NASCAR's gamble on Las Vegas pays off handsomely - Saturday 12th of March 2005

LAS VEGAS - The mayor of Las Vegas arrived at the winter baseball meetings in Anaheim, last December with two showgirls and an Elvis Presley impersonator.

''I took a dramatic chance of making an idiot out of myself," the mayor, Oscar Goodman, said with a laugh. But he certainly was noticed when he declared Las Vegas ready to be a major league baseball town.

And a football, basketball or hockey town, if Goodman has his way. So far, though, NASCAR is the only major professional sports entity to embrace a city that so revels in its sinful image that it features an advertising campaign declaring, ''What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."

The Nextel Cup series makes its annual stop in Las Vegas today with the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400. This is the eighth year that NASCAR, hardly a follower when it comes to managing the growth of its sport, has held a race in its premier series here.

''I can't speak for other professional sports," NASCAR's president, Mike Helton, said of the decision to come to Las Vegas in the 1990s. ''From NASCAR's perspective, it was a matter of seeing an opportunity in a major tourism market."

NASCAR and Las Vegas have cashed in on that opportunity. The race attracts so many fans that the track owner Bruton Smith has added seats the past two years. Attendance could surpass 150,000 today.

The race brings an estimated $142 million to the city, including as much as $55 million to $60 million in gambling business for the casinos. Most of the bets are small -- the casinos will not take an unusually large bet on a NASCAR race -- but the volume of bets is significant.

The dollar figure does not compare to the casinos' take on the Super Bowl or the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Still, it makes for a lucrative weekend for an in-town event, comparable only to the major fights held at casinos.

''I would say it's probably the biggest event that we have right now," said Robert Walker, the race and sports book director for MGM Mirage. ''I wish they had another race in Vegas."

So does Goodman. Last year, he asked fans to write to NASCAR to beg for a second race here. So far, no luck, which may be a disappointment for some of the drivers. This is one of the highlight stops on the schedule.

''You don't see every single team testing here in the off-season for no reason," Jeff Gordon said.

Construction on Las Vegas Motor Speedway was begun in 1995 by two casino owners, with no NASCAR dates set. NASCAR made its first visit in 1996 with a Craftsman Truck race, then held a Busch race in 1997. By 1998, the Cup began making annual stops in Las Vegas. Helton said gambling had not been an issue, although there was some concern when the former Cup driver Brendan Gaughan, the son of a casino owner, talked about betting on himself.

For a sport that promotes its family image and holds prerace prayers, Las Vegas may seem an odd fit. Not for Helton.

''I think there could have been a point back in history where it might not have been acceptable for NASCAR maybe to take a look at racing there at the national level," he said. ''From NASCAR's perspective, when there was an opportunity with a first-class facility to have a national event take place on, by that time I think Vegas was more acceptable.

"I don't see as many churches maybe as you see casinos in Vegas. But I see churches. And I don't think there's anything out of line per se for NASCAR to go in there and perform its style and its typical events, which include the invocation before the race. It's another racetrack to us when we get there.''

Helton said the proximity to casinos was not a concern. After all, if someone wanted to taint the sport, that could be done anywhere. Besides, as Goodman noted, 48 of 50 states have some form of legal gambling.

"That's old-time thinking,'' Goodman said of fears that gambling here would influence sporting events.

Mainly for that reason, and despite the city's best efforts, an NFL team is unlikely to come to Las Vegas. But Goodman has more realistic hopes that a baseball team will relocate here. He said Las Vegas was in contention for the Montreal Expos before the franchise moved to Washington.

Goodman is not giving up. With a population of 1.7 million in the valley, he says Las Vegas has become too big for major sports leagues to ignore. And he is still pitching.

''If there's a team that's ready to relocate," he said, ''we're ready to have them."

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