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Upon Further Review: Where will a second Vegas race come from for SMI?

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After years of teasing, pleading and politicking, Las Vegas Motor Speedway is on its way to hosting a second NASCAR Cup race in 2018.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway has scheduled a press conference for 5:30 p.m. ET Wednesday to make a “special announcement.’’ The press conference will be held 30 minutes after the board of directors of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority meets to approve a sponsorship agreement that would pay the track $2.5 million a year for seven years to promote two Cup races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

This isn’t the first time the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, funded by a hotel room tax, has sought to be involved in a second Cup race at Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in 2010 that the Convention and Visitors Authority was offering between $5-$8 million then to help land a second Cup date.

The track has hosted one Cup race a year since 1998, but Bruton Smith, founder and executive chairman of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., which owns the track, has exhorted NASCAR for years for a second date at Las Vegas and to host the season finale. He’s also used the threat of moving a race date from one of his tracks to Las Vegas to leverage local governments for better deals.

Marcus Smith, chief executive officer and president of SMI, told reporters Sunday at Atlanta that he’s heartened by the interest in Las Vegas for a second Cup date.

“We love the support we get out of Las Vegas,” Smith said. “I think the fans love it. It’s a great track for us. When we see that the community is supportive of racing there, it’s definitely encouraging to us.”

What’s encouraging is the potential financial windfall. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority states the 2016 Cup race drew more than 114,000 fans with about 96,000 coming from out of town. That generated $138 million in economic impact for the community.

OK, if Las Vegas gets a second date, where is it coming from?

Don’t expect the NASCAR schedule to add a race. That means a track will have to lose a date.

SMI likely will move a date from one of its tracks to Las Vegas instead of purchasing a race date.

SMI’s most recent track purchase was in 2008 when it bought Kentucky Speedway for $78.3 million. SMI paid $15 million in cash and assumed $63.3 million debt. That was for a track that didn’t have a Cup date.

The only candidates to purchase a race date from would be Indianapolis, Pocono and Dover. None has given any indication of selling. The other Cup race dates are owned by International Speedway Corp.

With this just the third year of a 10-year TV contract, no track should look to sell.

Dover’s annual report states it received $30.9 million in broadcasting revenue for its two Cup, two Xfinity and one Truck race in 2016. That means it received about $14 million per Cup race in broadcasting revenues, which increase about 3 percent annually, before paying its purse. Tracks keep 65 percent of the TV money paid (25 percent goes to teams and 10 percent to NASCAR). With seven years left on the TV contract, that would equate to about $80 million in broadcasting revenue for one Cup event after purse payments. SMI isn’t likely to pay that when it can move a date from one of its tracks.

Also, Matthew Brooks, a securities analyst for Macquarie Securities says that if SMI wanted to purchase a race date or track, International Speedway Corp., would likely outbid it.

“If (SMI) was able to do a deal to get a track or date from someone else, I think, with a much better balance sheet, (ISC) would come in there and say, ‘I’ll give you $10 million more or some number … and I’ll take it,’ ’’ Brooks told NBC Sports. “(ISC) is in a much better position to outbid (SMI) because they have a balance sheet that is net cash, their cash is bigger than their debt.’’

Macquarie Securities also downgraded SMI’s stock on March 3 from neutral to underperform. Brooks said Macquarie Securities values SMI’s stock at about $16 a share. SMI’s stock was priced at $19.17 a share after Tuesday’s trading (ISC’s stock was valued at $35.88 a share at the end of Tuesday).

Brooks cited the declining admissions revenue as a reason for the stock downgrade. SMI reported that admission revenue declined 10 percent in 2016 but noted in a conference call with investor analysts March 1 that eight of its 13 Cup weekends were negatively impacted by weather.

“You can’t have drops that big constantly just because of rain or whatever,’’ Brooks said. “It just signals something wrong with the business.’’

If purchasing a race date isn’t likely, that leaves moving a date from a track SMI owns.

