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Could NASCAR roar onto the Mississippi Coast?

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST – NASCAR stock car racing is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., according to the Goodyear Report, and is second only to the NFL in terms of the number of television and cable viewers for sporting events. For years politicians in Mississippi have talked about the possibility of attracting a NASCAR racetrack in the state as a way to enhance economic development.

The economic impact from such an operation can be huge, according to David Talley, spokesperson for International Speedway Corp., one of the top operators of motor sport facilities in the country. Talley said the economic impact of the company’s Daytona International Speedway is estimated at $1.3 billion per year.

The company recently held its first Winston Cup Race at a track in Homestead, Fla. The economic impact of that three-day race was estimated at $117 million.

State Sen. Tommy Gollott has promoted the idea of developing a NASCAR racetrack in Harrison County, but thus far nothing has come of those plans. And now a developer is quietly shopping around plans for a $350-million motor sports facility planned for a site near Gautier.

Ninety-five-year-old James Manatt, Gautier, has been talking to local officials about plans for the development. When contacted by the Mississippi Business Journal, Manatt refused comment other than saying that the plans were very preliminary before hanging up.

Gautier city manager Jim Allen said that he has seen plans for the proposed racetrack, although developers have not yet met with the city planning department or city council.

Plans call for a 2.5-mile track, a stadium capable of seating for 255,000 people and a 12-story hotel on a 1,035-acre site inside the expanded city limits of Gautier between Interstate 10 and U.S. 90 east of Mississippi 57.

“This is all preliminary,” Allen said. “This project would require a significant amount of money. A lot of people may get excited about this. But it is just speculative until you have someone coming in with detailed plans, and the investors are there providing the money, and you actually see construction beginning.”

But if the project proceeds, it would be a major new industry for the county, Allen said.

“Right now we have mainly heavy industry in Jackson County,” Allen said. “I’m on the board of directors of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. Terry Carter (president and CEO of the chamber) and I have talked about tourism and the need for a major attractor in the county if we’re really going to have anything to do with tourism. This would provide the impetus to have a viable tourism industry in Jackson County. For the Coast, the major tourism attractors are the casinos. This would compliment that.”

A recent gaming study conducted by the University of Southern Mississippi for the Mississippi Development Authority states, “Auto racing was often mentioned by casino executives as the perfect complement, as was golf. Others mentioned included tennis, boating, hunting, fishing, deep-sea fishing, water parks, theme parks and natural/historical/cultural attractions. However, a vast majority of former gaming visitors surveyed indicated that they came to gamble and spent little on other activities.”

The Mississippi Gulf Coast may not have enough hotel rooms for a speedway the size of the one under consideration. And the area may be too close to the Talladega Speedway. Wetlands could also be a barrier on the site in Gautier. About 330 acres of the 1,035-acre site are wetlands. Probably any other site that large on the Coast near Interstate 10 would also contain wetlands.

Talley, the spokesperson for International Speedway Corp., said that a site considered by his company would need to be located in an area with enough hotel rooms to accommodate 100,000 people. The Mississippi Gulf Coast has only 18,000 hotel rooms.

The International Speedway Corp. operates 11 speedways and is currently building tracks in Kansas and Chicago that will open next year.

“We are also looking at the Denver area, and are also in the process of doing a feasibility study in the Meadowlands in New Jersey,” Talley said. “Some of the things, obviously, that we look at are infrastructure, the transportation system, the market itself and the proximity to other race tracks. If there is a successful race in Talladega, which there is year in and year out, if you build in Mississippi, is it smart? Would NASCAR bring a race there?”

Building a track doesn’t guarantee a NASCAR race even for one of the top track owners such as International Speedway Corp. Talley said other factors the company considers prior to building a motor sports facility are the size of the market, the fan base located within a 300-mile radius, whether adequate land – about 1,000 acres – is available and if there are enough hotels and restaurants to accommodate 100,000 visitors.

“We also look at the community itself,” Talley said. “Is it a community we want to be in? Is it a community that is going to support us? Is the media going to support us and cover the races we are going to have? Is there an airport close by? There are a lot of different factors that go into deciding where to build a track.”

Talley said International Speedway Corp. is not currently considering a site in Mississippi.

“We just merged with Penske Motorsports last year, and picked up tracks in California, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. We also acquired Richmond International Raceway last year. We’ve got a lot on our plate right now. It could change in the future, but right now Mississippi is not being considered.”

However, Talley said there have been rumors that another developer has plans to build a motor sports facility in the New Orleans area.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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