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Vegas is back, baby! The Year of the Dragon for NASCAR too?

 On the rebound: (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Talk about a tough sell: this town is still hurting, has been since the recession hit, and it's still struggling to recover.
   Consider that half-built 4,000-room mega-hotel on The Strip that developers poured $2 billion into, only to run out of money, then forced to leave the 40-story project idle, abandoned and exposed to the desert elements.
   The legendary Sahara has closed.

   The monorail is bankrupt.
   And the $500,000 luxury condos being short-sold for maybe $100,000 if lucky.
   Tough times.
   And now here comes NASCAR, for the weekend.
   But Chris Powell, the man who runs Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Bruton Smith, is accentuating all the positives:
   -- Gaming revenues for Las Vegas topped $1 billion in January, the best number since 2008.
   -- Revenues on The Strip were up almost 30 percent, over the same period last year; overall revenues were up 22 percent.
   -- Casino stocks like MGM, Sands and Wynn are all up.
   All that, Powell says, shows that this town is turning things around: "We're making strides on the comeback.
   "And you saw the crowd on The Strip for the hauler parade Thursday night. This is a racing town. The excitement is out there.
   "Now I'm not the optimist my boss is, but I'm pretty optimistic about this town and its ability to come back. I think we're on the right track."


In Las Vegas, just about anything goes. But who are these guys, the flying Elvises? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Yes, this season may indeed live up to its billing as the Year of the Dragon.
   Blackjack, craps, slots, keno, roulette, pai gow….and NASCAR over at the sports books…

   In the good times Powell may have one of the best jobs in the sport, dealing Las Vegas.
   However in tough times he may have one of the toughest jobs in NASCAR. It's a long way here from anywhere, and expensive.
   So how to promote this event in these still tough times?
   With exuberance and optimism:
   "You sell this great speedway and the great races we have had here, and this great city," Powell says.
   "And there are deals, for fans who want to come to Las Vegas, if they plan early enough. Not just for air fares and hotels but the speedway too – if you buy this weekend, you get a Kobalt tools kit immediately, as well as a free day in the Neon Garage next year.
   "For those who plan ahead, this is as economical as any speedway they might want to go to.
   "We have a great market just down the road in Southern California. Other than Nevada, we sell more tickets in Southern California.
   "But we sell tickets in all 50 states. This is truly a national event.
   "We love this weekend. There is still the buzz from Daytona and the start of the season.
   "When people in the off-season are deciding where they want to go, certainly Daytona is a fixture, but so is Las Vegas."



A strange town in the middle of the desert (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Now promotion of any NASCAR weekend might be stronger, much stronger, if the Fridays were highlighted by qualifying races rather than boring single-file qualifying runs.
   "I'd love it, I would absolutely love it," Powell says. "It would be something that would capture the excitement of the fans. It would be a wonderful concept. And I would fully support it."
    The possibility of such a pair of qualifying races, such as Daytona has during SpeedWeeks, has been raised before by Smith's executives.
   "But it doesn't seem to have caught anybody's attention in Daytona," Powell says.
   "But we would support it, and our fans would be very excited about it.'

   And what about that long proposed second Sprint Cup weekend here?
   Without a second Cup weekend to solidify this as a definitive tour stop, doesn't this event risk getting lost somewhat in the blur of the early season rush – Daytona, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bristol, Los Angeles, Martinsville, without a break.
   No, Powell insists: "This is one of the most highly anticipated events on the schedule. The drivers, teams and owners and sponsors love coming here.
   "Richard Childress loves entertaining his sponsors here in Las Vegas. Joe Gibbs and Rick Hendrick too, go down the line. They buy more 'hospitality' here than just about anywhere."
   Still, frankly Las Vegas Motor Speedway needs that second Cup date.
   But Powell doesn't want to get too far ahead of things himself. He'll leave that second weekend up to Smith.
   "Bruton reminds me that we were never promised anything in Las Vegas. There are other speedways, other things that he has winnowed through. But we were never promised a second date in Las Vegas.
   "It's out of my purview, out of my bailiwick. I'll leave a second Cup race up to Bruton.
   "But if he ever calls me and says 'I've got you that second race,' we'll have tickets up and ready to be sold in no time flat.
   "I think it would be great for the sport to have two races in Las Vegas."
   Smith has certainly been pushing hard to host the tour's season finale in November here.
   And Powell points out the track's NASCAR Truck race the last weekend in September typically has great weather too: "The last several years the weather has been perfect.
   "It's a little toasty in the afternoon, but once the sun gets behind the first turn grandstand, it's perfect.
   "If I were king, and we had the last race of the season here in Las Vegas, and started it at 4 p.m. PT – 7 o'clock ET – and then had the banquet Monday night here in Las Vegas….it would be not just a home run but a grand slam."

     The Nevada desert that NASCAR in Vegas shares with the U.S. Air Force across The Strip (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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