It’s not often that a guy makes the leap from professional sportswriter to boss of one of the marquee racetracks in the U.S. But Chris Powell pulled it off, quitting journalism in 1988 and working his way to Las Vegas Motor Speedway by 1998, when he was hired as executive vice president and general manager. In the 13 years Powell—now the president and general manager—has overseen the complex, LVMS has morphed from a series of racetrack facilities into something of a Las Vegas events center, hosting everything from companies that sell exotic-car driving experiences to the massive Electric Daisy Carnival, which debuted at the speedway in June (and is set to return this year).
This week, though, all eyes will be on LVMS and its 1.5-mile tri-oval superspeedway, which hosts a series of NASCAR events March 9-11, culminating with the Kobalt Tools 400. It’s the third race on this year’s Sprint Cup schedule—and the biggest racing event Powell, 52, has hosted at LVMS since Oct. 16, the day driver Dan Wheldon was killed 11 laps into the IndyCar Series season finale.
There’s been a lot of talk about NASCAR granting LVMS a coveted second Sprint Cup date, but it has yet to happen. Do you think it ever will?
I have been in the business at this speedway for 13 years. Nothing has changed since the day I got here in that NASCAR determines which speedways have one, two or no Sprint Cup events. We would dearly love to have a second Sprint Cup event. It would be great for this community and great for this speedway. The 2011 NASCAR weekend had an economic impact of [about] $195 million.
How important is it for IndyCar to return to LVMS in the wake of the Dan Wheldon tragedy?
It’s important, but by no means is it our anchor event. That is our NASCAR weekend. IndyCar had not raced in Las Vegas since 2000, and our speedway has been very, very successful in the 10 years when we did not have IndyCar racing. It came back in 2011, had the unfortunate accident that occurred, and they are taking a year to assess whether they come back. I am hopeful that IndyCar will return in 2013, but it’s way too early to speculate.
What’s your response to the notion that the field was too crowded that day?
That was IndyCar’s decision. The number of cars that were on the racetrack and how they race—how the competition was governed—was strictly IndyCar. It had nothing to do with the speedway.
What about the criticism that the track is too fast for IndyCars?
Our speedway is banked at 20 degrees. IndyCar competes at Texas Motor Speedway, which is banked at 24 degrees. The lap times at Texas, I believe, are faster than the lap times at Las Vegas. The speeds are higher. And so what [IndyCar president] Brian Barnhart announced was that a perfect storm of events happened to create the fatality. Dan Wheldon’s car got airborne. Instead of just coming back down on the asphalt it came back down on another vehicle, [which] thrust it up into the fence at a very bad angle.
The speedway is branching out beyond racing, such as hosting the Electric Daisy Carnival. Is that what it takes to be successful?
Few people realize how many events we have here during the course of the year. You count all the track rentals and the racing schools and the [racing] experiences, we are up around 1,400 event days per year. Electric Daisy Carnival is one that got a lot of attention because of the great crowds it brings to town, [but] we also have a lot of auto manufacturers that rent the facility to introduce new lines of cars. Volkswagen had a big track rental here in 2011, so did Toyota, so did Lexus.
We would be very successful here on NASCAR weekend alone. But there are 11 other months in the year where we need to be putting revenues to the bottom line. We look at all different possibilities to do that.
Did you have concerns about hosting Electric Daisy Carnival last year?
In dealing with a potential promoter we always do some background checking and assessing on our own. We were very impressed with both the promoter and the show itself. We were appreciative of the work that Metro [police] did. They sent a couple of officers to an event [by the promoter] in San Bernardino [Calif.] a month or two prior, and they came back with very positive reviews. And I think that was borne out in the event [here].
In the days leading up to the 2011 Electric Daisy Carnival, a lot of media were curious as to why we would stage it at the speedway. Then on Monday, the day after it ended, there were several media outlets lined up asking me when we would get it back in 2012 and beyond.
Any other surprises in store at LVMS for the rest of 2012?
We have a well-stocked sales and marketing department right down the hall, and they are constantly talking to potential clients about bringing business here to the speedway. It just took one phone call from one of our salespeople sometime last February to the promoter [of the Electric Daisy Carnival], and four months later we were staging the event. You never know what might happen next.