NASCAR & Auto Racing

My way or no speedway, Bruton Smith tells city officials

If Concord doesn't want a drag strip, Lowe's Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith said, he doesn't want anything to do with Concord.

Smith said Tuesday he's willing to spend the $350 million it would take to shut down his speedway and build a new oval track and drag strip somewhere else.

"I am deadly serious," Smith said. "I am ready, willing and able to do that. ... If I found the land today, I would have our engineers on the job within a few days."

The billionaire chairman of Speedway Motorsports made the threat after the City Council voted Monday to stop him from building a $60 million drag strip in the city. He said Concord leaders are trying to keep him from growing his motorsports business in the city, so he may need to move his races elsewhere.

Smith said he wants to keep a track and other facilities for NASCAR races in the Charlotte area and that he's looking for land. He could tear down Lowe's or use it as a test track, he said.

Smith's threat sent local business recruiters scrambling Tuesday to make sure he doesn't follow through.

Concord Mayor Scott Padgett objected to Smith's criticism. He said the city was one of the first to embrace the motorsports industry when others shunned it.

At the same time, the city wants to protect the track's neighbors, Padgett said. Some residents live less than a mile from the proposed location for the drag strip. They say they're worried noise from the track could disturb their sleep and drive down property values.

"They have legitimate concerns that need to be addressed, but I think they could be addressed," Padgett said.

"I'm hoping cooler heads will prevail and there will be an opportunity for everyone to sit down and talk and look for ways to work this situation out. ... I can't recall a time when we've ever said `no' to anything the speedway wanted."

A force for tourism, tax base

Losing the speedway would be extraordinarily costly to Concord and Cabarrus County.The speedway brought $169 million in tourism spending to Cabarrus last year. That's nearly 70 percent of all the tourism money that came into the county, according to the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce.

In taxes, the speedway is worth about 1 percent of Cabarrus County's property tax revenues, and about 2 percent of Concord's. It's worth about $1.02 million in property taxes to the county this year and $722,247 to Concord.

It's the county's fourth-largest taxpayer, behind Philip Morris USA, Corning and Concord Mills mall.

When asked to describe how important keeping the speedway is to Concord, John Cox, chief executive officer of Cabarrus Economic Development, made this observation on the series of blows the economy has endured in recent years:

The Pillowtex manufacturing plants have closed. Corning's Midland plant shut down operations in 2002 and only this year began moving toward restarting. Philip Morris USA has announced its plans to close its Concord cigarette plant, and three other major businesses have been bought by outsiders.

"You put all of those things together," Cox said, "and the impact of losing Lowe's Motor Speedway would be greater."

Work started, but no permits

In August, Smith announced plans to build the drag strip. He said then that racing could begin there in April.

His company started grading land for the drag strip more than a week ago, though it had not applied for required city and county permits.

Concord City Council members called a special meeting Monday and, by unanimous vote, changed the zoning on Smith's property to ban drag strips.

Padgett said the council would consider reversing the decision if Speedway Motorsports would take measures to reduce noise at drag races.

Besides moving the track, Smith said his lawyers were studying whether they could have his property "un-annexed" from Concord so city leaders could not control the zoning.

That's a long shot. The state legislature would have to approve such a change.

Smith has made threats like this before.

In 2003, the Tennessee county that hosts Bristol Motor Speedway was considering raising money through an entertainment tax that would apply to race tickets. After Smith threatened to pull his NASCAR races from the track, Sullivan County, Tenn., leaders backed away from the idea.

Smith also got into a public name-calling match with Charlotte and Mecklenburg leaders in 2004 over whether they had given him permission to cut down hundreds of trees that the track had promised to save.

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