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France: Support of All-Star Race Will Keep It Here

Source: Charlotte Business Journal  

April 18, 2006

NASCAR Chairman Brian France offered his strongest endorsement yet for keeping the all-star race at Lowe's Motor Speedway during a speech Tuesday at the Charlotte Business Journal's annual Power Breakfast.

France, who has flirted with the notion of relocating the Nextel All-Star Challenge in recent years, said reinvigorated corporate and community support for the race has put it on more solid ground. The all-star race has attracted crowds of 120,000 to 140,000 in recent years. This year's race is May 20.

"I think the all-star race has done very, very well here," France said during the speech in front of more than 1,000 civic and business leaders gathered at the Charlotte Convention Center. "Historically, big events tend not to move around much unless they're not working well. (Charlotte civic leaders) have started to rally around the (motorsports) industry and the all-star race. Community leaders have sorted (an earlier lack of attention) out."

The NASCAR chairman also said the uncertainty of moving events around on the schedule is a "bad business model" because it discourages track operators from investing in their events and venues. A recent higher profile for the all-star race and related events has made France more bullish on having it in Charlotte: "I hope we'll be able to keep it here."

Even France's endorsement included a bit of wiggle room. He reiterated his stance that every race is subject to re-evaluation on a yearly basis. Still, the positive comments on the all-star race in Charlotte represent France's strongest public backing of keeping it in place.

Retaining the all-star event is crucial -- for the speedway and for the local tourism sector. The race generates $94 million in economic impact, according to speedway-funded research.

"It takes a lot of energy to keep (the all-star race) here," says Humpy Wheeler, president at Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns and operates Lowe's Motor Speedway. "It's so important for the (following week's) Coca-Cola 600 to have it here and it helps build momentum."

Corporate and political leaders began rallying around the all-star race when NASCAR officials began discussing a possible relocation of the event in 2004. Since then, a local organizing committee has been formed with state and local government agencies contributing money to create ancillary events tied to the race.

This year, for example, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Train will perform at the track and a pit-crew skills competition will be staged at Charlotte Bobcats Arena. The events are being staged by lead NASCAR series sponsor Sprint Nextel and the local organizing committee.

Sprint Nextel spends $1 million to $2 million annually on all-star activities, industry experts estimate. The local organizing committee carries an annual $545,000 budget, with $250,000 contributed by the state and $295,000 from various local and regional governmental agencies.

Beyond the all-star race, France discussed a number of crucial issues in NASCAR, including the $107.5 million NASCAR Hall of Fame opening in Charlotte in 2009; a new TV deal with ESPN beginning next year; safety and competition improvements anticipated by a more streamlined race-car prototype and a continued emphasis on increasing diversity throughout the sport.

"(Diversity) is a significant issue for us to tackle correctly," he said. "We know we're America's sport and we have to be more reflective of America as we go forward."

Contact media and sports business reporter Erik Spanberg at espanberg@bizjournals.com or (704) 973-1116.