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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has ‘some interest’ in being part of group that buys Carolina Panthers

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not one of two race car drivers who are part of Felix Sabates’ group seeking to buy the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, according to the Associated Press.

NASCAR’s 15-time most popular driver told the AP he hadn’t been asked by Sabates to join the group. But Earnhardt said he reached out to Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., about the possibility of being part of an effort to pursue the team.

SMI own Charlotte Motor Speedway and seven other NASCAR tracks.

“I said, ‘Hey, Marcus, if you guys are in the middle of it and you think it’s a good business deal, I definitely have some interest,'” Earnhardt told the AP. “But I am not one of the guys that Felix is talking about.”

Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing, told the Charlotte Observer last week he was part of a local group in the Charlotte area seeking to buy the Panthers. Sabates said he is not in position to be the majority owner by a “long shot.”

Sabates’ group includes five businessmen, two of the team’s existing minority owners and two race car drivers, who Sabates declined to name.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is selling the team after it was revealed in December by Sports Illustrated that four former Panther employees received “significant settlements” for workplace misconduct that included “sexual harassment against female employees and for directing a racial slur at an African-American employee.”

NASCAR recently denied a report that CEO and Chairman Brian France was part of a group interested in buying the team.

Earnhardt, a noted fan of the Washington Redskins, recently retired from Cup racing after 18 full-time seasons on the circuit.

“I wouldn’t have the kind of money where I would move the needle too much, but it would be something to have a lot of pride in, and a good Charlotte NFL team is good for the city of Charlotte,” Earnhardt said. “I wish them success because of what it does for our community, not only from a pride standpoint, but an economical standpoint. I wouldn’t be a big player, and it wouldn’t be an investment that would really create a big change in my life.

“But I certainly would love to be supportive to the team and the success of the team to the community. That means a lot to me.”

Earnhardt will make his debut as a member of the NBC Sports broadcasting family next month during coverage of the Super Bowl and winter Olympics.

Legislation could help Texas Motor Speedway to lure All-Star Race, season finale

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Texas Motor Speedway could become a player for the NASCAR All-Star Race or Cup season finale with legislation making the track eligible for money to help bring those events there.

H.B. 3294 was filed Monday without Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature. It becomes effective Sept. 1.

The measure updates the law. It makes the track eligible for funding should it ever get the All-Star race or season-ending championship race. The money comes from the state’s Major Events Reimbursement Fund, which provided millions to help lure the 2017 Super Bowl.

An event has to be listed to be eligible for funding. Texas Motor Speedway previously had not been listed in the law.

“It’s just going to give us a tool, should we choose to use it, to give us an opportunity to pursue some events in a way that have probably never been pursued in NASCAR before,’’ Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports. “Don’t know that we’re ever going to use it, but at least it’s something we’ve got in our tool kit that I don’t know anybody else in motorsports has.’’

NASCAR awards its races to tracks. There isn’t a bidding process as there is for a Super Bowl or NCAA Final Four. The 2018 Cup schedule has been set with Charlotte Motor Speedway scheduled to host the All-Star Race for the 33rd time in 34 years. The 2018 schedule has Homestead-Miami Speedway hosting the season finale for what would be the 17th consecutive year.

NASCAR has five-year sanctioning agreements with tracks that go through 2020.

Gossage said that it was his understanding that its two Cup race weekends were not eligible for such funding from the state, so the track sought to have the All-Star Race and championship finale added as part of the legislation.

Events the measure lists as eligible for funding include all-star games for the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer, a national championship college football game, a World Cup soccer game or tournament and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association National Finals Rodeo, among others.

The Major Events Reimbursement Fund is controlled by the governor’s office. There is a formula that determines what each event is eligible to receive. The fund is supported by state and local sales taxes, auto rental tax, hotel and alcohol state taxes.

The Associated Press reported that the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston was eligible for $25 million and the 2016 U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race in Austin, Texas, was eligible for $26 million.

Gossage said the track has not had any discussions with NASCAR seeking the All-Star Race or season finale.

Charlotte Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway are both owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc., so moving the All-Star Race would have to be approved by Marcus Smith, president, chief executive officer of SMI.

“Ultimately, it’s Marcus’ decision as to whether to try to use it, and I honestly can’t tell you what he would say,’’ Gossage said. “He’s president of the company and that’s all eight speedways. He’s got to make decisions that are in the best interest for the company. That’s going to be tough particularly when the company is based in Charlotte and we’re talking that one of these events is a Charlotte event.’’

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Earnhardt Family Playground provides special place at Rescue Ranch

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STATESVILLE, N.C. — Where there had been silence, except for the whistling wind, there was laughter, giggles and shouts of glee Friday morning.

With the help of the Earnhardt family and others, Rescue Ranch debuted a state-of-the-art playground to go along with its mission of promoting hands-on learning and caring for animals.

Rescue Ranch, founded by Ryan Newman and wife Krissie, is located about 35 minutes north of Charlotte and provides classroom education on animal care and contact with a variety of animals on the 87-acre facility.

Krissie Newman said they were looking to add a playground to make school field trips there more of a full-day experience. As they looked into such playgrounds, she met Kendra Wood, an autism teacher at Lake Norman High School, and talked to occupational therapists who provided tips on how to make a playground inclusive for all children.

“We always look for field trips to get out in the community in any sort and this is a great place,’’ Wood said. “Now that they added the playground to it, we can do an outdoor component as well.’’

That’s important because many playgrounds are not as accessible for all children.

“Playgrounds usually aren’t fun for us,’’ Wood said. “We can’t do anything. We can do pretty much everything (here). It’s such a different thing for us, but a great thing, something that I wish other communities would come and look at and try to emulate.’’

