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Atlanta may be dark this week, so what's going on elsewhere for NASCAR men?

  Showman extraordinare: Michael Waltrip....who has shown that NASCAR racing is more than just what goes on out there on the track (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


  So it's an 'off-week' for NASCAR men?
  So Michael Waltrip is flying to France to test for June's 24 Hours of Le Mans, and maybe try to sell a few copies – has it been translated yet into French? - of his New York Times best-seller "In the blink of an eye." After hosting "The Michael Waltrip Comedy Garage" at Las Vegas' Mirage….

  Not NASCAR dude is venturing that far afield. Some are even further from home: Travis Pastrana, perhaps the most unusual promotional move Waltrip has ever made, is taking this break – for him a bit longer – to take his extreme sports game to Australia, after a gig in New Zealand. Pastrana fashions himself as a NASCAR racer eventually, planning his Nationwide tour debut in Indianapolis July 30th; he just ran a K&N Pro event at Phoenix, and his second will be April 28th at Richmond.
   The Waltrip operation may be short on wins (David Reutimann's Chicago victory last summer was most recent) but for sheer colorful marketing and promotion, Darrell's kid brother is nonpareil.
    And Michael will be back on NASCAR track for next week's stop at Bristol (remember? http://bit.ly/fAYA9v )

   The NASCAR tour should be in Atlanta this weekend for spring's annual Atlanta 500, but it's not. The track is dark; the tour is dark.
   What that might do to the moment stock car racing has built in the opening weeks of the season, with big crowds again, and rising TV ratings will be seen in the coming weeks when the Sprint Cup tour gets back in action with a five-week run from Bristol, Tenn., to Los Angeles to Martinsville to Texas and to Talladega before taking an Easter break.

     Nope, that's not Bruton Smith in hardhat, presiding over the next greatest thing at Charlotte Motor Speedway: it's his son Marcus, the new boss at the legendary NASCAR track (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Breaks are rare in this sport, so these guys better enjoy what they've got. After Easter stock car men return to work for a 12-week stretch, until tour's only remaining break in late July. From then, it's 17 straight weeks of action, right through till Thanksgiving.
   Closer to home for most of these guys, Charlotte Motor Speedway will host something like the next best thing to a race – all the midway fun and shenanigans.
   And Marcus Smith, who runs the Charlotte track and the rest of Bruton Smith's coast to coast empire, says the state of the sport of NASCAR, as spring blooms, continues getting better:  "We have everything going in the right direction right now. TV ratings up….the crowds are good.
   "And when you think about the macro economy, the jobs report was better than expected.
   "We're starting to see numbers that are positive, and after a couple years of negatives, it's great to see things going up.
   "TV ratings show that NASCAR is a strong, strong sport television. And attendance is very good."
   But this off weekend?

    Marcus Smith may not have the showmanship flare of his oh-so-famous father Bruton, but he's got game plans and game plans and game plans. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Worried about losing momentum?
   "The good thing is that NASCAR decided to change the Daytona 500 (to eliminate that off-week) for next year," Smith says.
    "This race this year is actually a week later than it was last year, which has made a big difference in the weather; we've got great weather, and next year, a week even later, we should we just perfect. And we won't have to worry about the off-weekend, so it will be a nice flow for the fans."

   Charlotte Saturday 'open-house' will include shuttles from the track to the local race shops. "To have a time when fans come to track and do some rides, and have some fun," Smith says. "Why not do something that will be fun, and the teams have jumped on board. And the Hall of Fame is teaming up too."
   Having sold 150,000 or so tickets to Sunday's Sprint Cup event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, next up for Smith is selling those 160,000 Bristol seats.
   And then selling another 150,000 or so for April's race in Fort Worth, Texas....and then the two weeks of May at Charlotte Motor Speedway itself.
   Little wonder that Smith is hot on the stump promoting, promoting, promoting….and trumpeting what his men have been doing.
    Kentucky Speedway, the Smiths' most recent acquisition, to host its first Cup tour event in July, is on the front-burner too: "We are substantially finished with a lot of the construction things we needed to work on," Smith says. "The grandstands, and the track, and pit road…
   "We're doing a lot of work in the campgrounds – which will probably wind up being the finest campgrounds in the sport.
   "The parking lot will have some big improvements.
   "And we're adding a lot of seats, and all the concession stands and restrooms you need."
  To battle the traditionally high costs of race week hotels, fans have increasingly moved toward the RV, and tracks like Phoenix and Las Vegas were jammed with RVs.

