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COLUMN: Relief funds could spark NC motorsports revival
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COLUMN: Relief funds could spark NC motorsports revival

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Stock car racing is North Carolina born and bred, and Gov. Roy Cooper announced a COVID-19 relief plan Wednesday that seems to acknowledge that by way of an economic windfall for each of the state’s three most important race tracks.

In his American Rescue Plan budget recommendation on how to use federal relief dollars — which, mind you, still needs legislative approval — Cooper is ready to throw $10 million apiece for improvements at Charlotte Motor Speedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway and The Rock Speedway and Entertainment Complex.

Simply put, NASCAR as we know it would not exist without these three facilities in stock car racing’s home state, and the one where NASCAR houses its cherished Hall of Fame facility. And while Charlotte still is a crown jewel of the sport, North Wilkesboro and Rockingham have fallen by the wayside as the sport looked to expand its horizons and fan base to other far-away states.

While N.C. used to host six points-paying events plus the All-Star Race, North Wilkesboro lost its two NASCAR Cup Series race dates after 1996, Rockingham lost its two events after the 2003 and 2004 seasons and, most recently, Charlotte relinquished the All-Star Race a year ago.

Many, many North Carolinians and race fans haven’t given up hope for these facilities yet. And this is just the latest of several recent signs that that hope might still have a foundation, after all.

This money would come from a $45 million pot allocated to “motorsports and outdoor event opportunities.” It also includes a potential $10 million to the N.C. Department of Commerce for North Carolina’s smaller racing facilities — short tracks, drag strips, road courses and go-kart tracks — and $5 million to the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources for trails.

“North Carolina has been a motorsport industry and tourism destination, but the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered motorsports and the communities that host them,” Cooper’s budget plan reads. “North Carolina is the birthplace of motorsports and NASCAR, which hosted the first NASCAR Cup Series race at the Charlotte fairgrounds in 1949. North Carolina is home to NASCAR’s headquarters and Hall of Fame, and 90% of teams are based in North Carolina.

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“Motorsports is a leading tourism generator in the state, representing a $5 billion industry. The Charlotte Motor Speedway alone brought 1.1 million visitors to its events in 2019, and pre-pandemic, the speedway generated more than $25 million in state and local tax revenue annually. However, between March and September 2020, Cabarrus County, home of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, lost over $24 million in hotel revenue, equating to a loss of $540,000 in local taxes.”

Additional citations in the plan of allocating these funds to motorsports facilities include the fact that hospitality executives nationwide expect leisure travel to occur closer to home because of the pandemic, which the plan says aligns with surveys of North Carolinians that indicate a desire to travel in-state and attend outdoor events. Cooper’s recommendation says that the state’s nearly 40 such facilities could benefit from refurbishment and be used for such tourism and events.

Even if the plan passes through the state legislature, though, it’s still not a done deal.

The tracks’ home counties — Cabarrus for Charlotte, Wilkes for North Wilkesboro and Richmond for Rockingham — must be able to post a $1 match for every $4 of state funding to receive the relief dollars. Then, if that happens, the home counties will partner with the venues to fund infrastructure improvements that could include water and wastewater extensions, pedestrian walkway enhancements, repaving, upgrades to facilities and dragways, bathroom fixtures and maintenance, grandstand repairs and erosion control.

The expected impact? If all of the above goes to plan, the recommendation says Charlotte, North Wilkesboro and Rockingham will host at least five new outdoor events in the next three years.

It’s ambitious, especially for North Wilkesboro and Rockingham. And The Rock is closer to race shape than North Wilkesboro, which almost certainly needs more than $10 million altogether for a resurrection. But with owner group Speedway Motorsports and Camping World’s Marcus Lemonis already showing interest in reviving NWS, it’s another boost to the cause.

We’re quite some time removed from motorsports’ heyday in our state, but this could be what it takes to bring North Wilkesboro back to life, get cars back on track at Rockingham and preserve Charlotte as our state’s proud racing home for many years into the future.

Justin Epley is a sports writer for The News Herald. He can be reached at jepley@morganton.com.

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