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Tourism Officials Look To Leverage NASCAR Hall

Source: Charlotte Business Journal  

July 07, 2006

When Charlotte won the NASCAR Hall of Fame earlier this year, organizers credited an overwhelming spirit of regional participation -- and cooperation -- for sealing the project.

Now that the hall of fame is in the planning stages for a 2009 opening, leaders across the region, including Cabarrus County, have just one question: What can Charlotte do for me?

It's a question politicians, tourism executives and racing officials believe can be answered with resounding success stories. Having the hall of fame in uptown Charlotte and much of the motorsports industry based in Cabarrus and Iredell counties allows for collaboration aimed at bringing NASCAR fans to both locations.

"I think the counties are committed to working together and developing plans to build tourism in this region," says Humpy Wheeler, president at Concord-based Speedway Motorsports Inc., whose holdings include Lowe's Motor Speedway. "The trick is finding an interesting and effective way to market this thing."

Wheeler says one strategy being discussed is targeting out-of-state fans who buy many of the tickets for NASCAR races at the speedway. These include residents of Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio.

Wheeler also believes fans in New England, far removed from the sport's inner workings, would have strong interest in vacation packages encompassing the hall of fame and race-team operations.

Racing already accounts for many of the area's top tourism draws. Hendrick Motorsports, which straddles the Cabarrus-Mecklenburg county line, attracts 165,000 visitors annually to its racing museum, while Roush Racing, near Concord Regional Airport, brings in 100,000 fans each year. The speedway brings in 1.25 million guests and Dale Earnhardt Inc., in nearby Mooresville, hosts 230,000 fans annually.

The mission now is to build on that foundation using the appeal of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

"The hall of fame creates the energy," says John Cox, chief executive at the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce. "Then you want to make sure you get them out into the region to see the infrastructure of the sport."

Tying the hall to Cabarrus will be a focus for chamber and economic-development officials, as well as race shops, the speedway, hotels and restaurants. The Cabarrus Convention & Visitors Bureau has moved aggressively to take advantage of its motorsports ties in recent years by creating package tours for vacationers.

The packages include "Race Country Pit Pass," which offers three-day trips to Cabarrus County starting at $399 for a family of four. The package bundles a number of attractions, offering discounts at team race shops, track tours, coupons and food vouchers at Concord Mills and optional upgrades to participate in the Richard Petty Driving Experience.

A smaller initiative, dubbed "The Dale Trail," was created by the Cabarrus CVB to steer Dale Earnhardt fans to his favorites haunts while growing up in Kannapolis.

'On the same page'

"All of these things tie back to us needing to fill up hotel rooms and restaurants," Cox says. "If we do well, Charlotte does well and when Charlotte does well, so do we. Everybody is on the same page."

For now, definitive plans have not been hammered out, though the major players are in constant discussion about marketing the region as a motorsports destination. The effort also includes state tourism officials.

From the beginning, hall of fame backers pledged cooperation across the region. Much of the case made to NASCAR for locating the $107.5 million hall of fame in Charlotte centered on the close proximity to race shops, the speedway and related attractions.

Tim Newman, chief executive at the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, which managed the bidding process and will oversee the hall of fame, says regional cooperation was paramount to landing the facility and will be equally important in attracting visitors.

He points to earlier collaboration on the Nextel All-Star Challenge as a signal of willingness to work together. That effort, launched in 2004, includes state and local funding sources, including Charlotte and Cabarrus County. The local organizing committee carries an annual $545,000 budget, with $250,000 contributed by the state and $295,000 from local governments.

Doug Stafford, who held tourism and speedway posts and now runs two hotels near the race track, says Cabarrus stands to reap significant tourism rewards when the hall of fame opens.

"We have so many teams based here, from Hendrick and Roush to (Chip) Ganassi (Racing), we have the speedway -- there is no question you would want to come here to immerse yourself in the sport and the culture," he says. "I think you have to be smart about it. You offer packages, you look at marketing (online) and you go after the race fans, the people who are most inclined to come and see these things."

Much like Wheeler, Stafford says the Ohio Valley and New England, as well as the Midwest, could be fertile marketing grounds for attracting visitors.

"Everybody thinks all the racing fans are in the Southeast," Stafford says. "They're not."

Getting the word out

Newman envisions a heavy mix of online- and print-based promotion that would tout the region's assets. In addition, a touring NASCAR Hall of Fame exhibit will debut at Nextel Cup races in 2008.

The CRVA's advertising agency, Boone/Oakley, is responsible for creating an awareness campaign promoting the hall and the region's role as NASCAR's de facto headquarters.

Last summer, as Newman's group pursued the hall, Mayor Pat McCrory and other boosters began touting the region as "NASCAR Valley."

That slogan is under review after NASCAR officials expressed concerns over making the sport's brand name a generic term available for widespread (and potentially unauthorized) use. Still, Newman and other leaders hope to reach a compromise on branding the region as a racing mecca.

Senior Staff Writer Erik Spanberg can be reached at (704) 973-1116 or espanberg@bizjournals.com.