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If California has two Cup dates, why not Las Vegas?

 And from Area 51.....Las Vegas Motor Speedway has a lot of curious action (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern 

   You may leave Las Vegas, but Las Vegas never leaves you.
   This is not just another stop for the circus train.
   Andrew Dice Clay, the acerbic comic, says he's trying to put the sin back in Sin City.
   Indeed, this town tries to reinvent itself every four or five years. So wonder what Vegas we'll see here next time around?
   Hey, what Vegas do we have this weekend?
   The first time I saw this town was back in '73 or '74, when – believe it or not – it was a long run of strip malls and strip mall casinos....when Richard Childress and Tim Brewer and the crews would haul coast-to-coast, Carolina to California, via Vegas, and then California to Michigan via Vegas, in Doolies hauling the stockers in Chaparrals.
   Circus Circus, up on the northern end of The Strip, was then the unofficial headquarters for NASCAR teams. That's where Benny Parsons taught me how to play craps, during a short layover between Riverside and Michigan, the next tour stop. And just watching that guy at the table was worth the price of admission.
   Times change, and Vegas has changed, several times in fact. Michael Gaughan's South Point, maybe three hours up I-15 from Fontana's Auto Club Speedway, is now ground-zero for crews....son Brendan, a NASCAR regular for years now, being such a good pitchman.
   It was on the way here, up over the snowy mountains, that we had some time to ponder NASCAR 2010, in these opening days of the new season.
   And those old photos on the back wall of Gaughan's place, of Las Vegas way-back-when – the old Desert Inn, the legendary Sands, the Thunderbird, and the Flamingo, all low-slung ranch-style buildings then with a decidedly more relaxed feel than the current lineup of towering casinos with their golden windows – brought to the fore just how much things have changed.

   The story here today:
   NASCAR sells.
   NASCAR delivers.
   NASCAR fans are loyal.
   All long-held tenets in this sport.
   But just who are NASCAR and its promoters and sponsors selling to?
   And in analyzing the business of NASCAR racing, things aren't always as they may seem.
   Surprise, surprise.
   Ironically, not all of them are marketing/promoting/selling to the same audience.
   Consider the demographics:
   Television networks have one set of target demographics, heavily pushing 18-49s, and on the sports side, skewing logically toward males.
   Sponsors themselves are frequently looking at different demographic sets in NASCAR. Curiously perhaps an unexpected demographic target for some NASCAR sponsors are those few yet key big-decision makers, the ones who make big-ticket buys at major companies, like say for UPS and FedEx, for example. And here's the kicker: many of those big-decision makers in today's business world are women 40-55.
   Puts a different twist on things, eh?
   So how does a David Ragan or Denny Hamlin help seal the deal? Ah, that's the trick.
   The fact that these women – and not the box-of-Tide or box-of-Wheaties group – are frequently key in the demographics picture might come as a surprise.
    And track promoters on the other hand have yet another different set of demographics to reach themselves.
   Here, for example, the target is both 'destination vacationers,' national and international (the NASCAR Japanese target appears way up out here, Toyota perhaps), and fans from around the 'area,' like the steelworkers and construction men who have been a big part of the Vegas boom...and now unfortunately part of the Vegas bust, as can be seen in the many half-built and now-idled construction projects up and down The Strip.

   How can this sport reach such a seemingly disparate audience?
   That's the trick.
   Putting fans in the stands these days is tough work. Even at benchmark Bristol promoter Jeff Byrd will have to go flat-out for his March 21st race. And California's Gillian Zucker, even though she's got some 24 million in the region to hit on, has a rough time of it.
   NASCAR promoters have to work at it (One neat pitch here, 'Danica's Win-Ten-Ten'  -- http://www.lvms.com/tickets/danica/  )
   Meanwhile, the TV overnight ratings are in from California's Auto Club Speedway 500, and they're down about five percent from 2009. The race pulled a 5.0; when the rest of the country reports in, later this week, that should rise slightly.
   And Danica Patrick's less than thrilling Saturday Nationwide run at Fontana didn't help things. ESPN reports its ratings for that event we also down, with a final national household rating of 1.7, compared to last year's non-Danica 1.9. ESPN says the broadcast averaged 2.28 million viewers.