     The newest Smith family track, Kentucky Speedway, being prepped for its July Sprint Cup tour debut (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The grandstand expansion at Kentucky, to 117,000 seats, might seem quite a leap of faith, considering the area surrounding the track is pretty much farmland for miles, and little urban infrastructure.
   But Smith just rolled out a Quaker State marketing promotion for that July 9th event.
   (A question is how many fans might go to Kentucky Speedway rather than Michigan, three weeks earlier, or Indianapolis, three weeks later.)
   Smith says he's not worried about selling out Kentucky.
   "Kentucky is an amazing area with just fantastic fans," Smith says. "The whole Ohio Valley just loves sports, and loves NASCAR. We've had the biggest stand-alone Nationwide races of all the tracks in the country."
   Ticket sales in general?
   "We are selling more right now, and in general things are doing better," Smith says. "But you'll see have people out there who say they can't see things doing better.
   "So we're seeing a lot of ticket promotions, with companies buying 500 to 1,000 tickets. That's up from what we've seen the last 24 months.
   "Thankfully the economy – though we're not at 2005, 2006, or 2007 levels – is allowing folks to make time and money available for the things they love.
    "Going to a race can be expensive for some. If you're driving a long way…
   "But the markets we're in (Dallas-Fort Worth, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, San Francisco, and now Cincinnati), there are millions of people within a 100-mile radius.
   "With tickets as low as $39 or $49….
   "And a lot of hotels have brought their rates down. The most expensive part of going to a race has always been the hotel. And now the average ticket to go to a race is about $75, which is pretty reasonable, considering the huge event it is."

   Las Vegas' Neon Garage has been a highly successful twist on the NASCAR garage area, which at LVMS is laid out like a donut with the Neon Garage bandstand in the middle, and bands playing pretty much nonstop.
   For Kentucky Smith says a new garage layout will likewise feature more fan-friendly aspects, perhaps something like Bristol, where a special infield area has been laid out for fans.
   "A NASCAR race is so much more than the three or 3-1/2 hours," Smith says. "We in here know it, but those watching from outside may still think of NASCAR as just another sport. But it's really a state fair and a race all mushed into one big festival weekend.
   "Our Las Vegas weekend, for example, we had John Force (and Harry Gant) signing autographs, and SuperBikes going 70 feet in the air and the Red Bull Skateboard Park…."
   And even Paris Hilton…..
   However a big worry at the moment is the rising price of oil and gas, related to the Libyan crisis.
   "We haven't seen any issues from that yet, but it's just jumped to the top of everyone's radar the past week or so," Smith concedes. "I'm sure that will cause some concern.
   "The last time we had a fuel problem, it scared some people, and the more we focused on it the worse it gets….."
   But opportunity may be knocking:
   Las Vegas' well-known 'Terrible Herbst' empire included free gas promotions to entice people to his gaming hotels.
   Smith says NASCAR's Sunoco tie-in may open doors there.
   "We did that a few years ago, and I wouldn't be surprised if you don't see it again, with Sunoco and others," Smith says. "If you have a 20-gallon tank, and you're driving 300 miles, that's about a tank of gas….
   "Hopefully it will all come down as quickly as it came up."
    However an ancillary worry is that the extra $20 someone may have to spend on gas to get to the track may come out of tee-shirt/souvenir money. And the NASCAR souvenir business has yet to rebound.
   Nevertheless Smith is upbeat about the spring: "The tracks have made a lot of price reductions for the race fans….and we've worked with hotels for them to do some reductions.
  "There's never been a better time to be a race fan. We're still pedal-to-the-medal with keeping those price reductions in place and making sure the fans have a lot of fun stuff to do.
   "Fans are getting better access and better deals than ever."

     Let's see, the guy on the left, Michael Waltrip, is somewhere south of Paris this week, and the guy on the right, NASCAR newcomer Travis Pastrana, is somewhere west of New Zealand. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



I don't like Atlanta not

I don't like Atlanta not being Open this weekend for racing. And I love Indy to the Bone, and I feel that if more folks go to Kentucky instead of Indy, I feel the Speedway needs to be doing Late Models or Road Course Cars and adding lights. Congrats to Mikey for trying LeMans!

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