Bruton Smith: Charlotte might lose its fall NASCAR playoff race to Las Vegas (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Now if Bruton Smith would just buy NASCAR itself, imagine what changes he might consider...
Less than 48 hours after the annual Sprint Cup All-Star race -- a nice, spicy race, albeit in front of a relatively mediocre crowd of some 75,000 or so Saturday night -- Smith raised the possibility of a dramatic shakeup in the Charlotte Motor Speedway NASCAR schedule...and raised the possibility of moving the track's long-time fall 500 tour event to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Adding a second Cup event to his Las Vegas track has long been on Smith's agenda, going back years, to when a New Year's Eve NASCAR race at the Nevada track was proposed, some 15 years ago.
Las Vegas, remember, is only three hours up I-15 from Fontana, Calif., where California's Auto Club Speedway holds on as this sport's Los Angeles market stronghold.
LA once played host to three annual NASCAR events, in January, June and November. But the Fontana track, owned by the France family's International Speedway Corp., arch-rivals to Smith's own NASCAR empire, has only one Sprint Cup track this season, in late March.
The France family, in effect, has abandoned the Los Angeles market.
Now it appears that Smith is finally ready to jump into the void, by raising the possibility -- which he sets at 70 percent -- of moving the October Charlotte race to his Las Vegas track.
Smith, of course, is notorious for bluffing on big deals like this. A few years back he even threatened to shut down Charlotte Motor Speedway entirely and build a new track on the South Carolina side of Charlotte.
However that was never really seen as a legitimate pitch.
This Charlotte-to-Las Vegas pitch, on the other hand, is highly possible.
First, this 10-day May stretch of the All-Star race (packaged with a Truck event that was lightly attended last Friday) and the 600 weekend appears to be a stretch, in terms of drawing crowds. The All-Star-600 stretch has been Smith's version of Daytona's SpeedWeeks in February.
Second, NASCAR's markedly lower profile in the Southern California area has been criticized, in that that market is the second largest market in the United States and the sixth most important market in the world, as well as being a gateway to both the Asia-Pacific market and the Mexican-Hispanic market.
Look at it this way:
NASCAR's 10-race chase playoffs this fall will start in Chicago, go to New Hampshire/Boston, then Dover/Philadelphia, then Kansas City, Charlotte, Talladega, Martinsville, Va., Fort Worth, Texas, Phoenix, and Miami-Homestead.
Los Angeles is missing.
That Smith might try to shake things up isn't unusual. He likes to do that.
Curiously, though, Smith went for a different media profile here: not the Charlotte Observer, not the AP, not any of the usual NASCAR media...but rather Charlotte TV station WBTV.
Clearly Smith wants to make a point.
Is it to get Bank of America, the Charlotte track's fall sponsor, to raise its stake?
Is it to shake up Sprint, the sport's top series sponsor? Sprint just dropped the annual pit crew competition, preferring to spend its money on a Daytona shootout extravaganza in February SpeedWeeks. While the pit crew championship, as run in downtown Charlotte, as a promo really for NASCAR's Hall of Fame, has been pretty much a dud the past few years, it was a slap in the face to Smith that Daytona -- arch-rivals, remember -- took away one of his premier May events.
A Las Vegas race in the chase is an easy call. Great market, great track, great weather.
Smith, in a curious poke at the print media (which, admittedly, has all but collapsed over the past four years), used WBTV.
Now WBTV is a highly reputable outlet, of course. But it's a CBS affiliate, curiously, and CBS has nothing to do with NASCAR these days.
What did Smith tell WTBV:
"I've been having some strong conversations about one of these events being moved. Las Vegas is a great place, the entertainment capital of the world. And they want another event."
Las Vegas had been hit strong by the economic downturn, and LV politicians have been pushing for a stronger NASCAR presence, willing to offer substantial sponsorship.
"They've made me offers to move one," Smith said Las Vegas officials and the Sprint Cup tour date
Smith's relationship with Charlotte area officials is somewhat mixed at the moment. And Smith, who has built CMS and opened it in 1960, may feel taken for granted.
Smith, to WBTV: "Some of your dear friends over at Cabarrus County are going to say 'Is he? Is he? Is he?' " Smith said.
"Well, he may.
"Someone once said 'Follow the money.'
"Well, if we do... there's a lot of money in Las Vegas. And if it gets to be strong enough, I imagine we might do something."
Smith says he could easily make more money with a Sprint Cup playoff event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway than at Charlotte.
And he says he's talking about a 10-year contract for such a race.
The next move looks to be up to Bank of America.