It was Wednesday afternoon at the office of Las Vegas Motor Speedway president Chris Powell, who next week will preside over the track’s second NASCAR weekend of 2018. It’s the first time LVMS is hosting two NASCAR races in one year, with this one, the South Point 400, serving as the Cup Series playoff opener.
On Powell’s desk were a remote control, legal pad and pen, schedule planner, manila file folders, eyeglasses, a small bottle of fluid that could have been eye drops or super glue.
One did not see or hear a secret tape recorder revealing Powell’s mission, which is to attract another big crowd to the speed plant north of town so the whole of Las Vegas will prosper via hotel room tax.
Is it an impossible mission? Well, let’s just say that what is happening in NASCAR combined with factors closer to home aren’t making the mission any easier.
Stock car racing, which 10 years ago was making a strong bid to become the fifth U.S. major sport, is at a crossroads. Attendance is down, TV ratings are down, sponsorship is down and in many cases going away.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., until this year NASCAR’s most popular driver, has retired to the broadcast booth. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson recently lost his sponsor. Martin Truex Jr., the reigning champion, lost his sponsor and now his race team — it was announced this week that Furniture Row Racing will shutter shop doors after the 2018 season because of lack of funding.
Having reduced seating capacity from around 140,000 to around 80,000 notwithstanding, it has been years since LVMS has sold out its spring race. There’s also a big fight in town (Canelo Alvarez vs. Gennady Golovkin II) on race weekend, and the South Point 400 will be up against the NFL on TV when the green flag falls.
And it’s supposed to be hot. The long-range forecast is calling for a high of 101 degrees on race day.
Gentlemen, start your cooling fans.
In reminding Powell of all of this, the word challenge was used in regard to the mission of filling grandstands.
“You use the word challenge but we like to use the word opportunity,” he said in reprising the role of TV’s Mr. Phelps. “It’s a great opportunity not only for Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but also for our city, for the people who are trying to market our city as a destination which they’ve done so well for decades.
“To be the leadoff hitter in the playoffs is a great opportunity. And I think people are going to see that the warmer temperatures are going to make things more challenging for the drivers. I think you’re going to see a (more exciting) kind of racing here than you did in March.”
Yes, Powell even views the blistering weather as an opportunity rather than a challenge. Around Christmas time, he’ll be headed to the North Pole to set up an ice water stand.
But give him credit for looking at his glass as he does the sprawling grandstands: Half-filled rather than half-empty.
Powell concedes it would have been much easier to fill seats for a second race back when LVMS had to haul in auxiliary grandstands to accommodate ticket demand and NASCAR was lapping the field.
“That would have been great,” he said with a telltale smile.
The speedway chief said event promotion, like the race cars, was much different 10 or 15 years ago than it is today.
“The definition in television, as they say, is much higher,” Powell said. “There are different dynamics. You’re seeing ballparks at the major league level and stadiums in football and arenas in basketball, they’re not building (with the) number of seats that used to be built.”
Powell said people today have more entertainment options. Perhaps NASCAR and, to a lesser extent, the other pro sports entities were slow in reacting. All are reacting now.
“This is not just something that’s happening in the NASCAR world,” Powell said. “You might see more changes we’ll be making in the future where we might bring down the (seating) capacity but get a fuller grandstand. That appeals to people who are viewing on television.”
There is a huge framed photo on the track president’s wall that shows LVMS teeming with 156,211 spectators on race day of a not-too-distant past. In abiding by NASCAR policy, Chris Powell no longer comments on attendance or projected attendance, only that good seats are still available.