April 10, 2007 in Business

NASCAR? For now, we’re in the pits

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review
 

Plans to build a major stock car track in Kitsap County are going nowhere, at least this year. Even this year’s free-spending Legislature balked at co-sponsoring a $360 million tri-oval despite encouragement from some officials who see greenbacks behind every green flag.

Meanwhile, the Spokane County commissioners are considering purchase of Spokane Raceway Park, the multipurpose track facility with an uncertain future. Could there be a potential match of NASCAR need and Spokane resources in the making?

Probably not, though the possibility teases the imagination like the sixth gear on a Ferrari.

The track proposed near Bremerton would be build by Great Western Sports, a subsidiary of International Speedway Corp. ISC owns many of the tracks used by NASCAR. There is some ownership overlap, but the organizations are separate. ISC officials are clear that a commitment to build a track does not guarantee race dates that would be fundamental to its success.

They are also clear that the Northwest, more specifically the Seattle-Tacoma area, is a market NASCAR will not easily give up on.

Great Western spokesman Lenny Santiago says Seattle has the combination of media reach, hotel rooms, entertainment venues and potential corporate sponsors NASCAR covets as it continues to extend its fan base beyond its Southern heartland.

The effort to promote a track, which included appearances by former NASCAR stars Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, brought out a lot of fans, Santiago says. “We’ll continue to explore.”

But do not look for scouts on this side of the Cascade Mountains.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, says NASCAR would have to substantially modify its business model to create a fit with Eastern Washington. In the case of Spokane, part of the problem is the proximity to the Idaho border. Too many of the benefits would bleed off into Coeur d’Alene.

Rod Fort, an expert on sports economics at Washington State University, says post-concert gridlock at The Gorge in Grant County illustrates another problem with an Eastern Washington location.

“There isn’t the infrastructure,” he says. “We’re talking about 150,000 people showing up.

“When NASCAR comes to town, they come to town.”

Fort says NASCAR can be a winner for Washington, but officials must take care they know where the dollars are coming from, and how the state gets what it needs to justify its investment. NASCAR events are very self-contained, with much of the fan spending captured on the track premises.

On the other hand, many race-generated dollars are new to an area, unlike those collected by the Mariners, Seahawks or Sonics, whose fans tend to be local residents.

At the Spokane County Courthouse, Commissioner Todd Mielke says the subject of NASCAR has come up, but only as an aside. Officials do not want to antagonize taxpayers weary of subsidizing West Side teams.

“We have more pressing issues,” he says.

The commissioners want the 592-acre Raceway Park site for a possible corrections facility, gravel pit and expanded off-road vehicle park. The one-half mile oval track on the premises is far too small for NASCAR.

But Mielke notes that during a recent trip to Olympia, a lobbyist working for the NASCAR forces asked about the number of hotel rooms within 60 miles of Spokane. The number, 6,600, is less than one-third what NASCAR says it needs.

That may be a problem for NASCAR but, hey, which area is less likely to suffer a rainout and seriously disrupt NASCAR’s tight schedule?

There must be a business case out there somewhere for a sports venue that does not stand or fall on the basis of public subsidy. Taxpayers already have a piece of Safeco and Qwest fields. Heck, the Kingdome is still on the books.

And the Sonics have their eyes on our checkbooks, too.

When some of those tax/sports dollars go out on the road, it would be nice if more than a token amount was headed east.


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