The $550,000 playground, which is 10,000 square feet, is named the Earnhardt Family Playground.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy look at the sign dedicating the Earnhardt Family Playground. Kelley Earnhardt Miller and husband L.W. Miller also look on. Photo: Dustin Long

A sign says: “To honor our commitment to children and passion for nature, the Earnhardt Family dedicates this playground to Rescue Ranch to support the needs of our community and further its mission for the benefit of those who come and play here. Generations of our family have supported youth, nature and conservation, and the combination of all three. The Earnhardt Family is proud to support this inclusive playground and the hope and joy it will provide for generations to come.’’

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said the family was invited by the Newmans to visit and learn about the ranch. That led to the family supporting the playground. Others who contributed to the playground included Danica Patrick, Denny Hamlin Foundation, Evernham Family Racing for a Reason, Kevin Harvick Foundation, Brennan Poole, Marcus and Cassi Smith, Martin Truex Jr. Foundation and the NASCAR Foundation. 

“It was a real good opportunity for us to get involved in our community,’’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “We look for opportunities to get involved in the community and make a difference in the community and this is a really, really incredible place.’’

There’s more Krissie Newman wants to do from building a pavilion at the playground, an adoption center, a memorial garden and a 24-hour emergency vet clinic.

Students from Lake Norman High School’s autism class enjoy the swings at the Earnhardt Family Playground at Rescue Ranch. Photo by Dustin Long

“I’ve got big plans for this place,’’ she said. “I’m just starting.

“We want to teach kids and have them have fun while they’re here, have a good experience and hopefully take a little bit of Rescue Ranch away and make it part of their story. A lot of people remember where they went on field trips as a kid. I want Rescue Ranch to be one of those places in the future where they learned how to take care of animals better, respect the environment and just have a different level of compassion and empathy for living things in general.’’

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Cup season could lead to greater ticket sales

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement Tuesday that he will retire from the NASCAR Cup Series after this season could help minimize attendance declines that have become common at tracks.

Asked about the impact Earnhardt could have in the final 28 races of the season, Marcus Smith, chief executive officer and president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., likened Earnhardt to another famous athlete.

“Dale Jr.’s announcement yesterday is significant, it’s similar to when Michael Jordan decided it was time for him to retire from basketball,’’ Smith said Wednesday in a conference call with investor analysts. “The opportunity for fans to see Dale Jr. race one more time is certainly special and something we expect will be inspiring to a lot of fans to come to races.’’

Speedway Motorsports Inc. reported that admissions revenue was down 4.5 percent in the first quarter this year compared to the same time last season. The first quarter covered race weekends for Atlanta and Las Vegas. SMI reported that attendance at Atlanta was “up a little bit” and attendance at Las Vegas was “down a little bit” but did not provide numbers.

Earnhardt will be the fourth major NASCAR driver to leave the Cup series since last year Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart ran their final races last season. Carl Edwards announced before the season that he would not race this year.

International Speedway Corp., which owns tracks such as Daytona, Talladega, Darlington and Homestead-Miami Speedway, cited the absence of Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt (when he missed the last 18 races of last year) as impacting admission revenue last season.

ISC reported its fourth-quarter admissions revenue was down 9.3 percent last year from the previous season. The company hosted Cup races at Darlington, Richmond, Chicagoland, Kansas, Talladega, Martinsville, Phoenix and Homestead during that quarter.

“The impact of Jeff Gordon’s retirement was underestimated, which was compounded with Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. missing races throughout the season,’’ said John Saunders, ISC president, in January about one of the reasons for the decline.

Earnhardt’s announcement that this will be his last Cup series already has some fans purchasing or looking to purchase tickets.

Richmond International Raceway reported an increase in interest for this weekend’s race after Earnhardt’s announcement. Richmond also is selling tickets to its fall race weekend. Earnhardt is scheduled to compete in both the Xfinity and Cup races there Sept. 8-9.

The series heads to Talladega next weekend and Grant Lynch, chairman of Talladega Superspeedway, anticipates more Earnhardt fans showing up.

“If you’re going to go see him one more time, why wouldn’t you go to the track where he runs the best,’’ Lynch said. “We think that’s the a positive for Talladega. He’s always been great at Talladega. It’s an Earnhardt track. I hope folks will take the attitude that ‘Wow, I’ll get two more chances to see him,’ see him next weekend and come see us again in October.’’

The greatest demands for tickets likely will come for races at the end of the season.

Earnhardt’s final Cup race will be Nov. 19 at Homestead. The track is selling three-day weekend packages. Deposits for single-day tickets, which go on sale May 5, are being taken. That race sold out last year.

The week before Homestead, the series races at Phoenix Raceway. The track is in the renewal process for the Nov. 12 race with fall race ticket holders. The track is selling tickets to its new Club 64 section above Turn 1 now. Grandstand tickets and camping go on sale June 2.

The week before Phoenix, the series races at Texas Motor Speedway. The track is selling weekend ticket packages only at this point. The track will sell individual tickets to its fall Cup race in June. A date has yet to be determined but it will come after the June 10 IndyCar race there.

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NASCAR America: Las Vegas’ second race, Charlotte upgrades

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NBC Sports reports Nate Ryan joins Rick Allen to discuss New Hampshire Motor Speedway losing its September race to Las Vegas Motor Speedway beginning in 2018.

Ryan also reports on what Charlotte Motor Speedway is doing to prepare its road course for likely use by the NASCAR Cup Series as soon as fall 2018 in the playoffs.

“(SMI CEO Marcus Smith) did tell me today catch fences are on their way in, crash walls are on their way in for this road course,” Ryan said. “He said this is going to be a world-class facility they are spending a lot of money on upgrades. That tells you where they’re going with this.”

Watch the video for the rest of the segment.