Side tracked: ISC facing resistance in Northwest

3/12/2007 - NASCAR

International Speedway Corp. may want to summon the spirits of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to negotiate with Washington legislators on its behalf. The duo did successfully navigate the Northwest Territory, after all, with an innate aptitude for circumventing its roadblocks.

Roadblocks are aplenty up there, it seems. ISC is having a hell of a time establishing a stronghold in the region.

A racetrack up that way makes excellent business sense for ISC, but local legislators haven't been overly accommodating -- and recently began slinging insults around the house floor.

Washington House Speaker Frank Chopp ridiculously, and incorrectly, referred to Richard Petty as "the guy who got picked up for DUI." He later apologized. Then, Rep. Larry Seaquist said -- he claims his remarks were about ISC officials but they certainly read as if he was alluding to NASCAR's fan base -- "These people are not the kind of people you would want living next door to you. They'd be the ones with the junky cars in the front yard and would try to slip around the law."

Wonder what the King's response was?

"It didn't really bother me about [insulting] me, as Richard Petty," Petty said. "But when he throws off on my profession, that really [ticks] me off, okay? Because it's just not me, it's so many millions of people he's throwing off on -- when you talk about the fans and the sponsors and all that stuff. He's [insulting] a bunch of cotton-pickin' people, man."

My question is simple: If that's how Seattle perceives us, why even bother?

The answer is equally elementary: Growth. Opportunity. Money.

I've spoken with folks on every side of this issue. I spoke to Seaquist, listened to him fall all over himself in apology for his comments; spoke to ISC point man Grant Lynch; spoke to Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton and Kyle Petty for their views on the topic. I even corresponded with a local newspaper reporter who has followed this story closely from its very outset.

With the resulting knowledge, I'm not offended by the comments, necessarily, though I was initially. Quite so. Seaquist is talking about me and my people, with comments that are sadly irresponsible, ignorant, baseless and sophomoric -- especially when uttered by an elected official.

I can't help but wonder what Seaquist's fate might have been had he said such a line about any other of dozens of groups. NASCAR fans carry innately an admirable trait we should strive for: loyalty. Mr. Seaquist now has firsthand experience of said dynamic after the amount of negative feedback he's received.

The Northwest quarter of this country is completely devoid of any NASCAR presence. The closest track to Seattle rests in Sonoma, Calif., some 800 driving miles away. By comparison, 15 of the 22 racetracks on which the Nextel Cup Series competes are within that same distance from the sport's hub in Charlotte, N.C.

As you can see, the difference in opportunity for the fans of each region is substantial.

So will this thing ever get done? How big a setback are the comments from the Washington legislators? And why, pray tell, wouldn't Washington want NASCAR -- and the accompanying economic development -- in the first place?

And might this thing ultimately turn out like Staten Island did? Or didn't, as it were?

First, Lynch had this to say about Seaquist's "clarification" that he considers ISC officials, not NASCAR fans, to be the folks with the cars in the front yard, slipping the law:

"I have always heard if you have dug yourself into a hole, you quit digging and look for a ladder or a hand to help get out of the hole," Lynch said. "I was amazed that Rep. Seaquist chose to answer that question in that way. So I guess he now thinks that my company, or maybe our leadership, does those things?"

Lynch said he feels the local elected officials are listening only to a small part of their base -- one, though, that is vocal, connected and vehemently against the track. Biffle, a Vancouver, Wash., native who joined Lynch in Olympia in mid-February to lobby lawmakers for the proposed $368 million project, agrees.

Biffle appeared on "NASCAR Now" and said the national perception that lawmakers are against the track is evident because they're the only folks speaking out.

Lynch also said ISC requested a presentation to some of the local caucus leadership groups but was denied.

"Their own survey shows what ISC and others mean to their community," Lynch added. "I do have a few fishing boats in my garage but they are on fully workable trailers. The France's boats will not fit on trailers."

Seaquist said on "NASCAR Now" last Friday that ISC wants to pay no taxes on the track, that it expects the public to foot the bill for the venue. The Kitsap Sun reported in February that public financing for a speedway akin to that proposed in Kitsap County was opposed by 79 percent and favored by just 16 percent of respondents in a poll.