SMI won’t take a date away from Texas (being repaved and major TV market), Sonoma (diversity in schedule with road course), Kentucky (repaved last year and additional layer of asphalt added since) and Bristol (has invested much into facility). That leaves Atlanta, Charlotte and New Hampshire.

Provided SMI goes through with repaving Atlanta — a decision is expected this week — it won’t spend millions on such a project and then abandon the facility.

That leaves Charlotte and New Hampshire.

The Coca-Cola 600 isn’t going off its Memorial Day weekend spot at Charlotte. That leaves the fall race. That is expected to feature parts of the oval and infield road course in 2018, giving the playoffs its only road course. SMI will complete upgrades and construction to the road course this year.

With the work being put into road course, that date isn’t moving.

The only option would be the All-Star Race, but that’s a midyear event and who wants to be outdoors in Las Vegas then? The average high in May is 89 degrees. The average high there from June to August is above 98 degrees.

That leaves New Hampshire.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway had its July Cup race run without a sponsor last year and has yet to announce a sponsor for either Cup race this year. 

Marcus Smith mentioned in the call with investor analysts March 1 that SMI plans to “repurpose” seating areas at Charlotte, Kentucky and New Hampshire in the first quarter of this year. An SMI spokesperson told NBC Sports that overall capacities for each track won’t change, but details on such fan enhancements will come at a later date.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway has one of the smaller seating capacities of the SMI tracks. Sonoma (47,000), Atlanta (70,000) and Charlotte (86,000) have smaller capacities than New Hampshire (89,000), according to SMI’s 2015 annual report.

Even with that capacity, swaths of empty seats have been prevalent in recent years at New Hampshire. While the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is investing in Las Vegas Motor Speedway, such investment is not as readily available for New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Bruton Smith also has wanted the state to widen the highway that leads to the track for years.

The bottom line is that it will come down to money. There is money in Las Vegas for a second Cup date. If there is more there than at another track, then it is time for SMI to make a change and put another Cup race in the desert.

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Darlington celebrates NASCAR’s 70th birthday by revealing 4th throwback weekend details

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Darlington Raceway on Thursday celebrated the 70th birthday of NASCAR in a big way, announcing details for the fourth annual NASCAR throwback weekend.

The track revealed the 2018 edition of the throwback weekend will celebrate “Seven Decades of NASCAR,” to be held Aug. 31-Sept. 2 at the legendary 1.366-mile track.

The weekend will include the Cup Series’ Bojangles’ Southern 500 and the Xfinity Series’ Sports Clips Haircuts VFW 200.

NASCAR held its first of several organizational meetings on Dec. 14, 1947, at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida. That ultimately led to the official formation of NASCAR on Feb. 21, 1948.

The throwback weekend will honor and feature highlights of some of the biggest moments in the sport’s history over its first 70 years.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for Darlington Raceway and the NASCAR industry to celebrate the sport over a seven decade period during our 2018 throwback weekend,” Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp said in a media release.

“We have been era specific the past three years,” Tharp added, “so we felt it was important to recognize the 70th anniversary of NASCAR with our ‘Seven Decades of NASCAR’ celebration next season and give the teams, sanctioning body and others a wider brush to paint a picture capturing memorable moments we might not have celebrated in year’s past.”

Memorable moments to be celebrated include several that took place at Darlington itself, including Ned Jarrett’s record-setting 14-lap victory in the 1965 Southern 500, Ricky Craven’s record-setting photo finish win over Kurt Busch in 2003, and Jimmie Johnson’s 2012 Southern 500 win, which gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career victory, among others.

Cup winners of the first three throwback weekends have been Carl Edwards (2015), Martin Truex Jr. (2016) and Denny Hamlin (2017).

As has been the case for the first three throwback weekends, the track will once again issue commemorative tickets for the Southern 500.

“We have produced commemorative tickets for our fans every year of the throwback program, which is an important part of our platform,” Tharp said. “We appreciate how much the fans have supported Darlington Raceway and want them to walk away from our weekend with a special keepsake that recognizes our rich history and honors the stars of our sport.”

