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September 16, 2014

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NASCAR nirvana for Las Vegas economy

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Joe Elbert

Don Sweet, second from right, and friend Jason Hartley have been coming to NASCAR races at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the past five years. They stay on a budget by going to Costco for their supplies for the long weekend, but spend an hour gambling on the Strip.

NASCAR car hauler parade

Joey Logano's car hauler passes by fans during a parade of NASCAR haulers on the Las Vegas Strip on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010. Launch slideshow »

NASCAR Hauler Parade on the Strip

The NASCAR Hauler parade kicked off race weekend Thursday evening as more than 60 haulers honked loudly as they traveled northbound on the Strip. NASCAR fans cheered on the large colorful trucks, which carry the race cars and gear to the track.

Kyle and Kurt Busch

Las Vegas natives, brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch greet their fans during NASCAR weekend.

Kurt Busch-Pole Position Raceway

Las Vegas native and NASCAR driver Kurt Busch drives the go-karts at Pole Position Raceway in Las Vegas on Thursday. Launch slideshow »

Kyle Busch Autograph Signing

Fans wait in line outside M&M's World for a Kyle Busch autograph-signing event in Las Vegas on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010. Many had been waiting for more than five hours. Launch slideshow »

Salt Lake City mason Clair Smith was laid off from his job a month ago, but that didn’t keep him from making his eighth visit to Las Vegas for NASCAR weekend.

“I’m spending a lot less because I am making a lot less, but I saved for it all year. This is my one trip,” Smith says outside his RV in the infield of Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Thursday afternoon.

Knowing that the recession has most people making less and spending less, local tourism officials are holding out hope that this year’s NASCAR weekend will bring in more people who will spend more.

In 2009, the biggest event of the weekend, the Sprint Cup race Sunday, drew about 140,000 spectators. That was down from about 152,000 in 2008 and the record of 156,000 in 2007.

Ticket prices were reduced for this year’s race, so organizers figure that should help bring out some people who otherwise would have not attended.

NASCAR weekend also involves more than just the marquee event, the Sprint Cup Shelby American on Sunday. The dirt track next to the speedway had races Thursday; the speedway has qualifying runs today and the Sam’s Town 300 on Saturday.

All told, attendance for the four days should add up to about 300,000, predicts Chris Powell, president of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Powell is fond of noting “that’s four times what they had at the Super Bowl.”

Because a lot of the out-of-town fans will be here for all four days, the result is one of the top weekends of the year for the local economy, says Jeremy Handel, spokesman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

The economic impact from last year’s events, not including gambling revenue, was $107 million, the authority reports.

That sounds pretty good — until you stack it up against 2008 when the estimated impact was about $28 million more.

This year’s tally won’t come close to $134 million, Handel and Powell agree, but it might be better than last year.

Dan Hippler, vice president of marketing at VEGAS.com, which is owned by the Greenspun family that also owns the Las Vegas Sun, says the travel Web site’s hotel room sales are up 30 percent.

“We are seeing a pretty big increase from what we did last year at this time,” Hippler says. “It definitely looks like there’s an increase in the booking window, which means people are booking their hotels further in advance.”

Harrah’s is sold out all weekend, and Wynn Las Vegas and the Hard Rock Hotel are sold out Saturday.

Rates at the most popular Strip hotels are higher than they have been in recent weeks, and rates at budget hotels also are much higher than normal for the weekend, all thanks in part to NASCAR events.

And although the number of people who decide at the last minute to attend Saturday’s race may suffer because of the rain clouds that are supposed to sit over the valley through the day and into the night, the worst-case scenario — Saturday’s race gets postponed to Monday — could work in the economy’s favor because it might keep race fans in town an extra day or two.

The rain is more of a problem for the racers than for fans such as Don Sweet, a 49-year-old Wal-Mart truck driver from Tooele, Utah.

“We drove down through a blizzard of snow to get here, so hell no, we don’t care about rain,” Sweet says.

His fellow road-tripper, Jason Hartley, a 31-year-old building engineer, said they’re regular visitors to the Las Vegas race because “you can’t beat the weather and the planes” from nearby Nellis Air Force Base that fly over the track regularly.

Sunday is expected to be sunny for the big race. That forecast and the success of certain drivers make it possible that the speedway could sell an usually high number of tickets at the last minute.

“It certainly helps that Danica Patrick will be here and that Dale Earnhardt Jr. actually fared well at Daytona,” Powell says. “Undoubtedly, he’s the most popular in the sport.”

Still, Powell described the chances of a sellout as “less than an outside shot.” The majority of tickets are sold in advance to the 70 percent of the crowd from out of state.

Included in that group are fans from every state and 33 countries, Powell says. They will provide a major economic boost.

“The gaming, the restaurants, the hotels, the shows, the transportation,” Powell said, “you name an aspect of this city and this event touches it.”

The big question, though, is whether that touch will be stronger than last year.

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