   The situation here: Perhaps 70 percent of the weekend race crowd at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be from the 'destination' set, from out-of-state; the other 30 percent from the region. And with unemployment here around 20 percent, well, many of those are race fans struggling.
   "This is the most challenging year I've had in my 12 years here," LVMS track president Chris Powell says. "But we've got a city behind us (in terms of community support) that people love to come to. This is a great city.
   "However this town has been hit hard."

   Powell is sitting in his office, just across the street from Nellis, where Air Force jockeys are doing their thing, and probably a few strangers from Area 51 too.
    The skies are perfect blue, the weather is a balmy 65 degrees, though a bit windy, spring is in the air...and the surrounding mountains have a beautiful cover of snow.
    And Powell, boss of this speedway at the northern edge of Las Vegas Blvd., is pondering, pondering.
    Everyone in NASCAR, it seems, is pondering.
    Are things finally getting better?

    Bruton Smith, who owns this track, likes to boast about the city's 150,000 hotel rooms. But now, hotels that were once charging $250 a night, on average, have had to drop prices nearly 40 percent.
    Did Vegas, like Daytona Beach, become simply over-built?
    Not necessarily, because before the U.S. economy soured two years ago Las Vegas was attracting 40 million visitors a year. That's nearly one million people a week. Vacations...trade shows...conferences....
   Suddenly it hit, and the drop has been dramatic.
    Not only are fewer vacationers making the trek, but companies dropped many of their Las Vegas forums or seminars, for PR fear of appearing out-of-step with the sluggish economy.
    Wells Fargo, for one example, cancelled a big corporate gathering, and that alone wiped out a whopping 30,000 room nights. Other companies followed suit, and that has cost this town hundreds of millions of dollars.


   Las Vegas Motor Speedway: If this place 'works,' why not Fontana? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


"But this NASCAR weekend will pump more than $150 million into the local economy," Powell says. That's half in gaming, half in non-gaming.
    That's a major plus for the city.
    Indeed, Las Vegas is a special town...and maybe under-utilized by NASCAR, in the grand scheme of things.
   Maybe NASCAR should starting booking two Cup weekends here, to help maximize the sport's impact.
   Yes, there are too many tracks with two Cup weekends, and the sport's season drags on way too long, and maybe only five to eight speedways really, truly deserve two Cup dates. But this place clearly is one of them.
   "We're going to have twice as many people here for Sunday's Cup race as were at the Super Bowl...and that's not even counting our Saturday event," Powell points out.
   Saturday's Danica Patrick 300.
   "This is a big, big weekend for this town," Powell went on. "Yes, it's big for the Speedway, of course, but it's a huge weekend for this city.
   "We're going to be close to a full. It will look very good."
   Pre-race ticket sales – always a key indicator – are up some 98 percent over the past seven weeks (2010 from 2009), and that's a huge boost. Credit NASCAR's 'Boys, have at it,' marketing pitch, and the 'change' mantra. But there has clearly been a good pre-season boost for the sport.
    "We're going to have a hell of a crowd here Sunday afternoon," Powell says.
   To promote the event Powell has negotiated with a dozen hotels for special NASCAR rates, up to 30 percent off. And that was something hotels here wouldn't even think of doing when times were good.
   And I-15 (up parallel to The Strip) is now much wider, five lanes, and less a traffic jam than for the past 10 years, making hopefully for better traffic flow.