Front Row Motorsports adds Michael McDowell, expands technical alliance with Roush Fenway

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Front Row Motorsports will field entries for David Ragan and Michael McDowell in 2018 while expanding its technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing, the team announced Thursday.

McDowell joins the Bob Jenkins-owned team after four years of driving the No. 95 Chevrolet for Leavine Family Racing before being replaced by Kasey Kahne.

The native of Phoenix, Arizona, McDowell replaces Landon Cassill as Ragan’s teammate.

McDowell, 32, has 249 Cup starts since 2008, but only two full-time seasons under his belt. He made one start for Front Row at Watkins Glen in 2013.

“Since I first drove for Bob at Watkins Glen, we’ve kept in touch and have felt like there might be an opportunity to work together again, and the timing worked out perfectly,” McDowell said in a press release. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a teammate, so I’m really looking forward to working with David, whom I’ve become pretty good friends with over the years. As a team now, we go into the season knowing we have five or six races that put us in position to get a win and earn a spot in the playoffs.”

Ragan returns to Front Row for his fifth season. Ragan earned the organization its first Cup victory in 2013 at Talladega. Ragan has two wins, 15 top fives and 39 top-10 finishes in his Cup career.

“Bob Jenkins and I have developed a good relationship over the years, both professionally and personally,” Ragan said in a press release. “I believe in this team and am proud to have been part of its growth and its successes. I’m excited that Bob and Ford have agreed to take the program to the next level, and I’m happy I’ll be here to help the team continue to grow.”

Crew chief assignments have not been finalized. FRM will announce sponsor partners and driver car numbers at a later date.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘Last Ride’ diecast is Lionel Racing’s bestselling ever

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has set a new benchmark for Lionel Racing’s most purchased diecast in its 25-year history.

Lionel Racing, NASCAR’s official diecast producer, has announced that the diecast of Earnhardt’s “Last Ride” No. 88 Chevrolet in the Cup season finale last month is now its bestselling diecast in company history.

The “Last Ride” car is based on the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet that Earnhardt drove in his rookie Cup season in 2000.

The previous bestseller was another Earnhardt diecast, for his 2014 Daytona 500 win.

Lionel Racing says that QVC’s “For Race Fans Only” show that featured Earnhardt and unveiled the car helped contribute to sales. But even without QVC, sales of the “Last Ride” diecast outpaced the 2014 Daytona 500 diecast by more than 10,000 units.

“The demand for this car has been simply astounding,” Lionel Racing President Howard Hitchcock said on the company’s website. “The fan response to this diecast is a true measure of how much Earnhardt has meant to both casual NASCAR fans and serious diecast collectors.”

Lionel Racing has also revealed the top-10 selling diecasts for the year, which you can find below. Earnhardt has six cars on the list. Chase Elliott has two and Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney each have one.

Casey Mears likely to split 2018 between NASCAR, Global Rallycross and Stadium Super Trucks

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Casey Mears still plans to compete part-time in NASCAR in 2018, but he’s also looking to expand his racing horizons.

The veteran NASCAR driver told The Checkered Flag recently that he also expects to race in the Red Bull Global Rallycross series, as well as Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks series.

“Right now I’m talking to a few NASCAR programs to do maybe limited stuff,” Mears told The Checkered Flag. “I don’t have anything that would be a full-time ride in a NASCAR series.

“I’ve been speaking with Robby Gordon in the Stadium Super Truck program. I think that’s a really cool up-and-coming-series and I’d definitely like to be involved with the GRC. It looks like a lot of fun.

“I think there’s enough difference between all those that it could leave room for doing a bit of both so we’ll see how it works out.”

Mears did not race in the Cup Series in 2017, having lost his ride at the end of 2016 to Ty Dillon in the No. 13 Geico Chevy. He has amassed 488 starts and one win (2007 Coca-Cola 600) in his Cup career, along with 13 top fives and 51 top 10s.

However, he did compete on a part-time basis in 2017 in the Xfinity Series, making 14 starts, with season-best finishes of ninth place at both Richmond and Road America. He also has 107 Xfinity starts with one win, 16 top fives and 34 top 10s.