In the same story it was reported that likely voters were asked a general question as to whether or not professional sports owners should pay for their own facilities sans taxpayer subsidies. Seventy-one percent agreed while 23 percent said subsidies were a good public investment.

According to the Kitsap Sun article, the poll, published by independent pollster Stuart Elway, was taken among 405 registered voters statewide between Feb. 8 and 12. Washington lawmakers are considering plans for partial public financing for sports venues for NASCAR, the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics, minor league baseball teams and a rodeo and equestrian center.

"The biggest issue we have faced since we arrived in [Washington] is the burnout factor of public/private partnerships that came before us, with the Sonics, Seahawks and Mariners," Lynch explained.

"Our polling showed that there was significant resistance to the way some of the previous deals were put together."

In response, Lynch said ISC has worked diligently to ensure its proposal wouldn't affect Washington's general fund. In fact, he said, "our proposal is the only one in history that shows a positive to the general fund."

In other words, Lynch is saying ISC ultimately will add money to the pot rather than ask for funding from it.

Lynch named several high-profile supporters of the project, including congressman Norm Dicks, Bremerton mayor Cary Bozeman and Kitsap County commissioner Jan Angel. Interestingly, though, Lynch added that some of the very same legislators who now pose ISC's staunchest opposition are among those who most ardently courted ISC initially.

"If you just went down the street and took a poll of the people in Washington state, they'd say give us a racetrack," Petty said. "But [there are] a few of the guys up there that are saying, 'Yeah, we'd like a racetrack, but we don't want it in our district.'

"Then others say, 'We'll vote for the racetrack if you put it in our district.' So we had a lot of mixed emotions about what really it was all about. I think the main deal I got out of it is, where NASCAR wants to put it, this guy was in that district or something and he didn't want it in his district."

Lynch said that, although he didn't work on the failed Staten Island project, he feels the Northwest project has much broader support. He did say it faces some of the typical obstacles: noise, pollution, congestion, taxes.

"Our company has a long history of working with local entities to make our weekends a benefit to the local citizens," Lynch said. "In Talladega, another rural community hosting an even bigger event [than Washington would], 85 percent of the county sales taxes for the year are collected during [race] weekends."

Lynch would know. He's the president of Talladega Superspeedway.

In the near future, the most important step facing ISC is the successful passage of its funding package in Olympia. If that doesn't happen, Lynch says, ISC won't be able to proceed with the initiative.

Lynch points out that the Northwest track initiative is an economic and tourism development proposal, and says "if the locals are only looking for how much money they can get out of us and our fans they are really missing the most important factor."

"Our polling showed that there was significant resistance to the way some of the previous deals were put together."
-- Grant Lynch

ESPN.com obtained records from International Speedway Corp's Kansas Speedway that offer an indication of what NASCAR-driven development can mean. Since 2001, the inaugural season of the Kansas Speedway, the number of residential housing permits in Kansas City, Kan., has increased threefold, while residential land values are up twofold. Since 2000, the average new home value has increased more than $30,000, and commercial property values are up 110 percent since 2001.

Lastly, the state's national tourism rank has risen 10 positions, from a dreadful 48th to a more respectable 38th.

"I realize that this is not Kansas, but with the South Kitsap Industrial Area looking for over 20 years for someone like us to come along, with the ability and willingness to help out, they might be waiting for another 20 [if this doesn't happen]," Lynch said.

"I do know that if we get out there something is going to happen."

Lynch is confident that if ISC is able to build in Kitsap County, some 2,500 subsequent acres can successfully be developed with ISC's support and local direction.

"There are many very fine and upstanding people in the state of Washington, both regular citizens and elected officials," Lynch said. "I don't think we should let a few misguided ones lead us into using the same thought processes that a few of our opponents feel justified using against us."

I couldn't agree more with Mr. Lynch. Last year I was in Seattle for a NASCAR-related engagement. Fans came out in droves, wielding petitions in favor of the racetrack. The excitement was palpable.

That was my firsthand knowledge of Seattle's zeal for stock car competition -- until now.

And now, because of those "misguided ones," my perception has dramatically changed.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.