   Now the question is 'Did the California weekend pour cold water on the sizzle?'
  And can Las Vegas make for a rebound?
  Already there is speculation about the future of next weekend's stop at Atlanta. And there there's the weekend off before Bristol. (Why?).
  Then comes Martinsville, which also plays a pivotal role in NASCAR's early-season start...because the off Easter weekend follows.
  NASCAR is already looking at the 2011 tour calendar (which opens with the Feb. 20th Daytona 500). But with Daytona's SpeedWeeks dragging on too long perhaps, it's hard to find a good spot for the tour's second event. Phoenix might be better than California.... but selling hospitality and all the stuff that goes into a NASCAR weekend is a tough row to hoe for any track...which is why Richmond and Rockingham were early-season staples for so long, until repeated bad weather forced rethinking.
  What would a good first five weeks of 2011 look like?

   Perhaps NASCAR needs to consider how to leverage Las Vegas better to the sport's benefit.
   In fact, if Kansas City – a great town, to be sure, but not quite a Vegas – winds up with two Cup weekends in 2011, and Vegas still has only one, well, that might raise some eyebrows.
   A second Vegas Cup weekend might have been just a political game two years ago.
   But not now.
   NASCAR might need Las Vegas as much as Las Vegas may need NASCAR.
   And this is a NASCAR kind of town (though don't look for sports bookies to make much action on the races).
   There appears good affinity here between the town and the sport.
   Yet would a second Cup weekend here perhaps hurt, much as it appears to have hurt California's Auto Club Speedway?
   A second Cup event, whether it's Texas or California, makes it more difficult to promoter either one, with the loss of exclusivity. And NASCAR itself may already be way over-saturating the marketplace.
   Regardless, NASCAR needs to rethink the chase – this season, for example:
   -- the late August night race at Bristol is typically socko....
   -- but then Cup takes a week off, while Nationwide plays at Montreal (and it's still unclear just how NASCAR-Montreal is to be marketed)...
   -- then Cup comes back with the Richmond 'race-to-the-chase' finale, typically socko...
   -- but then the first two chase races are at Dover, Del., and Loudon, N.H., both sellout events, 100,000-strong, yet both at tracks which don't have quite the national 'zing' of a Daytona or Vegas or Talladega.
   Perhaps moving Indianapolis's Brickyard 400 to a more prominent and important point in the schedule, from its current late July date, should be considered.
   Getting sponsorships isn't getting any easier either.
   Everyone has to be more creative.
  All of which may make Las Vegas even more important to NASCAR.
   Perhaps never has NASCAR been so important to this town than right now, with the slump in tourism and the severe cutbacks in conventions, and the trying times for the construction industry here. (One reason for moving the sport's December awards banquet here.)
   Hey, what a great place to pitch for the start of the 2011 championship chase in early fall. (And there is a good argument to be made about reshaping the chase, changing up the tracks, and indeed making for a hotter September start to the playoffs...)

   These two tracks, California's Auto Club Speedway (ACS) and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, may be barely three hours apart, and just a few days distant race-to-race. But they're like two different worlds.
    And the question each spring is why does Las Vegas Motor Speedway work so much better than Auto Club Speedway? 
    ACS, it could be argued, is on the wrong side of Los Angeles, too from the Hollywood heart of LA, too far from San Diego. It could also be argued that ACS doesn't have that tight relationship with the local community that, say, Talladega does, or Bristol, or Daytona. And Fontana of course isn't quite the destination that Vegas is.
   Yes, Bristol isn't really a 'destination' either, but its track action is typically some of the wildest on the tour. Same for Talladega.
   The argument can be made that NASCAR's Sprint Cup tour is made up of 'national' events, 'regional' events, and special events like Bristol and Talladega.
   Las Vegas is clearly one of the national events, with fans from all 50 states.
   NASCAR's LA stop should be more than what it is, most would agree.
   But Vegas appears to work quite well.
   Leverage that, would appear the logical move for Daytona.  


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   Las Vegas: no place on the NASCAR tour quite like this place (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


i've been asking this

i've been asking this question for 3 yrs now.. and i've been hearing, oh it's coming, you will get the 2nd race.. it' s a win win situation for everyone involved to get a 2nd race in vegas.. absolutely no reason pcoconos or calif should have 2 and lvms only have 1..

i agree: if, like brian says,

i agree: if, like brian says, 'we're all in this together,' then all the tracks need to get together and figure out the best 'season tour.'

