Racing as fast cash?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005 at 1:00am

Prior to the opening of the Nashville Superspeedway, many local racing fans dreamed of the likes of NASCAR stars Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. zipping around the track in a facility hosting a (then) Winston Cup event, the top level of America's No. 1 spectator sport.

Other Nashvillians, not as crazed about racing and having already contributed to the taxpayer-funded downtown Coliseum and Arena, looked forward to a sports facility that wasn't financed by the public but that would impact Nashville economically by bringing in out-of-town fans to spend their dollars in the area.

Five years later, the Wilson County race track, owned by Dover Motorsports Inc., is still minus a top-level NASCAR event, but it's making the best of its current lineup by hosting four race weekends a year, as well as attracting special events.

"If, as a result of our events, we're filling hotel rooms and bringing people in outside of Middle Tennessee, I consider that a major positive impact, especially when you consider that it's at no cost to the taxpayers," said Cliff Hawks, executive vice president and general manager of the Superspeedway.

However, while the number of special events is increasing, there is still work to be done, concedes Hawks. The Superspeedway hasn't sold out a single one of its last seven races. In addition, the track isn't attracting as many out-of-town fans as hoped, with the majority of tickets being purchased by Nashville-area residents.

With the present situation, here are some of the factors influencing the economic impact of the Nashville Superspeedway.

The Facility

Plans for the $125 million facility were put into motion in the late 1990s. In addition to the Superspeedway, Dover Motorsports planned to open a short track, a road course, a Legends track, a dirt track, and a drag strip on the 3,000-acre Wilson County spot.

The main draw, though, would be the 50,000-seat Superspeedway, which would have the ability to expand to 150,000 seats for a Winston Cup race.

With these plans in mind, in 1998 Grant Thornton conducted an economic impact study of the Nashville Superspeedway. The company estimated that the facility - without a Winston Cup event - would generate $129 million annually within the eight-county Metro Nashville area, including $21 million in lodging services and $93 million in food and beverages provided to visitors from outside the region.

In 2005, Hawks said, it's hard to know whether the speedway has hit the $129 million of regional output.

"Clearly that report outlines all of the factors that they take into consideration to come up with that number," Hawks said. "But how you actually confirm that number, we haven't conducted any studies to do that."

The economic projection included auxiliary facilities that haven't been completed yet. The dirt track, short track and drag strip have been graded, but there's no hard date to finish the facilities and thereby bring more weekly fans to the track.

"There is a major priority right now to alleviate the debt on the facility," Hawks said. "A future project like the drag strip would more than likely come after we've been successful in alleviating a majority, if not all, of the debt."

The road course on the infield of the Superspeedway has been completed and hosts more than 100 small events a year. And 20 luxury boxes are all currently leased.

Racing Events

When the facility officially opened in April 2001, the lineup included three race weekends. The 2002 schedule added a second Busch Series race, making the track the only one in the nation hosting two Busch Series races that didn't prelude a Winston Cup event.

While the speedway's four-race schedule has been set for three years, attendance for the events has been stagnant, hovering in the 35,000-40,000 range in the 50,000-seat facility.

To remedy the situation, the Superspeedway is increasing its national advertising to attract more out-of-town fans, Hawks said. "We did that by buying airtime at the Daytona 500 [telecast], which is clearly one of the most watched races in the nation. We also bought airtime on the recent Nextel All-Star race."

Another strategy the track is pursuing is attempting to interest more noteworthy drivers from the Nextel Cup Series (formerly the Winston) to race in Nashville's Busch Series events. For example, former Winston Cup champion Bill Elliott competed in Saturday's Federated Auto Parts 300.

A successful draw for the track has been the Indy Racing League event, which is relatively new to the Southeast. The race, held in July, has been the "surprise story of the track," Hawks said, as the stands are mostly full. More fans also commute to Nashville from the Midwest for the Indy race.

This year, the track expects to gain from a form of advertising that Dover Motorsports didn't have to supply. In May's Indianapolis 500, Danica Patrick wowed the crowd and gained nationwide attention as the first woman driver ever to lead the race. In July, Patrick is slated to race in the Firestone Indy 200 at the Superspeedway and expected to bring many of her fans with her.

"It has the potential to be the biggest ever this year," Hawks said.

Special Events

The speedway has also broadened its horizons by hosting special events aimed at attracting car enthusiasts. Last year, the track lured the 40th anniversary celebration of the Ford Mustang away from Lowe's Motorspeedway in Charlotte, N.C.

That event brought about 40,000 people to Nashville, said Butch Spyrodin, president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"[Ford] did an event downtown one day," Spyrodin said. "That had a pretty good impact. It impacted Nashville more than, say, a race."

"The impact that had on our community was unbelievable," said Susan Vanatta, president and chief executive officer of the Wilson County Chamber of Commerce. "I have never worked a cash register as fast as I worked it [that weekend]. It was unbelievable the dollars that were coming in."

This week, the Superspeedway is hosting Tennessee Cruzin, a classic car show that Hawks expects to attract 60,000-70,000 people between Friday and Sunday.

The Future

Five years after it opened, many Nashville racing fans still look forward to the day the Superspeedway will host a Nextel Cup event and bring its enormous economic impact to Nashville.

Nashville has only to look at nearby Atlanta, Hawks said, to see examples of the economic impact a top-tier NASCAR race would afford.

"The most impressive figure I've ever heard is that their top cup races in Atlanta have a greater economic impact on that region than the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA combined," Hawks said.

Perhaps Music City's biggest difficulty in gaining a Nextel Cup event is the one aspect Nashville can't control - its geographical location. With nearby tracks like Atlanta already hosting top-level races, coupled with NASCAR's desire to expand to non-traditional racing markets, Nashville's claim for a race doesn't seem as attractive to the sport's officials at this time.

But Nashville race fans can still hope.

"Everything I hear is they want the big race," Vanatta said. "People keep saying, 'When are we going to get the big race, when are we going to get the big race?'"

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