Speed week at the Charlotte Motor Speedway concludes Sunday with the Coca-Cola 600. The track will have another Sprint Cup race in October. But it could be the last fall race – Speedway Motorsports CEO Bruton Smith said this week there’s a strong chance he’ll move that one to another track he owns in Las Vegas.
That would be another blow for NASCAR’s Southern fan base. But the circumstances surrounding this possible move are different from when races left other Southern cities.
A sea of RVs packs the campgrounds around the Charlotte Motor Speedway for this weekend’s race.
Harry Wiley drove from Johnson City, Tennessee.
"It cost me $400 worth of gas to come here and back this week," Wiley said.
"That’s cheap," his friend Roy Kapicka chimed in with a laugh. "Come from Idaho!"
He and Wiley are part of a group of friends that has a big potluck dinner before the Coca-Cola 600. They keep in touch and try to meet up every year at the speedway. They’ve heard that the track’s owner, Bruton Smith, is threatening to move the fall race to Las Vegas.
It would certainly be more convenient for Idaho resident Kapicka, but that doesn’t mean he wants it to happen.
"It's a neat track, but there isn't the atmosphere," Kapicka said. "I mean, there's all the other things to do; there's the gambling, the shows and so forth. Here, you come and you watch races. You go to the dirt track. You go to the little tracks. This is the home of NASCAR."
You hear that all the time in Cabarrus County, where the speedway is actually located. At the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce, you’re greeted by eight huge photos of racing legend Dale Earnhardt. (Oh, and the chamber is on Dale Earnhardt Boulevard.) Chamber CEO John Cox said this is racing country.
"The major teams are all here," Cox said. "The teams that can't get here are as close as they can possibly be. Anything that you can race on wheels, I think you can race in Cabarrus County."
And yet, Bruton Smith says there’s a 70 percent chance he’ll move the fall race to Vegas. In an interview with WBTV, he said the move would be all about money.
He didn’t elaborate, and he declined an interview request for this story. But he clearly has a tense relationship with Cabarrus County leaders. He released a statement complaining about his taxes doubling since 2005.
That’s true - the speedway and its parent group now pay about $2 million in property taxes. But county officials say that’s in large part due to speedway improvements, like a new drags trip that raised the complex’s value.
Former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler suspects taxes aren’t the only issue.
"Well, (Smith has) got a suit against Cabarrus County, and, of course, this is where the leverage is trying to come in," Wheeler said.
Wheeler is talking about a lawsuit in which Smith claims the county promised him $80 million in incentives for the construction of the drag strip and infrastructure improvements.
The prospect of losing a race certainly has the attention of local leaders. City of Concord spokesman Peter Franzese said it would be a huge financial blow.
"You're looking at events that are larger on scale than the Super Bowl: between the people attending, the people working, the people participating, hundreds of thousands of people each time," Franzese said.
It would also be a blow to Southern racing fans, who’ve lost races in North Wilkesboro, Rockingham and Darlington over the past 15 years or so.
But the chamber’s John Cox said there are key differences between those smaller racetracks and the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"What we have is different in the sense that we have a super speedway, one," he said. "Second, we have the corporate headquarters of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. here."
Cox also points out Smith’s company is still investing in the speedway, for example, adding the world’s largest HD video screen two years ago.
And Humpy Wheeler said Charlotte is an important market for its size, like NASCAR's relatively new markets in cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Las Vegas. Of course, Charlotte's also in the South, and for NASCAR, that's still home.