Please pose that question to

Please pose that question to one of the NASCAR bosses, Mike: why don't they make a schedule that would be better for the fans and TV viewership? They seem to think that the schedule is hunky-dory. F1 and the IRL visit their venues only once. In my opinion the Cup tour needs to visit 6 tracks twice, and the rest only once in order to liven it up and make the single-date races special at the tracks that would only get the 1 date. That would mean adding/bringing back 8 tracks to the schedule. Gateway, Nashville, Iowa, and Kentucky are all current tracks that have Nationwide and Truck dates that would be my first four candidates. I would get Rockingham and North Wilkesboro back on the schedule for one date each. There's been talk of a 3rd road course, so how about Road Atlanta, Lime Rock, Road America, or the recently built New Jersey Motosports Park. For the last date, Pikes Peak, Milwaukee, Texas World, IRP, Thompson, or another track could be added. All of the last ones mentioned would need some grandstand additions/improvements, but give them a year or two to make it happen and it will.

The racing at California, Michigan, and Pocono is consistantly boring, and Loudon and some others are not far behind. Bring us some variety, visit some different markets, and make it even more challenging and the Tour will be worth watching week to week instead of only 10 or so dates per season being worth viewing green to checker.

Why should only six tracks be

Why should only six tracks be visited twice? The myth of one date sufficing for Winston Cup tracks continues to persist despite zero evidence that one date is better.

None of the tracks fireballroberts advocates is in any way better than the "boring" California, Michigan, and Pocono raceways. Gateway, Nashville, and Iowa are smaller, narrower, and lack much positional passing up front. Kentucky is okay. Get off the Rockingham and North Wilkesboro wagons - those places are dead demographics and bad racetracks; Rockingham had some decent racing but never close to the competitive depth of the tracks fireball deplores. Texas World is Michigan and Fontana in the desert - it was built by the same layout people who built Michigan and was part of the same company, so how is Texas World superior to Michigan and Fontana? IRP, Thompson, Milwaukee, Pikes Peak - all second-rate in every way.

Pocono this past season saw more battles up front than any of those other tracks fireball advocates. Variety is not needed. The sport can be helped with demographics such as Kentucky but if the Iowa-St. Louis-Nashville areas want dates then build true superovals, not dinky little bullrings like Rusty Wallace built or a flat Darlington clone or an intermediate made of concrete.

Since this is not an

Since this is not an ISC-owned track, granting a second date will come very slowly. NASCAR is not going to take a race away from one of its tracks and give that date to one of Bruton's tracks unless there is something in it for them more than keeping that date. This would be a good move for the fans that attend the race at Vegas, but for those watching on TV it will just be a snoozefest at a different venue. For the tracks that don't consistantly produce good races, ONE date is a plenty. Spread the second dates from the boring tracks to some tracks that currently don't have Cup dates. The racing at those tracks (Kentucky, Gateway, Nashville, Pikes Peak, Rockingham, etc.) may not be vastly better, but at least it would be different and the fans watching on TV would not have to weather through 2 boring races at the same venue.

wonder what isc might want in

wonder what isc might want in return.....who do the 'other' stockholders think about all this?

I'm sorry but this is exactly

I'm sorry but this is exactly why we have way too many cookie cutters on the schedule already. Nascar needs to realize that they can have the most gorgeous facilities at all tracks, but if the racing stinks, people are still not going to watch.

They need to remember the TV audience is bigger than the ticket buying audience. Martinsville, Rockingham, North Wilksboro may not have held 120,000 people but they sure provided an entertaining race. Now why do you suppose people were so upset (and still are to this day) that those places lost races or are in jeopardy of losing races (Martinsville).

