BAKER: Double Shot Of Nitro Heading To Charlotte

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CONCORD, N.C.
Calling it a “double shot of nitro,” zMAX Dragway officials announced last week that the “Bellagio of drag strips” will host not one, but two NHRA Full Throttle Series events next season. The addition came less than a month ahead of the track’s second NHRA visit, the Carolinas Nationals, which last year saw a standing-room-only crowd for the inaugural event at the all concrete, four-lane drag strip and the first NHRA visit to North Carolina since 1998.

The new zMAX event is slated for March 25-28 and will be the fourth stop on the series’s 24-event calendar in 2010, replacing the fall program at Virginia Motorsports Park outside of Richmond, Va. zMAX joins its fellow Speedway Motorsports, Inc. track in Las Vegas and Auto Club Raceway at Pomona (Calif.) as the only facilities to host multiple NHRA events in a single season.

SMI Chairman and CEO O. Bruton Smith called NHRA President Tom Compton “a very generous man” in his allotment of the second date, but Christian Byrd, executive director and general manager of zMAX Dragway, points to the strength of the inaugural Carolinas Nationals in 2008 as a key bargaining chip in gaining an additional NHRA visit.

“We probably had one of the most financially successful events in the history of NHRA. That certainly doesn’t hurt when you’re pleading your case with the folks in Glendora,” Byrd says. “By the nature of this business agreement, we’re partners and it’s something that can make them money and make us money, and I think it’s a good deal.”

But is it too soon to schedule another NHRA visit without first seeing the success of another Carolinas Nationals, now that much of the hype of the facility’s inaugural event may have worn off, and is there a risk of over saturation with two NHRA dates?

“Bruton Smith and Marcus Smith (Lowe’s Motor Speedway president and general manager) and the people at Speedway Motorsports are not necessarily risk adverse. I think adding content, building a facility in a tough economy, trying to build equity into a first-time event and before you get to your one-year anniversary add an additional mega event, that’s the challenge to those of us that get to operate these facilities on the week-in and week-out basis,” says Byrd. “They give you the tools to work with and they negotiate with some of these sanctioning bodies to get additional dates or to get dates moved around to various facilities. It’s your job to pull them off and to put sponsors on them and to entertain people more than anything and to make sure fans have a good time. I think it’s a challenge for all of us.

“While we don’t have perfect data on everybody who comes in the gates, we’re seeing a different group of people come to the dragway than the speedway and the Auto Fair,” Byrd adds. “I think there’re more than enough people to fill up a 30,000-person facility three or four times a year in Charlotte and the surrounding cities. When you look at drag racing in North Carolina and realize there are upwards of 20 permanent facilities, you realize that there is a healthy core of drag racing fans out there. I think there’s enough excitement and the product’s good enough to bring people back three times a year.”

The March event will kick off the 2010 calendar at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway complex that also includes the four-tenths-mile Dirt Track and the 1.5-mile superspeedway, and works well in speedway officials’ goal of having two distinct seasons — one in the spring and one in the fall, avoiding the brutally hot Carolina summer months.

Byrd acknowledges that having two successful NHRA stops in a season means each event will have to be unique. Plans for the spring stop are in the final stages and will be announced during the Carolinas Nationals this month.

“What you’ll see here is us try to create two totally different experiences. And it’s not out of the question that we’ll utilize all four lanes in NHRA competition,” Byrd says. “We have to look at this more as an entertainment business; it’s not all about the competition on the track and making it so that every stop on the NHRA tour is the exact same cookie-cutter event. It’s OK to be different and I think we’re going to thrive in trying to create a separation between the two events, so you’ll always feel that you’re at a different style event when you come here in the spring and then come back in the fall. There will be reasons to attend both.”