LAS VEGAS (AP) — The signature event remains in Florida and most race teams call North Carolina home, but the nation’s gambling mecca is about to become NASCAR’s busiest market.
This week’s announcement that Las Vegas Motor Speedway will host six races yearly in NASCAR’s top three circuits starting in 2018 suits Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch just fine. He’s watching his hometown go through a sports boom.
“As a kid I went to a lot of UNLV basketball games, early ‘90s, we were the real deal. We were on a national stage,” the 38-year-old Busch said Thursday during a visit back to his old school, Durango High. “Then it seemed to fizzle out for a while.”
While the Runnin’ Rebels have fallen on hard times in hoops, the Las Vegas sports scene has never been more crowded as the city’s population grows and the city recovers from the 2008 recession.
As Busch was finishing last in a Big Wheel race against students and making a $5,000 donation to his former school, the Las Vegas Stadium Authority was meeting down the street to discuss lease details of the proposed NFL stadium that would lure the Raiders from Oakland.
There were also three college basketball conference tournaments going on, with Busch having tickets to the evening Pac-12 session. That’s being played for the first time at the new T-Mobile Arena, where the NHL expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights begin play in the fall.
And Busch, in town for this weekend’s NASCAR Cup race, was excited about Wednesday’s announcement that the 1.5-mile oval north of the Strip will host a second Cup race beginning in 2018, during the 10-race playoff.
The addition of the two lower tier races will make Las Vegas the only NASCAR track to host two tripleheader weekends each year.
“Las Vegas is a destination,” said Busch, who won NASCAR’s premier race at Daytona last month. “Our schedule changes. Tracks gain dates, tracks lose dates. This is nothing new. But when you talk about Las Vegas, I believe it’s 90 percent of the ticket sales are from out of town. And so the tourism bureau is really the ones in charge and they do a fantastic job to advertise Las Vegas in general.”
Indeed, money is driving the sports growth in town. The Raiders are in play because the state of Nevada has pledged $750 toward a $1.9 billion domed stadium. Golden Knights owner Bill Foley agreed to pay a $500 million expansion fee. Money draws numerous UFC and boxing fights to town.
And Speedway Motorsports Inc. decided to move its fall Cup and Truck Series dates from New Hampshire and an Xfinity race from Kentucky to the desert because the Las Vegas track will receive $2.5 million a year for seven years from the city’s convention and visitors authority. The bureau is funded mostly through hotel taxes.
“Las Vegas has always been one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world and it is now emerging as a premiere destination for major league professional sports and marquee sporting events,” said Kerry Bubolz, President of the Golden Knights. “The addition of the second NASCAR race supports that. And as a NASCAR fan, I personally am excited about the news.”
While Las Vegas hasn’t been immune to NASCAR’s dwindling attendance, the visitors bureau said 115,000 attended last March’s NASCAR Cup race, with an estimated 96,000 coming from out of town.
“The experience is unique to any other in our sport.” NASCAR executive Steve O’Donnell said.
So it wasn’t a difficult call for track owner SMI to move the dates. Neither race at New Hampshire this year has a title sponsor and it was tough to draw crowds for a single Xfinity race at Kentucky.
But a more saturated sports market will also test NASCAR’s second date, which will likely occur during an NFL Sunday and in the September heat of the desert.
“I love Vegas. I think it’s a great atmosphere and it would be good,” driver Kevin Harvick said last week at Atlanta. “But sometimes you can turn one great (race) into two mediocres.”
Busch believes his hometown and two NASCAR dates are a great fit.
“There’s so much to do. Restaurants, entertainment, gambling, this is a huge destination worldwide,” Busch said. “And now they have two NASCAR dates.”