This track in Las Vegas has boring strung out racing just like Fontana and it does not deserve a 2nd race from that standpoint. Personally, I think each track should only have one race per season, especially since the invention of the Chase. There are enough tracks that want dates that you can fill the whole schedule with or better yet, shorten the season.

yes, precisely. that's why i

yes, precisely. that's why i like bruton's idea: every track gets one race, and then they can all bid on a second date....and the tracks that bid the most get the dates. if sonoma thinks it can sell three dates and make a profit, so be it.
of course i think the season is way too long, to begin with. and i would like to see some one-day in-and-outs, like martinsville/rockingham.
we need to change up the thinking. imho...
oh, and slow the darned cars down......

The myth of the superiority

The myth of the superiority of short tracks vs. cookie cutters needs to die. The fact is this - the surge of intermediate tracks came because track builders wanted to build big facilities in terms of both overall size and seating capacity and wanted to avoid the whine that "people can't see the whole track," so instead of building genuine superspeedways (other than Fontana, built by Penske to match his Michigan track) they decided to build what Bruton Smith (who began his track-acquisition surge twenty years ago this year by purchasing Atlanta International Raceway from the estate of L.G. DeWitt) was buying and building. These tracks I agree were built with too much focus-group thinking behind them; they should never have listened to the whine about "we can't see the whole track" and built them to 2.5 mile size or bigger.

But even as they are now, they are lightyears better than Martinsville, Rockingham, and North Wilkesboro. The myth of entertaining racing at those places endures despite a dearth of memorable racing there - other than Martinsville's late-90s surge of genuine nose-to-nose battles for the win (Burton vs. Hamilton in 1997, Hamilton vs. Andretti in 1998, Andretti vs. Burton in 1999), the surprisingly competitive 1995 Wilkes 400, and the Earnhardt-Hamilton Rockingham fight in 1996, those tracks usually left a lot to be desired as far as good racing went. There is also the fact that those racing demographics dried up, best evidenced by subpar attendence at Rockingham despite the track's return to racing on dates warmer than the much-maligned February-March and October-November dates it had before.

The cookie cutters are better suited to positional passing up front than the bullrings - the bullrings were outdated for the Cup series by the 1980s at the latest, and it remains that the 50 most competitive races in NASCAR history are ALL superspeedway/"cookie cutter" events - Daytona, Atlanta, Talladega, Charlotte, Pocono, and Michigan, with some memorable multicar battles at Ontario Motor Speedway for good measure.

There are not enough tracks to fill out the schedule and shortening the season cheats the sport out of competition and revenues.

ISC won't give up a race date

ISC won't give up a race date and won't pull one from Dover or Pocono because of the lawsuit repercussions. That means one of the SMI tracks will have to give up a date. Bristol? No way. Texas? Nope. Sears Point? I don't think so. Logical choices? Atlanta and Charlotte. Neither track has a sell-out in quite a while. And while Atlanta does have some great racing action, the locals don't really support the racing there. They barely support their football and basketball teams. The racing at Charlotte really hasn't been that exciting outside of the wrecks. They've pretty much been snooze fest. especially with the COT. But Charlotte is Bruton's flagship track, so I doubt he'd be willing to take a date from there.

ISC won't pull a date because

ISC won't pull a date because there's no need for them to do so and taking dates away from Pocono or Dover makes zero sense. Why Bristol is considered sacrosanct I can't really understand beyond the demographic being very good for racing - as a track Bristol is so overrated it isn't funny - the racing is among the worst in the sport - and even Bristol has been struggling to sell out in recent years. Atlanta makes sense because that area is not a good sports demographic to begin with, while it is true that Charlotte isn't selling out anymore - but this is also true of Texas, which like Charlotte and Atlanta has seen some grandstands either torn down or covered in sponsor displays to reduce seating capacity.

Personally, for me... There

Personally, for me...

There are no visionaries in NASCAR anymore.
The last great visionaries in this sport were Humpy Wheeler and O. Bruton Smith. Although Bruton has his hand in the biz, many of his executives run the show, including his son Marcus at Charlotte. In the last twenty years, what has NASCAR/ISC brought to the sport for the fans, beyond a great TV package and a sad attempt of a "playoff"?

