By Mike Mulhern
Track-owning billionaire Bruton Smith said Friday that he plans to have a second Cup tour date next season at his northside Las Vegas Blvd. track, “probably during the (championship) chase,” but he dodged most questions about the details.
However Smith said he did expect his Atlanta track to host NASCAR’s Cup tour on Labor Day weekend 2009, in a date swap with California Speedway. And Smith said NASCAR needs to get more innovative with its marketing and promotions in the Los Angeles market.
Certainly a second tour stop here would be deserved, considering the impact and inroads Smith and track president Chris Powell have made in this splashy market, just three hours up the desert road from Los Angeles’ California Speedway, where crowds are noticeable sparse.
“California has never been the biggest market for motorsports, so it will take something they haven’t done yet to cure that,” Smith said.
“I think we could make it work….but I’m not going to discuss what I would do, because nobody has asked me to help.”
The California track is part of the France family portfolio, run by Lesa France Kennedy.
Toyota’s Kyle Busch and Ford’s Carl Edwards stole the thunder from Dodge rivals in Friday qualifying for Sunday’s Dodge 400 here, taking the front row for the third NASCAR tour race of the season, and the second for NASCAR’s new winged-car on the stock car series’ intermediate tracks.
“I’m a pretty good surfer, and as long as this wave keeps rolling I’m going to ride it,” Busch said.
Busch’s 182.352 mph was half a second slower than Kasey Kahne’ pole-winning 184.856 mph last year on this then-just-repaved asphalt. And that shows some of the problems of this bigger, more awkward race car here.
Last spring’s 400 was like ice-skating, as hard as the tires were. This time around drivers say the tires are a little better.
“But this race track is really giving us fits, because it’s low on grip,” Mark Martin says.
Martin, third fastest in qualifying, praised Busch for his start to the season: “He’s doing it, he’s getting ‘er done. And he’s not only going fast, he’s taking your breath away.
“And he’s smart enough not to be wrecking them.”
One surprise of the day—five Dodge teams crashed, some having to go to backups. Among the men with problems – Kahne (whose new TV commercial is creating considerable comment).
Busch comes here atop the Sprint Cup standings and atop the Truck tour standings and second to teammate Tony Stewart on the Nationwide (Busch) side. “I’m glad we’re not racing the Truck this weekend, because I need a break,” Busch said. “But I’ll be back doing triple-duty next week at Atlanta.”
With the flurry of incidents, and skid marks all around the track, some men played it cautiously Friday, like Jimmie Johnson, Stewart and Ryan Newman.
“I under-drove the car,” Newman (15th) said. “We had a better Dodge than we showed…but I would rather under-drove than over-drove, when we saw a lot of cars getting crashed.”
As expected Smith was the day’s real headliner:
After buying New Hampshire Motor Speedway last fall, for $340 million, Smith has been widely speculated to be planning to move one of that track’s two Cup dates to his track here on Las Vegas Blvd. He won’t dismiss that possibility but he declined to say much about that option, preferring instead to talk about improvements he planned at the Loudon, NH, track. It is expected he will rebuild that track into larger version of his famous Bristol track, with much higher banking, either as a three-quarter-mile Bristol or a seven-eighths-mile track.
“Jerry Gappens (Smith’s new boss at Loudon) has already sold out his June race and he’s only 2500 tickets short of selling out September and that’s fantastic,” Smith says.
There is a sense that Smith may be indirectly prodding NASCAR executives Brian and Jim France, and perhaps Lesa France Kennedy, to come up with a way to schedule two Cup events here, without Smith having to drop any of his current dates. That could include a possible sale of a current NASCAR Cup tour track to Smith. Some of that speculation has centered on Pocono.
Smith and his people have already been negotiating and talking publicly with Las Vegas officials about a marketing and promotional campaign for that second tour race.
“As I gaze into my crystal ball….maybe Las Vegas Motor Speedway has earned that second date. I think it has,” Smith says, in response to the obvious question of why – and how – the France family might come up with a second weekend here.
“NASCAR has never ever given me a date, never ever ever ever,” Smith points out. “And I’ve been in this sport for years.
“Let’s go way back – to when I built Charlotte, in 1960. I was operating a three-quarter-mile dirt track and I moved those dates to charlotte Motor Speedway.
“Now they have given a lot of other people a date. Bob Bahre (New Hampshire), and (the original owners of) Las Vegas, and Chicagoland, and California…
“I’m sure they meant to give me a date, that it was just an oversight.
“Texas? No, I bought a date, then I bought another date.
“A second weekend here would be great for the sport. It would help move the sport up the ladder.”
Las Vegas, of course, is a highly popular destination attraction by itself, attracting some 40 million visitors a year.
Smith’s second story line was that his south Atlanta track would host next year’s Labor Day NASCAR weekend, instead of California.
“The proposal has been mad that we give California the October Atlanta date, and that the Labor Day date goes to Atlanta,” Smith says. “It’s the thing to do. The people I’ve talked to within NASCAR have all agreed that it’s the right thing to do. And it would happen next year. They know that will help the track in California.
“But it comes down to Lesa, and what she decides.”