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Vegas, baby! Hottest NASCAR stop west of the Pecos

  NASCAR on The Strip: Margaritaville! (Photo: LVMS)

   By Mike Mulhern


   The past few years, for NASCAR promoters, have been rough, given the economy. No sitting on your hands and letting traffic play out with automatic sellout crowds.
   No, these guys are having to play all the angles, to get maximum impact.
   And at the moment, Daytona's Joie Chitwood, Phoenix' Bryan Sperber, and Las Vegas' Chris Powell are all smiles with the results so far.

   "You won't be able to see an empty seat here Sunday, and not many Saturday," Powell was saying Friday, under yet another early season day of amazing NASCAR weather: 68 degrees and cloudless blue skies at this 1-1/2-mile track on the north end of Las Vegas Blvd. – The Strip.
   "And we might even be able to announce a sellout."
   Since this place seats over 150,000, that takes a lot of promotion and marketing. After all, this is the biggest NASCAR venue west of the Pecos.

    Powell's slam-bang in-your-face marketing of this weekend's 400 miler here – that's the Lowe's Kobalt Tools 400, to be precise – has been quite impressive. Some of it hard work, some of it luck-of-the-draw, like Jeff Gordon on The Tonight Show Wednesday.


      Hello, Elvis. Just call me Smoke the Cabbie  (Photo: LVMS)

   Yes, of course there is the de rigueur parade of the haulers, up The Strip….
  But consider:
   -- Carl Edwards leaping 800 feet off the top of the Stratosphere on The Strip;
   -- free tickets to those 400 Super Bowl fans denied a seat by the NFL, with some getting free hotel rooms and free air fare (37 took up Powell on the offer);
   -- Tony Stewart playing cabbie-for-a-day at the MGM Grand, with illusionist David Copperfield on board;
   -- The Dale Earnhardt Foundation Celebrity Poker Tournament;
   -- That $5 million Indy-car promotion to entice a NASCAR star – like Jimmie Johnson perhaps – to fly here in October for the Indy-car tour finale;
   -- Kyle Petty and Ryan Newman in a Victory Junction poker tournament at the Hard Rock;
   -- Danica Patrick here, there and  yon;
   -- Naturally numerous driver autograph sessions around town (like Stewart at Office Depot, Matt Kenseth at the MGM Grand, Kyle Busch at M&Ms World, Robby Gordon at Harrah's, Brad Keselowski at PT's Sierra Gold, Jimmie Johnson at Sam's Town….)
   -- and one of the most unusual, Michael Waltrip's stand-up comedy show – the Comedy Garage, here at the Mirage (with others in January at Toronto and Kansas City).
   -- And this national ad:  http://bit.ly/bQnO33  with Sinatra singer Matt Goss, head-liner at Caesar's Palace.

   Well, when you only have one Sprint Cup race a year, and when it comes so early in the season – remember Christmas was barely eight weeks ago – you'd better be on your toes.

    Yep, sure looks like a little of Kyle Busch's paint got rubbed off on Jeff Gordon's Phoenix winner. Imagine that. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Of course this is not only good for Las Vegas Motor Speedway but for the sport too as it kicks off a new season.

   Even for a guy who worked for R. J. Reynolds' sports legend T. Wayne Robertson, a chip right off the Ralph Seagraves 'Let's do it' block, Powell having Carl Edwards leap off the top of a downtown casino might have been a little over the top.
   "We were just hoping Carl landed the way he was supposed to land," Powell says with a laugh. "And it looks like he's doing it again this weekend.
   "When we first met with him and the sponsors about it, Carl was eager to do it. Now if I were getting ready to leap off the top of the Stratosphere, I couldn't eat."
    Having Trevor Bayne upset the big guys at Daytona, and then Jeff Gordon breaking a long drought at Phoenix, have helped boost ticket sales here, Powell says.
   And this town, reeling economically, certainly needs a good bump up.
   "I think things are going in the right direction, from a buzz standpoint. There's a lot of excitement about the sport right."
   And here especially, with hometown heroes Kurt and Kyle Busch atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings.
   How much of an impact here from the Busch Bros' success?
   "More so at The Bull Ring," Powell says, with a nod toward the three-eighths-mile short track just across from the fourth turn. That's where the Busch brothers, in 1998 and 1999, first earned notoriety, for their well celebrated duels.

    Boxing hamburgers? NASCAR promoters like Chris Powell are pulling out all the stops (Photo: LVMS)

   Any takers yet on the $5 million Indy-car promotion? "Not yet….but that will be the last race with the current Indy-car, so there is a reason for some of these owners to be willing bring in somebody to compete," Powell says. "And we've got plenty of time for them to test between now and October."
   Unlike NASCAR, the Indy-car series does not have any ban on testing….perhaps opening the door for Kurt Busch, for example, to make a few laps in one of Roger Penske's Indy-cars here.
   "I'm not so sure anyone will do it, but it will be interesting to see…." Powell says.
   And then there's the Super Bowl promotion: "We have a (NFL) fan here from San Antonio who has never been to a NASCAR race before, 'but I'm in town right now on you guys, because of this promotion, and I'm as excited here now as I was in the days leading up to the Super Bowl. And I know my seats are going to be there.'
   "And he closed off the email with 'Go Jeff Gordon!'"
   Powell grinned.

