Charlotte Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith blasts Cabarrus politicians, taxes

Wednesday, May. 22, 2013

A day after threatening to move the fall NASCAR race out of Concord, track owner Bruton Smith blamed Cabarrus County politicians for raising his taxes and not caring about the speedway as much as fans do.

On Monday, Smith told WBTV there was a 70 percent chance he would move the October Bank of America 500 race away from Concord to Speedway Motorsports’ Las Vegas track, where he could make more money. On Tuesday, the WBTV story was updated with a source saying the move was 100 percent certain.

Smith then released a statement saying no final decision has been made. He also stated that SMI has invested $100 million in the Charlotte Motor Speedway complex in the past six years while “our Cabarrus County taxes have doubled since 2005.”

“…It’s frustrating to think about the future and consider that the local government doesn’t share the same excitement about (the track) that our fans do,” he stated. “The Cabarrus County politicians may say nice things to the media, but raising taxes does not support the tourism business, the area economy or companies trying to grow.”

The speedway’s taxes have, in fact, doubled over the past few years, but it is appealing the tax valuations that led to those bills.

A 2012 county assessment of its property put the value at about $294 million, with a tax bill of nearly $2.1 million. The appeal will be taken up at the local level in June, the county said. The speedway also appealed an earlier revaluation covering 2008-11, and that appeal is pending at the state level.

Smith was not available for comment.

‘We all should listen’

His television interview and subsequent statement come as the Cabarrus community is in the midst of spring racing, with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series All-Star race last weekend and the Coca-Cola 600 this weekend.

All of the hotels near the speedway around Exit 40 on Interstate 85 are typically sold out around race dates, said Terry Crawford, general manager of the 308-room Embassy Suites. Asked if he believed Smith was serious about moving the fall event, Crawford said, “You have to take everything (Smith) says seriously…. When Mr. Smith speaks, we all should listen.”

Moving the race would affect the entire region, because fans spend money in Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and surrounding areas as well as in Cabarrus, said Concord City Councilman Lamar Barrier.

The speedway said it has an annual $420 million economic impact on the region, citing a 2012 report from the Charlotte Sports Commission.

“Hopefully we can get together and convince (Smith) to stay,” Barrier said.

But even if the race disappears, he said, the area is strong enough to survive the loss, as it did when another major entity, Philip Morris, closed its cigarette manufacturing plant.

Smith needs to do what is best for his business, said Doug Stafford, a developer and operator of two hotels near the speedway.

“I think we’ve learned, especially after the deep recession, that nothing in life is guaranteed,” he added.

During a teleconference, NASCAR driver Greg Biffle told reporters he doubted the race would move, saying, “If your race is well-attended, I don’t see any reason for moving it.”

And Jay White, vice chairman of the Cabarrus County board, highlighted the deep ties the races have to the community, especially during race weeks, when everyone – tourism staff, law enforcement, emergency personnel – work to ensure a safe, fun environment for fans.

“It’s just a shame that (the fall race) is being held in jeopardy,” White said.

Prior threats

Some local leaders were reluctant to discuss Smith’s talk about moving a race.

The usually garrulous head of the Cabarrus Chamber and Economic Development Corp., John Cox, declined to say much on Tuesday because he said he has had recent conversations with Smith about the issue.

Concord Mayor Scott Padgett declined to comment, as did Donna Carpenter, head of the Cabarrus Convention and Visitors Bureau. The city and the CVB separately released statements saying they hoped the race remained.

The community has heard Smith’s threats before.

In 2007, he vowed to move the speedway out of Concord if the city did not approve his plans for an adjacent drag strip. Local political and business leaders publicly and privately lobbied Smith to stay.

The road leading to the track was renamed Bruton Smith Boulevard. The CVB flew a plane over the speedway with a banner reading, “We (heart) you Bruton,” and even sent him an overflowing fruit basket with little chocolate race cars.

An $80 million government incentives package ultimately persuaded Smith to stay and build the drag strip, although Smith later quarreled with local leaders over implementation of the incentives.

In April, Smith sought to revive a lawsuit claiming officials in Cabarrus reneged on the incentives. That claim remains before the state Court of Appeals, the county said. Reporter Jim Utter and the Associated Press contributed.

Bell: 704-358-5696