Trail. “We recognized all the great amenities that the state had to offer and wanted to feature our golf courses as well. Our motto is ‘Great golf among other things.’”

The trail started with six courses and has since grown to 12 courses. Much of that growth is due to new courses opening between 2003 and 2006, which means there’s quite a variety of well-maintained, high-quality courses for golfers to enjoy.

The courses also feature an array of different environmental surroundings, some of which bear distinctive characteristics of their geographical areas.

“We have bears that are seen quite frequently on the courses in north Louisiana,” Kaspar said. “In south Louisiana, a lot of the courses have wetland features, like cypress trees or swamp lands. And if you go down to Audubon Park in the garden district of New Orleans, there’s spanish moss draping from the trees around every green.”

NASCAR’s hometown
Charlotte, N.C.

Racing fans know there’s no place like Charlotte for NASCAR action. Many of the sport’s top race teams are headquartered in and around Charlotte, and fans can attend a number of signature races at Lowe’s Motor Speedway throughout the year.

“We like to say that NASCAR was born here,” said Laura Hill, marketing and communications manager for Visit Charlotte. “With dozens of race shops headquartered here, like Dale Earnhardt Inc. or Raceworld USA, ride-alongs in real stock cars at the Richard Petty Driving Experience and the shrine to the sport’s heroes at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, there’s certainly a lot to take in.”

Racing begins in May with the NASCAR Sprint All Star Race, which features the most successful race teams on the circuit. Over Memorial Day weekend, the Coca-Cola 600 takes place, treating fans to the longest NASCAR race in the country. In October, drivers return for the NASCAR Banking 500, a night race that also serves as the fall homecoming for Charlotte-based crews.

In May, the NASCAR Hall of Fame will open in downtown Charlotte, giving visitors an unprecedented look at the sport.

“There will be a hall of honor, but it’s going to be more interactive,” Hill said. “There will be racing simulators and pit crew experiences. Visitors will get a key card when they arrive, and that will activate a lot of the exhibits for them.”

Atlanta Braves

Great summer weather, an abundance of games and affordable tickets still make baseball one of the most popular sports for groups to attend. And in the South, there is no major league team more popular than the Atlanta Braves.

When groups go to Turner Field for a game today, they’ll find a lot more than just baseball. A variety of special amenities and activities help turn the ballgame into a multifaceted entertainment experience.

“One thing that’s popular with groups is all-you-can-eat seats,” said Paul Adams, senior director of ticket sales for the Braves. “For as low as $35, they’ll sit in lower-level seats and get unlimited access to burgers, nachos, french fries, soda, frozen treats and water.”

Fans interested in baseball history can visit the on-site Braves museum, with artifacts such as seats from the old stadium, the 1995 championship trophy and a train car used by the original Milwaukee Braves. Before the games or on days when there are no games, groups can come for a behind-the-scenes tour of the ballpark.

“You get to see the press box and a suite, go through the Braves clubhouse and sit in the dugout,” Adams said. “We have tours every day of the year, so some groups will take a tour and then come back later for the game.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.