Phoenix boss Bryan Sperber even put winner Jeff Gordon to work post-race at the wheel of this big digger (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   And what does Bruton Smith think about all this? Well, the boss will be weighing in on it all sometime this weekend.
   For the moment Powell is smiling: "By no means do I fancy myself some great race promoter. What sells this facility to begin with is the town we're in.
   "And then you look at what Bruton has done with this facility….and the Neon Garage is right over there, where fans can stand within an arm's length of Dale Jr. and Jeff Gordon….and all that makes this easiest to sell.
   "We're not the Daytona 500 or the Coca-Cola 600 or Indianapolis….but I think this is one of the most highly anticipated events on the circuit.
   "And, like with the Matt Goss ad, when we promote the event we're trying also to promote the city. You've got to see that ad. It's great.
   "And the Neon Garage – have you been out there just watching the people having fun? There's music…they can sit down and have a cocktail…it's just a different atmosphere. An atmosphere of 'inclusion.'
   "You feel closer to the sport when you come here than you do at most other facilities.
    "Give Bruton the credit.
   "We were doing a ride-around-the-property the other day, at maybe 2.3 mph. I remember 11 or 12 years ago when I first came out here, we'd do a drive-around and he'd say 'You need to do this, you need to do that….'
    "Now we ride around and he says 'Good! I like this. Good! I like that.'
   "It's a more fun ride-around now."


    The Dirt Track at Vegas. Where the Busch Bros tuned up for NASCAR's big leagues (Photo: LVMS)

   All that, plus Waltrip at the Mirage? Wow! Now that's something different.
   "We didn't have anything to do what that," Powell says. "But that shows how much sponsors love coming to Las Vegas. Whether you're bringing three or four people here, or 300 or 400 people, you know everyone is going to have fun.
   "And, as Bobby Masten, of Winston-Salem (and a one-time running partner in Reynolds' NASCAR marketing), liked to say 'Anything you want to do in Las Vegas you can do," Powell added with a laugh.
   "So we try to take advantage of that 'What happens in Vegas stayed in Vegas,' because we want people to associate coming to this race and this town with having fun. Because that's what it is.
    "Now you can have fun anywhere with the right group….but here you can have fun with a bigger group. Because everyone's having fun."

Michael Waltrip is always willing to step to the plate. Now, to promote his New York Times best-seller, he's doing a little MLB spring training and some stand-up comedy on the Vegas Strip (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   The Waltrip-at-the-Mirage?
   "I've got a manager in California who came up with the idea," Waltrip explains. "Now I wasn't too sure about the deal, but he said 'we've got you booked into a show in Kansas City and booked into a show in Windsor, Ontario…'
   "And I said 'Okay, that's cool.'
   "'And we've also got you booked in a place on the Strip.'
   "And I'm thinking 'Yeah, I probably could use a little more practice first….'"
   Yes, Jimmie Johnson says with a grin, Michael Waltrip is a funny guy, "and I'll be interested in seeing the reviews."
   Waltrip's two shows here, Friday and Saturday night at 10 p.m., will be eagerly attended at least by the NASCAR garage crowd.
   Waltrip isn't doing these gigs solo; he's got a pair of veteran comedians, Henry Cho and John Reep, to help him.
   "Part of my act is I'm not funny on purpose, I'm funny accidentally," Waltrip says. "If you want to take to me to dinner, I'm a lot more entertaining.
   "The show in Canada was amazing. I pulled into the hotel and there was a big billboard that said 'Michael Waltrip's Comedy Garage,' and I said 'That's pretty neat.' I wasn't paying much attention to how big the joint was, but it turned out to be a 5,000-seat arena. And they had over 3800 people paying to see the show, in January, in Canada.
  "It was a blast.
  "Here it's a little smaller room, but it's a really cool venue. And it's a family show, which is neat.
  "The Mirage this weekend for two nights was the result of the success of the first two. There were good crowds, good reaction, good buzz…..People liked what they say.
   "We'll just see where it goes. If this weekend goes well, we'll do some more. There are a couple of casinos in North Carolina and one in Indiana that are interested, and we're trying to figure out dates to do shows.
   "The casinos are a good place to have these shows….and there are several casinos near where the NASCAR tour goes (Phoenix, Dover, Kansas, Kentucky, Homestead….)
   "I love it…but I'm nervous, because it's something different. But if I stink, I just say 'And here's Henry….'"


  And who wants that $5 million bonus for running and winning the Vegas Indy-car race this fall? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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