Doubling down: Las Vegas begins its first year as a two-weekend NASCAR town

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Mark Damon/Las Vegas News Bureau

Chris Powell, left, president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, speaks as the South Point Hotel, Casino and Spa is named title sponsor of the September Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in a press conference at the South Point Hotel-Casino on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017. Joining Powell is Mike Helton, vice chairman of NASCAR. The multi-year agreement will make the South Point Hotel-Casino the title sponsor of the South Point 400 beginning in 2018. The 267-lap race is set for Sept. 16 and will be the first in the 2018 Cup playoffs.

Thu, Mar 1, 2018 (2 a.m.)

Every year during NASCAR race weekend, Las Vegas Motor Speedway President Chris Powell carves out some time in his schedule to mingle with attending fans. Every year, those fans pepper him with the same inquiry.

“Thousands of times I was hearing, ‘You guys deserve a second race. When are you getting that second race?’ ” Powell says. “I kept saying, ‘We believe it’s going to happen one of these days. We’re excited for whenever it does, but we’ve got to wait until the time is right.’ ”

Spring NASCAR Weekend

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Powell will finally face a new question this year—or at least be able to provide a different answer. For the first time in its 22-year history, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway will host two NASCAR weekends in 2018.

This weekend’s slate—which includes the Stratosphere 200 truck race on Friday night (March 2), the Boyd Gaming 300 Xfinity Series race on Saturday (March 3) and the Pennzoil 400 main event on Sunday (March 4)—is only a preamble of sorts to September, when the world’s largest motorsports organization returns with an identical three-day schedule.

That weekend, September 14-16, will be capped by the South Point 400, the first playoff race in this year’s Monster Energy Cup Series. Put it all together, and Las Vegas Motor Speedway will become the first track in history to host a pair of triple-header NASCAR weekends in the same year.

“There’s a tremendous amount of pride, because for years we were one of the most highly anticipated events on the circuit,” Powell says. “We’re only going to get better at what we do, because the more you do anything, the better you get at it.”

Powell isn’t concerned about the timing of the Speedway landing its much-anticipated second event, but outside factors might indicate it’s a hazardous moment to double down on NASCAR. The sport is in the midst of a much-publicized slowdown in popularity. This year’s Daytona 500, the season-opening and most prestigious event on the schedule, drew record-low television ratings, as did last year’s Kobalt 400, Las Vegas’ 2017 race.

From 2002 to 2011, Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosted 10 straight sellouts of up to 140,000 fans. NASCAR no longer releases attendance figures, but the grandstands have been noticeably less full in recent years.

And, even without those overarching issues, some drivers cautioned against adding a second race. Kevin Harvick, who has won three races in Las Vegas since 2004, was hesitant to endorse the change shortly before it was confirmed last year. “I love Vegas. I think it’s a great atmosphere, but sometimes you can turn one great [race] into two mediocres,” Harvick told the Associated Press.

Powell and his staff are doing whatever they can to ensure Las Vegas doesn’t succumb to such a fate. They’ve ramped up on-site amenities this year, adding an interactive sports bar, loge-box seating options and a “social pavilion” party zone. The Speedway is also heavily discounting tickets for race fans who want to attend both weekends. Instead of paying full-price for two sets of tickets, attendees can get as much as 40 percent off dual packages.

“Certainly when you double the supply, you face some challenges in keeping demand at the same level. But so far we’ve been quite enthused by the reception we’ve gotten,” Powell says. “We’ve been very happy with the response from fans who want to come to both the weekend in March and the weekend in September.”

As for NASCAR’s long-term viability, Powell isn’t ready to sound any alarms. He pointed out that stock racing is far from the only sport having to reassess its strategy on fan engagement. NASCAR might just require some time to allow fans to transition away from recently retired favorites like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Such up-and-comers as Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Erik Jones—all of whom are 24 and younger—have Powell predicting a bright future.

“Fans are going to gravitate toward these young men who are so aggressive and so well-schooled in driving,” Powell says. “I think NASCAR is on the verge of a really exciting moment in time.”

Las Vegas will have a trackside seat no matter how it turns out, with the two weekends per year expected to stick for at least the foreseeable future. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority approved a seven-year deal with NASCAR during which the LVCVA pays $2.5 million annually in sponsorship and marketing agreements.

It was a small price to pay considering the LVCVA’s recent estimates have put NASCAR’s economic impact anywhere from $130 million to $200 million per race, with approximately 85 percent of attendees traveling in from out of town. Those numbers helped Powell keep faith in his goal for the speedway to host two NASCAR weekends.

“I never got frustrated because I knew it was going to happen,” he says. “It had to happen, because we’re deserving of it.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.

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