Officials Scramble to Keep N.C.'s NASCAR Races

Posted November 15, 2007 12:35 p.m. EST
Updated November 15, 2007 10:19 p.m. EST

— Cabarrus County officials are trying to assemble a package of incentives to persuade Bruton Smith not to move Lowe's Motor Speedway to South Carolina.

Smith threatened to cross the state line – taking North Carolina's last NASCAR races with him – after Concord officials last month rejected his plans to build a $60 million drag strip next to the race track.

Fearing the loss of a major economic engine, the Concord City Council then reversed its stance and approved the drag strip proposal. The city is also sweetening the pot by offering up to $75 million in incentives to help Smith renovate and expand Lowe's Motor Speedway.

The incentives, which could include improvements to nearby roads and property tax rebates, would be evenly split among Concord, Cabarrus County and the state, officials said.

Smith met this week with local officials, North Carolina Department of Commerce representatives and aides to Gov. Mike Easley. He said he plans to make a decision about the speedway's location by Thanksgiving.

"It was a very good meeting, and I think it was productive," Smith said.

Easley declined to comment, but his aides said the governor wants to ensure the speedway stays in North Carolina.

After losing NASCAR races in Rockingham and North Wilkesboro in recent years – Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc. owned the North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham when the track's two Nextel Cup races were moved to out-of-state tracks – officials said it's critical to keep the races in Concord.

Studies show NASCAR generates about $5 billion a year in North Carolina. About 90 percent of race teams are based in the state, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame is being built in Charlotte.

John Connaughton, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said race teams could be lured to other states if Lowe's Motor Speedway and its races leave.

"It's a very troubling situation. It's something we need to pay a lot of attention to (and) make sure we do what we can what we can to keep the track here," Connaughton said.

Steve Byers, who owns NASCAR Collectibles in Raleigh, said the sport's importance to North Carolina is worth incentives being offered to Smith.

"It's a big deal, and it makes a big deal financially for our state," Byers said. "(Losing other races has) already hurt us somewhat in that regard, and if Lowe's was to leave, I think that would only make it worse."

But those who oppose incentives said Smith is merely taking advantage of taxpayer handouts that politicians created.

"Mr. Smith is acting very rationally. He has seen that the state of North Carolina will give you money if you rattle your sword in one hand and your tin cup in the other hand," said Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake.