News & Media

1on1: Powell still amazed he wound up in Las Vegas

March 01, 2011, Joe Menzer,

Track president wanted to be a sports writer covering Major League Baseball

Chris Powell never dreamed of one day running a race track in Las Vegas.

In fact, Powell dreamed instead of becoming a sports writer at a major newspaper, covering major-league baseball. Now the president and general manager of Las Vegas Motor Speedway looks back at his formative years with great fondness while looking ahead to the future, which includes the upcoming race weekend at his track, with optimism and unabashed enthusiasm. He talked with NASCAR.COM about many subjects -- including how Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Catfish Hunter, among others, helped shape his life.

"My mother was an English teacher, so she was always correcting my grammar growing up. And I was always a serious, serious sports fan. One way or another, I was going to work in sports."


Question: Do you have anything special planned for this weekend's events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway?

Powell: We're excited in part because we've got a real nice forecast. That's always a relief -- because this time of year you can get some really crazy weather, even in Las Vegas.

We also did this youth initiative this year. We're trying to appeal more to the younger set, while at the same time not forgetting the core fan who has made the sport what it is. So we did this youth initiative where we're offering tickets through a promotion with one of our sponsors -- Smith's Food and Drugs -- whereby kids 15 and younger can have tickets for 50 percent off. Any price level, we're taking 50 percent off.

And it has been met with great success here in this market in the Las Vegas community, and I think we're doing a good job of appealing to the younger audience. To go hand in hand with that, we've got this action sports park on the midway. We're going to have some skateboarders and some remote-control car enthusiasts come out and perform, and also the general public will have some time when it can participate as well. We've got some motocross guys, and Supercross guys coming, too. It's all part of an effort to appeal to a younger audience.

Q: Response to it has been enthusiastic?

Powell: It's been sort of the talk of the town here in Las Vegas, because we've never offered discounted tickets before. And this is not some type of desperate act to fill seats -- because we've had a very good year in selling tickets. We just thought it was a statement we needed to make to get more young people out to the race.

Q: It has been a good two-week start to the season in terms of the crowds and action on the track, with the popular wins of Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500 and Jeff Gordon at Phoenix. How do you build on that?

Powell: I think it has been a very positive start. The sentimental favorite at Daytona obviously was Dale Jr. I can't say going into it if Junior didn't win it that I was pulling for Trevor Bayne -- but the way it unfolded on the race track was just so exciting and he has such enthusiasm that is just infectious. He was certainly a popular winner.

Then [last Sunday] with Jeff Gordon passing Kyle Busch for the win at Phoenix, well, we sort of can't help being Busch fans out here because Kurt and Kyle are from Las Vegas ... but I was really excited to see Jeff take the checkered flag. In fact, we exchanged text messages later in the day. I was so happy for him because he's such a great guy, and he's always been such a great ambassador of the sport. So the season really has gotten off to a great start. Nothing against the other drivers, but we've had a couple of drivers win where you almost couldn't have drawn it up any better.

It's been the kind of shot in the arm I think the sport needed here at the beginning of the season. The way we got off to the rough start last year with the pothole [at Daytona International Speedway], there was a lot of negative. And right now there is a lot of positive going on. People are just talking positively about the sport, and there is a lot of excitement. I'm counting on that continuing this weekend in Las Vegas.

Q: Will you have a sellout this weekend, or at least close to it?

Powell: If we don't sell every single seat, we're going to be very, very close to it. I don't think you're going to be able to detect any empty seats, I'll put it like that.

Q: You got your start out of college as a sports writer. Where did you work?

Powell: I went to school at North Carolina. My first job was in Rocky Mount, N.C., and then I went to Salisbury [N.C.] and then I went to Durham to work for a paper that has since folded. I worked for the Durham Sun and now it's the Herald-Sun. Then I went to the Fayetteville Times, which is now the Observer-Times. ... And I was the regional sports editor for UPI in Charlotte for a little while.

Then I went over and covered the first Vantage championship golf tournament that R.J. Reynolds [Tobacco Co.] sponsored back in November of 1987, and met all these nice people at RJR. That enabled me to get a nice job in sports marketing over there, going to golf tournaments. I did that for three or four years and then we got out of the golf business and they put me in drag racing. I did that for three years and then they put me on NASCAR. I did that for five years, which is when I met [Speedway Motorsports Inc., chairman and CEO] Bruton [Smith]. And then Jeff Byrd [the late track president of Bristol Motor Speedway] recommended me for this job. Jeff had worked with me at RJR before he went to Bristol.

Q: So how long were you a sports writer?

Powell: From 1981 through 1988, for eight full years.

Q: Did you enjoy it?

Powell: I loved it. My mother was an English teacher, so she was always correcting my grammar growing up. And I was always a serious, serious sports fan. One way or another, I was going to work in sports.

When I was in high school in northeastern North Carolina, Catfish Hunter became a free agent. I covered it because his attorney was from my hometown [Ahoskie, N.C.], and he was the first big free agent. All these major-league teams came to my town to, in effect, bid for his services. It was in December of 1974, and I covered it for my local three-times-a-week newspaper. I was only 15. ... All the sudden there was this national sports story happening right in our hometown, and I got to meet a lot of the sports writers from all over who came in to cover it. I wanted to cover a major-league baseball team. That was what I really wanted to eventually do. I never got there, but I did get to cover the [minor-league] Durham Bulls for two or three years when I was there. I had a great time doing that.

Q: Could you have imagined then that you would some day be running a race track in Las Vegas?

Powell (laughing): No idea whatsoever. I just got very lucky. And as Jeff Byrd said to me back when he went to Bristol, 'Chris, I'm telling you. This isn't any kind of rocket science here. You just go to work every day and try to be nice to people and try to come up with some clever ideas and keep the staff motivated. You could do this.' I just remember looking at that speedway in Bristol, with 150,000 seats, and thinking, 'I could never do that.'

So I could never imagine it. But he called me one day and said, 'Bruton's getting ready to buy Las Vegas, and I'm recommending you for the job.' I was just floored by it. But then I came out here and I realized very quickly that J. Byrd was right. You just have to work hard and be nice to people and understand that fans are willing to spend their money, but only to the point where they know you're trying to see their perspective and understand what they're going through.