I'm waitin'.
Okay, times up. Here's your answer NUTHIN'...Plain and simple.
No one is thinking outta the box anymore. Condos at the track. Lights on the Superspeedways. Pre-race activities like no other...All came from the minds of Humpy Wheeler and Bruton Smith. As a former photojournalist, covering a race at Charlotte is like getting the red carpet treatment in Hollywood. Spare no expense. They recognized the old journalism adage. "Never argue with a man who can buy ink by the barrels".

Not to digress, the problem with NASCAR/ISC is the "one.hand.is.washing.the.other.involvement" of the France family. They're so profit oriented for "themselves" that it's laughable. And they don't care if you know! Do you really think they care if SMI makes a profit? Hell naw, but they try to saturate the market with tracks all over the place and stay "buddy buddy" with track owners that don't need two races like Pocono and Michigan (but with the high unemployment there, Michigan gets a break)

A classic example of non-outta box thinking by the ISC. Darlington. They ran a game on the Lady In Black. The Southern 500. The Labor Day Classic! One the Triple Crowns of Cup racing. After 50+ loyal years, the State of South Carolina gets stiffed by the ISC in favor of Fontana, low track attendance; larger CA marketplace, whatever. Then ISC turns around and add lights to Darlington but makes it a one-race deal in May? WTH? Well, damn. If they had any forethought, you would think by adding the lights, keep the race and tradition in SC, have it a Saturday night race vs Sunday to allow fans and alike to enjoy SC beaches also, work with SC tourism, "Win/Win". Oh, well. Now that Atlanta has the Labor Day Weekend race, they'll never give it up! They had the insight and knew that the Southern race fans yearned for that Labor Day race. And in the largest metro area in the Southeast? No brainer. Like Charlie Daniels sez in that GEICO commercial "That's how you do it son!" Smart thinking Bruton.

"Over the last twenty years

"Over the last twenty years what has NASCAR/ISC brought to the fans beyond a great TV package and a said attempt at a 'playoff?'" Well, over the last twenty years most of the best races have been on the two plate tracks - both ISC facilities. There have been some memorable battles at Pocono (notably 1990, July 1993, July 1995, and June 1996), at Michigan in June 1991 and August 1999, and at Charlotte in 1992-3, 1995, '98, October 2000, and 2005, but overall the best races have been on ISC's two primary tracks.

The out of the box thinking you credit SMI for looks in retrospect foolish. The trackside condos have not been as big as expected; lights at superspeedways is a good idea but its follow-up, primetime racing, manifestly is not (and now recognized as such by the sanctioning body and the networks); prerace activities were sufficient before Bruton et al made ridiculous spectacles of them.

"Pocono doesn't need two dates" is complete drivel. Pocono is much better a speedway than what Bruton has - bigger, wider, with more positional passing (Stock Car Racing Magazine over ten years ago noted that Pocono was third-highest in per-race average number of lead changes behind only the plate tracks), and a more interesting layout. AND it is in a superior racing demographic than Atlanta, Sears Point, and Vegas (don't be fooled; Vegas pads its attendences with corporate bulk-buys as is the case throughout SMI's tracks).

A classic example of ignoring reality is Darlington. The demographic in that area was drying up by 2004; adding lights did nothing to boost attendence. It was moved to mid-May basically because it was the only option left; the track could no longer support two dates and the September date couldn't be justified anymore. The Labor Day race was moved to Atlanta mostly because there wasn't any other option after Fontana didn't come through on that date - and Atlanta is not coming through, either - it is now one of the weakest demographics in the sport, and as such will at some point give up the date.

Quoting the Charlie Daniels ad is a poor substitute for rational analysis.

Now of course you should know

Now of course you should know that Darth Bruton helped establish the precedent that the tracks in effect own their dates. So if DB wants another date for Vegas he'll either have to move one from another SMI track or buy one from someone else. Oh I forgot, DB always expects something for nothing.

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