Race for NASCAR Hall of Fame not exactly wide open

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Charlotte is leading the pack.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The race for the rights to NASCAR's Hall of Fame is in its closing laps, and chairman Brian France remains insistent that three cities are still in contention.

Technically, that's true.

In reality, the stock car racing shrine is Charlotte's to lose.

France will never come right out and say that, though. NASCAR's top boss instead continues to count Atlanta and Daytona Beach, Fla., among the legitimate contenders.

But for either city to actually win the rights, Charlotte would need to veer sharply off track.

Several NASCAR sources told The Associated Press on Monday that the Queen City is the leading contender to land the Hall. The sources, all of whom have firsthand knowledge of the negotiations, asked to remain anonymous because details were still being worked out. One of the issues under discussion is NASCAR's request for a low-cost rental agreement on its Charlotte offices.

The Charlotte Observer, citing four unnamed sources, first reported in its Monday edition that Charlotte's selection "was nearly certain."

NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp continued to preach France's mantra Monday, saying that nothing has been decided and all three cities are in a bumper-to-bumper race toward the checkered flag.

"We're still looking at information from all three cities, and the decision making process is very much ongoing," Tharp said.

Sure it is.

The logical choice

Logistics and common sense have always made Charlotte the obvious choice to host the Hall of Fame. Although NASCAR's official headquarters are in Daytona Beach, almost everything else is run out of Charlotte, and France himself recently purchased a house here.

The majority of teams are also based here and the bulk of the drivers live either in the city or its surrounding region -- a point star driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. hammered home last weekend when he said Charlotte was his first choice for the Hall.

"Because I am sure NASCAR is going to ask the drivers to make a few appearances over there and I wouldn't have to go too far," Earnhardt said.

Charlotte was one of five cities that made NASCAR's first short list of finalists last year. The group was whittled down in January when Kansas City and Richmond, Va., were eliminated from contention.

So of the three remaining finalists, Charlotte makes the most sense both financially and geographically. The city claims it can capitalize on NASCAR's desire to draw visitors to a Hall of Fame because an estimated 1 million fans already visit the region to attend the three Nextel Cup events at Lowe's Motor Speedway and tour the nearby shops.

And, Charlotte's bid is strong.

Charlotte has proposed building a $137.5 million shrine on city-owned land near the Convention Center. The bid includes private funds and a 2 percentage point hotel tax rate hike that has already been approved by lawmakers. Charlotte also has a catchy slogan in "Racing was built here. Racing belongs here," and a big-time frontman in team owner Rick Hendrick.

Atlanta also has a strong bid and plans to build its Hall downtown across from Olympic Park. And their proposal got a boost earlier this month when Georgia House lawmakers decided to exempt the site's construction materials from state and local taxes if Atlanta snags the attraction.

The state and city have offered a $32.4 million package of loans, grants and tax breaks to help pay for an Atlanta site. Another $30 million could come from corporate support.

But fan-support in Atlanta has always been fickle, and there's no guarantee a Hall of Fame would change that.

Daytona Beach -- which bills itself as "the birthplace of speed" -- wants to build a $105 million facility near Daytona International Speedway. But the track already shares lands with Daytona USA, a NASCAR-themed interactive museum, and a Hall of Fame would rival it for tourism dollars.

Of the remaining cities, Daytona Beach has always been viewed as a long shot.

A decision is not imminent, and the closest France has come to setting a deadline is his belief that the location will be selected sometime in March.

"We only get one chance to do this," he said during Daytona 500 activities. "We want to be as good as we can be, looking at all the facts and circumstances. This is something that 25 or 30 years from now, a place is going to house our past, house our future.

"We're going to be very methodical and careful because we only get one opportunity."

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