Scott Fowler

Marcus Smith unplugged: On NASCAR, gambling, what draws eyeballs, and Danica Patrick

What does NASCAR’s future hold? Speedway Motorsports CEO weighs in

Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith on the future of NASCAR, both challenges and opportunities.
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Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith on the future of NASCAR, both challenges and opportunities.

Marcus Smith’s seventh-floor corner office at Charlotte Motor Speedway not only offers a gorgeous look at the track itself, but also a panoramic view of the countryside that stretches to the distant horizon. It is a fitting symbol, because the 45-year-old Smith is charged with running not only the CMS track but also taking the wide view for the seven other racetracks around the country in the Speedway Motorsports portfolio.

Smith and I sat down for a wide-ranging conversation Tuesday about the state of the sport this week. On the eve of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the CEO of Speedway Motorsports answered questions about sports betting in stock-car racing, the greatest sporting event he has ever seen and whether his family would be interested in buying NASCAR outright (OK, he danced around that one). Smith’s comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. The Supreme Court’s recent decision opens up all sorts of avenues for NASCAR in terms of sports gambling. How will this affect your business?

A. It’s inevitable that gaming will be more a part of sports throughout the country. I’m certainly interested in seeing what happens. I think if it adds fun, that’s really the kind of the business we’re in — entertainment for fans. I’ve been to the Kentucky Derby a couple of times and it is a fun atmosphere. ... I would say this all has the possibility of being good. ...

There may or may not be some gaming that’s already happening here at the races and from what I understand it’s pretty fun (laughs).

Q. Do you think Speedway Motorsports would ever get involved in the casino business itself?

A. We never have been involved with it. We have gaming operations around us, of course. At Las Vegas Motor Speedway there’s gaming, as well as right down the street from Kentucky Speedway and probably some others. But it’s not been part of our business.

Q. What are the top challenges and opportunities for NASCAR right now?

A. There have been some weak spots over the past several years that have been exposed. And through exposing some of those weak areas, we made some tremendous gains. My most recent example of that would be this past Saturday night at the all-star race (at Charlotte Motor Speedway) where we had an absolutely phenomenal race. It was incredibly exciting. ... And that is so refreshing, so encouraging and gives me a lot of hope and excitement about the future of the sport. I think it shows how quickly we can make improvements.

Q. The main idea is not to be boring, right?

A. Right. A book, a play, a movie, a sport (can't be boring). We’re in the sports entertainment business. ... I will tell you that I was loving the all-star race so much, I didn’t want to talk to anybody because I was watching the race. So I left my suite and I came up to the spotters stand on the roof so that I didn’t have to talk to anybody while I was watching the race. And I never do that. It was the greatest race at Charlotte Motor Speedway that I’ve ever seen. It was so exciting to watch.

Q. There have been rumblings that the France family is looking into selling NASCAR. Would Speedway Motorsports be interested in buying the entire sport?

A. I would say that I love NASCAR. Our family loves NASCAR. We are great partners with the France family. And we just want to help to continue to build the sport.

Q. What have ticket sales been like this year for the Coke 600?

A. We saw a really good television rating after the all-star race and very pleased about that. ... Ticket sales for the 600 are on par with last year. For us, in the 10 days leading into the race – your 10-day forecast is so important. It is a 10,000-12,000 ticket swing if you’ve got sunshiny weather on the weekend or not. It’s a really big deal. So we’re pulling for the weatherman and sunshine. (Editor’s note: The extended weather forecast for Sunday’s race has showed a good chance of rain all week, but Smith notes there is "a 100 percent chance of racing" this weekend.)

Q. When you mention the ‘weak spots’ that the sport has been trying to fix, what specifically are you talking about?

A. In my view, the most important thing is the action on the track. So things like ratings and attendance are things that respond to the core product. ... I think it’s been that way from the beginning of NASCAR. Bill France Sr. called it the “Sunday show.”

That’s why you have things like the three-point line or the extra point after touchdowns (in the NFL) getting moved back. ... That’s why you have a play clock in football. It’s all about the show being entertaining and capturing the fans in a great way. So someone has to be watching with a mindful eye, not just on who wins or loses, but on the grandstands of any sport, just to see if people are having fun.

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Marcus Smith, the CEO of Speedway Motorsports, said in an interview Tuesday that the 'weak spots' exposed in NASCAR over the past several years would lead to 'tremendous gains.' Scott Fowler sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

Q. The NBA’s popularity seems to have skyrocketed over the past few years. In part, that’s because the league boasts a handful of marketable superstars in their prime. NASCAR needs some bright new stars to emerge, doesn’t it?

A. The NBA right now is hitting their stride with some great stars. And they have come along at just the perfect time when the NFL has lost a few of their superstars and they are going to rebuild. ... Who would have known that this kid from Charlotte who went to Davidson would be who he is today in Steph Curry?

That’s the same way it is with NASCAR. We have some phenomenal racecar drivers and great stars of the sport that transcend sport. A guy that is a champion and now in the booth in Jeff Gordon. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. … Kevin Harvick has been around for a long time but he’s dominating this season. And then you’ve got some new stars like Daniel Suarez or Bubba Wallace or Ryan Blaney that are really capturing the fan attention and have their own swagger. ...

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NASCAR driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. is one of the drivers that the sport hopes will become a future star to help fuel rivalries and increase the sport's popularity, said Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith. Steve Helber AP Photo

And Austin Dillon, who won the Coca-Cola 600 last year. … Where lightning strikes, you can never really predict. But it happens, and I think you will see that in NASCAR.

Q. Danica Patrick has left NASCAR now and returns to the Indy 500 Sunday for what is supposed to be her final race at that track. Do you think that storyline will hurt your TV ratings Sunday?

A. Danica was an absolute rock star in NASCAR for several years. She had a huge fan following. Her performance ultimately maybe didn’t reach the record books, but a female competing in NASCAR has never done better than Danica Patrick. She really deserves a lot of credit for that, I think, and should be remembered in a very positive way. There are a lot of young girls racing now who want to be the next Danica, and I think we’ll see that sooner rather than later.

As far as TV ratings, I love the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. It is the greatest day in racing. It starts in Monaco with F1, goes to Indy and finishes up with the grand finale, the Coke 600. We tend to have had higher ratings than (Indy) over the past several years. But who knows? Danica may draw some eyeballs.

Q. Your company has tried but so far been unsuccessful in landing a Major League Soccer expansion team for Charlotte. Where does that stand?

A. If the opportunity works out … it’s something I’d be really interested in for the company. I still think it’s a fantastic opportunity for Charlotte. I think that Charlotte is a better city for having such a great, rich sports history. Just the total ecosystem of sports in Charlotte really helps shape the city. I don’t think we’d be who we are if we didn’t have NASCAR, the Panthers, the Hornets, the Knights in uptown. I’m of the opinion that MLS is an up-and-comer.

Q. What’s the best sporting event you have ever seen in person?

A. The battle at Bristol, the football game we hosted (in 2016) at Bristol Motor Speedway. There were nearly 159,000 fans there to see Virginia Tech and Tennessee play football. It was the most amazing spectacle in sports that I’ve ever seen.

Q. Sounds like you should do another one of those.

A. We’re working on it. There are many games that could be scheduled, but you have to have the right game to bring in that many people. And there aren’t many that fit on that list.

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