Revving economic engine

It's no Sprint Cup weekend, but the inaugural NHRA Carolinas Nationals starting today in Concord likely will bring a welcome burst of visitor spending to the Charlotte region.

From staying in hotels to dining in restaurants, drag racing fans are expected to spend about $13 million during the four days of the National Hot Rod Association event at the new zMAX Dragway @ Concord, according to Cabarrus County tourism officials and Lowe's Motor Speedway, home of the dragway.

The infusion comes as the Charlotte area has endured a rise in empty rooms this year. Although the region's average room rate was up almost 8 percent in the first half of 2008, occupancy was down almost 5 percent from the same period last year, including a 10 percent swoon in June.

At the Comfort Suites off Interstate 85, about two miles from the dragway, general manager Lynn McCormack said that all rooms are sold out until Sunday and that nearby hotels also are full.

“It's been a much bigger event than anyone anticipated,” she said.

Cabarrus tourism officials expect more than 20,000 spectators today and Friday, and as many as 30,000 – a capacity crowd – Saturday and Sunday. About half will stay in hotels, accounting for the bulk of visitor spending at more than $250 a person per day, according to projections.

Such estimates are far from an exact science, and the NHRA's economic impact pales in comparison to the more than $100 million from a Sprint Cup race weekend, which can draw well over 150,000 fans to Concord.

Still, the NHRA is “bigger than you might think,” said Tom Compton, the racing organization's president.

While drag races last only a few seconds with cars screaming down a straightway – compared with NASCAR races that run a few hours – there are contests throughout the day. In addition, fans can get closer to drivers and crews because each ticket is a pit pass.

Attendance at races grew by more than 10 percent nationwide last year, Compton said, and fans spend three to five days at events.

“The qualifying days are just as popular as race days,” he said. “With Charlotte being a midsize market, (the event) should have a noticeable impact.”

The NHRA Carolinas Nationals arrive amid renewed squabbling between Bruton Smith – owner of Lowe's Motor Speedway – and Concord and Cabarrus officials over $80 million in incentives for the dragway and improvements to the speedway and nearby roads.

Local leaders – saying the roadwork will benefit the public as well – approved the incentives last fall after Smith threatened to move the speedway from Concord because of a dispute with the city over plans for the drag strip. In exchange for incentives, Smith said he would build the $60 million strip and make $200 million in speedway upgrades.

Last month, the city and county told Smith that it could take up to 40 years to reimburse Smith's company, Speedway Motorsports, for fronting the cost of $60 million in road and other improvements. Smith countered last week with a plan that compensated him in three years and gave him interest if payments took longer than that.Whatever happens, the drag strip is finished and ready to host the NHRA. Seats for Saturday's session are sold out, speedway officials said, and only a few tickets remain for Sunday.

Officials eventually hope to hold at least one big event each month at the dragway, then fill other weekends with amateur races, car shows and smaller events. Without question, though, this weekend's event is aimed at adding Concord and the Charlotte region to the ranks of communities that have benefited from NHRA crowds in recent years.

After Smith bought the Bristol Dragway in northeastern Tennessee in the 1990s, the NHRA brought a Nationals event to the venue in 2001, and has since drawn as many as 70,000 over the long race weekend.

About 65 percent of those fans come from more than 100 miles away, according to a 2004 economic impact study.

“We've always had a lot of response” from race fans, said Beth Stockner, a spokeswoman for the Bristol Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It usually does fill up our hotels.”

Beyond food and lodging, race fans also need other services while visiting the area, which helps local businesses and generates more tax revenue, said DeSales Wagster, president and chief executive officer of the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Maybe they're FedExing something back home. Sometimes cars break down,” she said. “Those are the type of expenditures that occur.”

In addition, race team members will spend an estimated $769,920