NASCAR engines warm to gambling link

Auto racing and the gaming industry, both of which have grown tremendously, see their connections as natural, with both targeting 'Main Street America.'

By Bill Ordine
Sun Staff

DOVER, Del. - It will be a little difficult to hear above the deafening roar of the souped-up Chevys, Fords and Dodges at the Dover International Speedway when NASCAR runs its 400-miler there today, but that vaguely familiar jangling in the background will be coming from the 2,500 slot machines of an adjacent casino.

Meanwhile, on the track, Robby Gordon is expected to pilot his No. 7 Monte Carlo with the purple and gold logo of casino giant Harrah's Entertainment, and in the skyboxes above Dover's Monster Mile, casino high-rollers will get a bird's-eye view of all the action.

In ways both obvious and subtle, there has been an evolving relationship between auto racing and the gaming industry that both sides see as making economic and marketing sense - but clearly stands apart from other major sports, which to varying degrees have traditionally distanced themselves from gambling activities.

"Just as there's been a tremendous growth in Las Vegas and even across the country with Native American casinos, there's been this great increase in interest in auto racing," said NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston. "They both have a tremendous customer base that's broadening, and they both speak to Main Street America."

Other major sports have been more restrictive in how they allow players or owners to interact with gambling interests, and the NFL has an absolute firewall.

The NBA permits owners to have stakes in both teams and casinos as long as bets are not taken on league games; the Maloof family owns both the Sacramento Kings and the trendy Palms Casino in Las Vegas, and the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn., owns the WNBA Sun.

Major League Baseball doesn't permit owners to also own gambling businesses, but clubs are allowed to take casino advertising.

The NFL forbids any involvement.

"To insure the integrity of the game, you have to make sure there's absolute separation between our game and the influence of gambling," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.

In auto racing, where race teams, track owners and the sanctioning body NASCAR have various and sometimes exclusive revenue sources, the enthusiasm for cultivating relationships with gambling interests differs. But many in the sport say that the demographic overlap between race fans and casino-goers is too strong to ignore.

Brendan Gaughan, who drove in the Nextel Cup Series a year ago and now manages and drives for a Craftsman Truck Series team, is the third generation of a family that has owned and operated Las Vegas casinos for decades.

His truck team is sponsored by Orleans Racing, which sports the logo of a casino that's part of a subsidiary Gaughan's father, Michael, runs as part of Boyd Gaming. In addition, Boyd Gaming - owner of casinos such as the Borgata in Atlantic City and the Stardust and Sam's Town in Las Vegas - sponsors two NASCAR Busch Series races, in Las Vegas and Memphis.

"When I see our race fans, I see my father's customers," Gaughan said. The Coast casinos, which Michael Gaughan runs as part of a merger with Boyd Gaming, cater mostly to a middle-income, Middle America clientele. "They're slightly aggressive, outgoing, definitely adventurous, with a bit of disposable income."

The gregarious race driver became a lightning rod on gambling and racing in February 2004 when he said he had wagered on himself in truck races, including some he won, and a published report implied that he intended to bet on himself in the Daytona 500.

NASCAR frowns

Gaughan said he was misrepresented about betting on Daytona - in an interview at Dover this week he said he was merely expressing confidence in his team - but his remarks resulted in a stern discussion with NASCAR officials.

Interestingly, drivers betting on themselves is not in violation of any written NASCAR rule, although the organization clearly discourages the practice. In other sports, such wagering by players results in exile.

"The competitors have a sense of what's right and wrong," NASCAR spokesman Poston said, "and they know that NASCAR wouldn't hesitate to address any issue." Poston said the group is careful, though, about putting policies in writing that may have "unintended consequences."

For instance, star driver Michael Waltrip was the host of a $100,000 charity poker tournament that involved other NASCAR drivers at the Palms earlier this year - all apparently, with the sanctioning body's approval. The money went to a camp for ill children.

"We wouldn't want to stop what Michael Waltrip is doing with his charity event," Poston said.

Interest in NASCAR among bettors in Las Vegas remains relatively tepid, but is growing, according to oddsmakers and sports book operators.

Micah Roberts, director of race and sports operations for Station Casinos, sets lines not just for overall race winners, but also allows bettors to wager on drivers in one-on-one match bets and even offers odds on lap leaders and how many cautions will occur.

Still, Nevada Gaming Control Board figures show the amount bet on auto racing is tiny compared to, say football. NFL and college games accounted for 46.5 percent of all sports betting in Nevada in 2004, while auto racing was part of the category "other" that includes golf and tennis, making up about 4 percent.

Betting on drivers

"It's getting bigger because it unfolds week after week, like the NFL," Roberts said of wagering trends on NASCAR. "It used to be that people decided they might use $100 of their bankroll for sports betting and bet $10 each on five basketball games and five baseball games.

"Now, I think, they're saying they'll bet three basketball games, three baseball games and three drivers to win the race."

However, the real money that ties together auto racing and gaming interests is sponsorships and advertising. Even there, NASCAR has drawn some lines. Money from Internet gambling sites is unwanted, officials said.

It can cost as much as $18 million to field a winning Nextel Cup Series team and upward of $5 million for a truck series team. For race teams, that means raising a ton of sponsorship money and, in turn, some gaming companies believe their own marketing and advertising dollars are best spent on the growing NASCAR Nation.

Harrah's officials said that the casino company's sponsorship of Gordon's car allows some "creative marketing," meaning bringing big casino players to the race, where they can rub shoulders with the star drivers.

And last year, an appearance by stars Kurt Busch, a Las Vegas native, and Greg Biffle at Sam's Town in Vegas, had lines out the door.

"It's a great way to take care of your customers," Brendan Gaughan said of the two-way marketing between auto racing and gaming. "The drivers can go to the casino and meet your customers there, and then [the casino] can bring their patrons to the race. It's a double dip."

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