Could gam­bling ben­e­fit NASCAR?

Se­ries look­ing for ways to boost at­ten­dance, create more in­ter­est in races

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS | AUTO RACING - Martin Rogers

LAS VE­GAS – As NASCAR’s play­off sea­son pre­pares to burst into life this week­end, gam­bling is on ev­ery­one’s mind — and not just be­cause the stock car cir­cuit’s trav­el­ing cir­cus has touched down in Sin City.

Sun­day marks the start of the 10week post­sea­son stretch where driv­ers will be bet­ting on their abil­i­ties while also tak­ing the kind of cal­cu­lated risks needed to max­i­mize their chances of tak­ing home the cham­pi­onship prize in Novem­ber.

Yet bet­ting it­self is also a topic of heavy dis­cus­sion. With NASCAR look­ing at ways to boost in­ter­est and ap­peal to a wider au­di­ence, the idea of on-track gam­ing has been con­sis­tently broached, es­pe­cially with fed­eral sports wa­ger­ing laws hav­ing been sig­nif­i­cantly loos­ened.

And while it will be ev­ery man for him­self among the top 16 driv­ers as they bat­tle for the 2018 ti­tle, there was a uni­fied con­sen­sus of opin­ion in the NASCAR com­mu­nity in re­gard to bring­ing a slice of Las Ve­gas-style chance to the race­track, not just at this lo­ca­tion but across the coun­try.

“I think it would be a bonus for the sport to have the bet­ting in­ter­est in,” for­mer driver and cur­rent NBC an­a­lyst Dale Earn­hardt Jr. told USA TO­DAY. “I think it would create more ex­cite­ment, bring more at­ten­tion, more peo­ple in at­ten­dance. I can see it hav­ing a ton of pos­i­tives.”

Seven-time cham­pion Jim­mie John­son be­lieves that the chance to wa­ger on races within the speed­way it­self would give a gen­uine lift to the sport, with­out de­tract­ing from the spec­ta­cle of the driv­ers and their ma­chines.

“I think it is a great idea,” John­son said. “It has been go­ing on il­le­gally. So mak­ing it le­gal­ized is a good thing for every­body. We have seen what fan­tasy foot­ball has done for foot­ball where you can have a ca­sual fan have an in­ter­est in a sport and it turn­ing into some­thing more. The bet­ting is a real op­por­tu­nity for that.”

Ve­gas is a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for race fans seek­ing to mix high-level ac­tion with a mini va­ca­tion. Jay Korne­gay, vice pres­i­dent of race and sports oper­a­tions for the West­gate Las Ve­gas sports book, said that Ve­gas race week­end was “co-cham­pion” with the Day­tona 500 in terms of bet­ting pop­u­lar­ity.

Korne­gay pointed out that many race fans al­ready have the op­por­tu­nity to place race-day bets from the track by us­ing phone apps but ad­mit­ted that in­stalling bet­ting win­dows would add an in­ter­est­ing twist to the on-site ex­pe­ri­ence. “A lot of NASCAR fans are very loyal in their bet­ting pat­terns,” Korne­gay added. “There are peo­ple who place a bet on the same driver ev­ery sin­gle week — even if that driver never wins.”

With ac­tion through­out the week­end, the city is al­ready be­gin­ning to fill with race fans, sev­eral of whom ex­pressed in­ter­est in the fu­ture pos­si­bil­ity of bet­ting on their fa­vorite driv­ers at track­side booths.

“It is not go­ing to be like horse rac­ing where the whole event is built around gam­bling,” said Fitch Jenk­ins, 52. Jenk­ins drives from his home near Salt Lake City ev­ery year to watch the rac­ing in Las Ve­gas. “The NASCAR crowd tends to have a bit of an ad­ven­tur­ous spirit, so be­ing able to have a small bet might be an ex­ten­sion of that.”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, se­ries points leader Kyle Busch, born and raised in Las Ve­gas, strongly sup­ports the right to bet on race cars.

“I’ve al­ways kind of looked at horse rac­ing,” Busch told USA TO­DAY re­cently. “You can go out there and bet on horse rac­ing, but why can’t we bet on rac­ing rac­ing?”

STEPHEN R. SYLVANIE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Cars speed past the start-fin­ish line at Las Ve­gas Mo­tor Speed­way in 2016.

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