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Speedway VP would campaign for betting at track

Feb 26, 2002 6:46 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: Chris Powell, GM and executive VP at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, has come a long way from his days as a journalism major at the University of North Carolina. Powell, 47, switched from sportswriter to PR and sports marketing for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. His ties with Winston Cup racing were instrumental in his move to Las Vegas. Powell is married with five kids, all boys ranging from 10-to-15 years old.  GamingToday sports writer Mark Mayer spoke with Powell about his views on gaming and  plans for the Speedway.

GT: Do you find auto racing crowds in Las Vegas different than North Carolina?

CP: I think they come from greater distances. Some 70 to 80 percent of our fans on March 3 will be from out of state. If you are at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, maybe 60 percent are from out of state. NASCAR racing is newer to the West. Roots are in the South and the circle has expanded from the 400-mile radius from Charlotte to Daytona. We have one of the great sports facilities anywhere in Las Vegas.

GT: What attracts fans to Las Vegas for the 400?

CP: Those that come are not only choosing the racing aspect, but the entertainment value of what’s offered in the city. That means the gaming, restaurants and shows.

GT: Does betting on races bother you?

CP: Not at all. Gambling is great, legal and helps to raise the profile of the sport. We welcome gambling. I’d love to have some type of booth out here where fans could go and place a wager before the event. I know there are all kinds of restrictions, but we would definitely welcome it if this could be done.

GT: Did NASCAR ever have any hesitation coming to Vegas, as sports like the NBA have?

CP: No, and to my knowledge NASCAR does not place any restrictions on its competitors from wagering on themselves. We host two NHRA events per year and those racers often go to the casino and wager on themselves.

GT: Would you like to see a second Las Vegas race on the Winston Cup schedule?

CP: It’s my hope, but that all boils down to the people in Daytona Beach who run NASCAR. I would like to believe that each year they come here and see how this city backs Winston Cup racing, and how sponsors view Las Vegas, that this will happen. We have plenty of space. The weather is usually agreeable and sponsors want to come. This is one of the most highly anticipated events on the whole schedule, especially for the drivers. Las Vegas needs two races.

GT: If you get a second race, would you like to host the finale?

CP: Atlanta doesn’t like the last race because the weather isn’t agreeable that time of year (mid-November). We’re working on it. I think it would be a great idea. I’d love to have the last race right here on a Saturday late-afternoon, early evening. Then we would plan a big banquet on Sunday night at some great hotel on the Strip. I think we would sell every seat and have an exciting race. Just a great weekend for hundreds of thousands of people. I don’t know if it will happen, but I don’t think anything is impossible.

GT: Are rodeo fans and NASCAR fans alike?

CP: There are similarities and some differences. NASCAR fans don’t wear as many cowboy hats and may drink a different type of beer. I remember one time at a Charlotte race seeing a gentleman dressed in a Dale Earnhardt T-shirt, drinking a beer. It turned out he was an investment banker, who took time to attend a race each May. This guy was in the upper 1-2 percent of jobs in salary. He had several other banker friends, who drove from Richmond to Charlotte. Basically,  just a fun weekend with the guys. I think we are too quick to stereotype people.

GT: How do you explain the phenomenal growth in NASCAR racing?

CP: The opportunity to attend an event in a family atmosphere. Yeah, there’s some rowdies, but they are in every crowd. Here, people can let their hair down. Women have really been turned on to NASCAR races. They represent about 40 percent of the people who come through the gate. The sponsors are recognizing this. There’s a lot more to motorsports than your stereoÂí­typical “rednecks.”

GT: Do you go after the same sponsors as the NFR does for rodeos?

CP: Well, let’s see”¦Wrangler is a big sponsor at the rodeo and used to sponsor Earnhardt’s car before the team went over to GM Goodwrench. Skoal was with Harry Gant. Jack Daniels is involved with the rodeo and we have had good conversations with the people who own the whiskey company. I think you will see some of those companies getting involved in NASCAR.

GT: What are some of the good points with NASCAR?

CP: You don’t have player strikes and owner lockouts like baseball. On the PGA Tour, Tiger Woods might be playing two weeks then off two. Here, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton and Rusty Wallace will race in all 36 events. There is a certain loyalty among the fans and competitors that’s unmatched in any other sport. The passion of the fans is like what you would find in the Dog Pound at Cleveland over the past 20 years.

GT: Does NASCAR stand to gain directly from a possible baseball strike?

CP: NASCAR would benefit  in the TV ratings by a strike, but I hope there isn’t one because I am a big baseball fan. A strike would certainly hurt major league baseball. That’s what’s so appealing about NASCAR. You don’t  have player/owner disputes in our sport.

GT: How badly did September 11 hurt NASCAR?

CP: I think it hurt everybody. The first race after September 11 in Dover brought a lot of patriotism. The stands were full. The events didn’t cause a major disruption in the sport itself. We bounced back very well, just like the rest of the country. Our sales are up for the 2002 event, something I was very concerned about. We’re fortunate that the sport is strong and people want to get back to their everyday passions.

GT: Were there ever any doubts about selling Las Vegas as a NASCAR site?

CP: When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway got sold out for the first Brickyard 400 in 1994, it left no doubts about the strength of the sport. Seeing an open-wheel stronghold sell every seat was the day NASCAR became stronger than anyone realized. The national exposure through ESPN and the building of speedways in Kansas, Texas and Chicago magnified the interest.

GT: Is there an issue that is lost among the casino industry?

CP: Yes. We can bring the high roller from a given hotel/casino to the speedway, entertain him with a great race and can get him back to the casino in the time it takes to play 18 holes of golf. A lot of times we hear casino marketing executives say they won’t participate in your event because they want their players in the hotel. With the bus lines and the vastly improved traffic situation, we have the problem solved. This is a good way to get the serious players back to town for another weekend.

GT:  Would you like to host other forms  of auto racing?

CP: We’ve had the Indy Racing League in the past. I don’t know that Formula One would compete here, but I would love to talk to them.

GT: With your Southern  background, was adjusting to  Las Vegas tough?

CP: My wife and I to this day drive down the road, look at all the lights and still find it hard to believe we live in Las Vegas. We love it.

GT: Do you gamble?

CP: I did more before I moved here. The only bad part about living in Las Vegas is that you can’t visit Las Vegas. Living here cut back on our gaming. I’ll throw down a few bucks when friends come into town.

GT: What are your dreams for the Las Vegas Motor Speedway?

CP: Well, I think a second race would be an obtainable goal. We always want to improve traffic flow. The access in and out of here is a lot better than when the track opened. We have built several hundred more restroom facilities.

GT: Do you have a strong prediction for the race?

CP: I don’t usually get asked that question. I will predict that a Ford will win at Las Vegas this year.  And, the champ will be a driver who has won fewer  than five times during his Winston Cup career. How’s  that?