John Bisci, public relations manager at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, still can recite the '70s-era menus at tracks near his native Buffalo, N.Y.:
"Hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries and Coke," he said. "Diet Coke? 'No, diet when you get home.' "
Americans' tastes in food have changed a lot since then, but you already knew that. What you probably didn't know is that if you attend the NASCAR races at the speedway this weekend, you'll find a lot more to eat than hot dogs and hamburgers. The Blue Bird, for example, which is a grilled chicken breast topped with blue cheese and bacon. The Mexican Riviera Salad, with seasoned beef, guacamole, pico de gallo and chipotle ranch dressing. A barbecue plate with a choice of brisket, pulled pork, ribs or prime rib -- smoked on-site, over mesquite -- and two sides. A housemade veggie burger served on a whole-wheat bun. Even a gluten-free crepe, or a healthy kids' meal of a turkey hot dog with carrot sticks, grapes and a juice box.
The latter two are the response of the speedway's food-service provider, Levy Restaurants, to customer demand. Larry Ferguson, director of operations for Levy, said the wellness and gluten-free options -- which also include a barbecued chicken salad, chicken salad wrap, gluten-free pizza, gluten-free chips and beer, and fruit and vegetable cups -- will be featured at one stand.
"To offer this much is very new," said Ferguson, who's getting used to an increase in requests associated with dietary restrictions at the company's catered events.
Nobody's saying that hot dogs and hamburgers won't have prominent roles at the races. Ferguson is proud of the Las Vegas Buffet Dog, which is split and topped with smoked prime rib, caramelized onions and a creamy horseradish sauce.
"We decided we had to incorporate prime rib somewhere," Ferguson said.
He's also proud of the Bison Bacon Blue, a bison burger topped with smoked slab bacon and blue cheese. And the Las Vegas Surf & Turf Burger, topped with chipotle shrimp salad.
Even the names have changed. You won't, for example, find a Pitburger on the menu anymore.
"The names came from Electric Daisy," Ferguson said of the dance-music festival that was held at the speedway last year and will repeat this June. "It made us think outside the box, that we're more than just a racetrack."
But the races are, of course, the speedway's reason for being, as shown by the numbers associated with this year's NASCAR event. About 300,000 to 350,000 people are expected to attend over three days, with many of them eating more than one meal at the track. To serve them, the speedway has 54 food-vending locations (plus 114 that will sell just beverages). Add to that catering to 88 boxes that hold about 60 people each and the clubhouse with another 1,200 people, the catering needs of all of the companies that have hospitality areas and catering services available even to people in the RV area, where a chef may be manning a grill "right in the middle of the RVs," Ferguson said.
No wonder Levy has the largest kitchen west of the Mississippi.
Last week, the track already had on hand 25,000 hot dogs and 28,000 hamburgers (it takes two weeks to stock the food-service outlets) not counting what will be brought in by outside vendors.
Yes, outside vendors, which Ferguson said tend to be a hedge against emergencies like at the recent Daytona 500, which had to be postponed a day because of a rainout. Ferguson said such a move -- from a Sunday to a Monday, as happened in the Daytona case -- could be disastrous, because the track's corps of 1,500 food-service workers includes a majority of on-call workers and volunteers who have jobs that would make them unavailable to the track on a weekday. And so there will be six outside vendors, including Donutistas, a local vendor that makes mini-doughnuts while race fans watch; the Kabob Shack, based in Arizona and offering berry kabobs, frozen cheesecake and apple blossoms; and the local Road Runner Catering, a speedway veteran offering burritos, tacos and barbecued pork.
Levy has its own food truck, and it'll be joined at the races by other local trucks, with seven scheduled for Friday and Saturday and nine scheduled for Sunday. They'll be arranged in a sort of food court near the main entrance to the speedway.
Some of Levy's signature foods will be available only in certain areas; in the Neon Garage, for example, four outlets will offer some foods that aren't served elsewhere at the track. The vast majority of the stands, Ferguson said, will offer the track's core menu of burgers, hot dogs, nachos and pretzels. But some of those also will offer such items as a Frito tamale pie (a base of Fritos topped by a tamale and chili), corn dogs, chicken tender baskets, specialty burgers or pulled-pork sandwiches.
Oh, and did we mention beer? Gluten-free beer, yes, and plenty more; as Ferguson said, "You have to have beer at a racetrack." There also will be a broad variety of alternatives such as margaritas in pouches that will be sold in the stands, an oil-can-style souvenir cup holding bloody Marys or frozen margaritas and a souvenir coffee mug that can be filled with coffee, hot chocolate or hot cider.
And in case you're wondering, yes, the speedway does strive to be responsible when it comes to alcohol, stopping sales before the end of the race. And Ferguson said 1,000 people recently attended classes on serving alcohol responsibly.
Many of them were volunteers. Dozens of local nonprofit groups -- fraternal organizations, fraternities and sororities, school sports boosters, school choir groups and more -- man food and beverage booths to earn money for their causes.
Lesa Ramirez, choral director at Palo Verde High School, said the choir has been participating in the volunteer program since the speedway opened, which was in 1996. She finds it a particularly effective way for the group to earn money.
"If you study economics, you know that there's only a certain amount of spendable income in any population," Ramirez said. "It doesn't matter how many fundraisers we have at the school -- cookie dough, entertainment, books -- we're trying to take money out of the same pool.
"NASCAR is a totally different pool of money. So you're tapping into the entertainment dollar, which people understand when they go anywhere. If you're going on vacation, it's going to be expensive, and you just know that."
Ramirez said the choir participates each year in the truck races in September, drag races in October and NASCAR in March. NASCAR tends to be the biggest moneymaker, she said, because it draws the largest crowds. But there are other variables in play.
"What you make is very susceptible to weather, to the number of tickets sold, number of crashes that there are," Ramirez said. "If you have a delay of the race for any reason -- rain or an oil spill -- you may sell $30,000 more than if you don't," because people waiting around with nothing to do tend to eat and drink.
In years with cold, wet weather, sales tend to be slow, she said.
"Who wants water or iced drinks when you're freezing anyway," she asked. "Coffee's only $2 a cup, and we make 8 percent, so it doesn't matter how much coffee you sell."
In other years, when the weather is hot, the stand may run out of cold drinks, she said.
On a good NASCAR weekend, she said, the choir could make as much as $32,000, though a recent rule change limiting volunteers to 18 and older decreased the number of stands the choir could man from a peak of 14 to the current six.
And she said that in addition to raising money for the choir, the volunteer time at the track benefits students in a few other ways. When students are grumbling about hours on their feet, Ramirez said. "I look straight at them and say, 'Go to school, or you, too, may be doing this for the rest of your life.' "
Almost conversely, their experience at the track has given several students a bit of an advantage when applying for a first job.
And, she said, a valuable lesson is that students who may not be able to afford, for example, a trip with the choir, usually can if they volunteer.
"It's the ability to work for what they need," Ramirez said. "I'm not sure that's a lesson that's being taught a whole lot."
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@review journal.com or 702-383-0474.