By DAVE KALLMANN
This is a homestretch of sorts for NASCAR, back-to-back weekends racing in the Charlotte area, the hub of big-league stock-car racing.
For crew members, the Nextel All-Star Challenge tonight and Coca-Cola 600 on May 30 provide a refreshing respite, meaning two weekends of home cooking and a familiar pillow amid a schedule jam-packed with long days, endless travel and lumpy hotel mattresses.
But just days before coming home, NASCAR announced last week that it was taking two more races out of the Carolinas and moving them to Phoenix and Texas, in addition to the date transferred this year to California.
All this movement raises a question. If races can be wooed by larger, more attractive markets out west, will the teams follow?
Perhaps, owners and managers say. Maybe someday.
But tradition and convenience have entrenched the industry deeply into the area around Lowe's Motor Speedway, and that's likely to remain the center of the NASCAR universe for some time, even as the races themselves pull away.
"Right now there's 75-80% of race teams within a 50-mile radius of Charlotte, and I don't think that NASCAR racing or the teams ever want to give up their Southeastern roots," said Ray Evernham, a New Jersey native who has built his two-car Nextel Cup team in Statesville, N.C.
"We're going to be traveling more, but there's always got to be a base somewhere."
Of the 17 full-time Nextel Cup operations, 11 are located in Charlotte or just to the north in Mooresville, Concord or Huntersville. All of those are within about 20 miles of Lowe's, the track formerly known as Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Other teams have set up from 40-75 miles away in Hickory, High Point, Randleman, Statesville and Welcome. With the move of the Wood Brothers from Stuart, Va., to Mooresville, only one (Morgan-McClure, of Abingdon, Va.) is located outside of North Carolina.
NASCAR, headquartered in Daytona Beach, Fla., maintains offices in Concord, and many of the companies that build cars or parts or sell supplies also have settled in the region.
"I liken it to why so many financial services industries are in New York, because of the presence of banks," said Geoff Smith, president of Roush Racing, which fields five Cup cars as well as Busch and Craftsman Truck Series teams out of Concord.
"That is, this is where the labor force - the trained, stock-car, highest-level, racing employment base - is for recruiting. There's the support industry infrastructure that's also in this area."
If a crew chief wants to hire a fabricator, he can find one with experience. If he needs a part, chances are he can pick one up with a short drive over the lunch hour. Even the people who make the number and sponsor decals are close.
"We have 240 employees, and to pluck that group out and move them somewhere west would be hard to do," said J.D. Gibbs, president of the Cup / Busch team owned by his father, Joe.
As recently as 1996, there were eight Cup races in the Carolinas and just two - Sonoma, Calif., and Phoenix - in the western part of the country. In the years since, tracks have popped up in Fontana, Calif., Fort Worth, Texas, Kansas City and Las Vegas.
The 2005 schedule includes seven points races west of the Mississippi River and three in the Carolinas. With venerable Darlington (S.C.) Raceway clinging to life and a track proposed for the Seattle area, the shift seems likely to continue.
By Smith's estimate the average trip next year will grow by 400 miles, meaning additional labor, fuel and depreciation expenses.
Sponsors that enjoy exposure in the newer, larger, more diverse markets will be asked to pick up the tab.
Even with the march west, the Charlotte area remains as convenient a place to be headquartered as any, Smith said.
But it's not the only place to be.
Brendan Gaughan contended for the Craftsman Truck Series title last year with his family-owned team running out of Las Vegas, and truck owner-driver Bobby Hamilton is set up in Mount Juliet, Tenn. Brewco Motorsports, a top-flight team in the Busch Series, is based in Central City, Ky.
Brewco was built near the home of owner Clarence Brewer with the idea that a move to Charlotte might become necessary, general manager Todd Wilkerson said.
Over 10 years, hauling wrecked cars to a chassis shop in North Carolina has been an inconvenience, and parts bills increase with overnight shipping charges. But Brewco has taken to hiring employees right out of college or off the short-track ranks and found its location to be no great hindrance.
"If you can prove, like we have and Brendan's team . . . that you can go out and be successful and not be located in Charlotte, I think you're going to see some of the start-up teams maybe looking at their hometowns instead of the Charlotte area," Wilkerson said.
"Any Cup teams or Busch teams that are already in North Carolina, I don't see those guys loading up and moving out here."
Not any time soon, anyway.