NASCAR, SMI seek settlement

Updated: April 18, 2004, 1:33 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

As the late baseball broadcaster Harry Caray used to say, "It might be, it could be, it is."

Or is it?

Is there an out-of-court settlement brewing that could radically alter Nextel Cup racing not only for next year but for many years to come? Could the long anticipated -- or in NASCAR's eyes, the long-dreaded -- lawsuit by Speedway Motorsports Inc. stockholders Francis Ferko and Rusty Vaughn never see the light of day in a courtroom?

That would appear to be the case, with a number of reports in recent weeks indicating that a settlement is close to being finalized.

For the record, the suit was scheduled to go to trial in early May in federal court in Sherman, Texas. However, the trial has been pushed back from early next month to July, perhaps with an eye toward both sides reaching a settlement beforehand.

Both sides have remained tight-lipped on negotiations and what a final settlement may entail. But it would appear that NASCAR may be ready to make one of the biggest compromises in its history.

While NASCAR officials have continually denied that they never promised SMI Chairman Bruton Smith a second yearly race at Texas Motor Speedway more than seven years ago, it appears as if Smith will not only get a second date deep in the heart of Texas, but also a second date for Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which SMI also owns.

In return, SMI will reportedly purchase and assume operation of North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham and the venerable Darlington Raceway, both which are currently owned by NASCAR's International Speedway Corp. subsidiary. It would be similar to the way SMI purchased North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway in 1996 and then promptly switched its single race date to the brand new TMS.

Now this is where it gets real interesting.

Depending on who you talk to, the crux of the remainder of the settlement boils down to where Rockingham and Darlington would rank in the overall scheme of things.

One report has the two racetracks -- which host a total of three races between them this year (two at Darlington, one at Rockingham) -- losing two of those three dates, which would then be split between Texas and Las Vegas. The remaining date would be alternated every other year between both facilities.

One other element of that agreement would likely have the Busch Series and Craftsman Truck Series visiting both facilities each year, in essence making up for some of the racing action and revenue lost by switching events to Texas and Las Vegas.

Another report has NASCAR allowing Darlington and Rockingham to each host a mid-week night race in 2005, with Texas and Las Vegas getting second race dates from the elimination of the annual pre-season Budweiser Shootout just prior to the Daytona 500, as well as doing away with the Nextel Cup Challenge, the annual mid-May non-points all-star event formerly known as The Winston.

As a sidebar to that, Martinsville, sight of Sunday's Advance Auto Parts 500, may also wind up hosting a mid-week night race as part of its two annual events, thus potentially freeing up a weekend date that would accommodate one of the other races that might have their venues switched.

Phoenix is also reportedly in line for a second race date, with both Chicago and Kansas City also seeking second dates. And let's not forget tracks that are still seeking their first Nextel Cup event, places such as Kentucky, Nashville and St. Louis. Oh, and then there's also proposed racetracks that still have yet to be built in the Seattle, Portland and New York City areas.

A highly-placed source who requested anonymity recently told ESPN.com that SMI is trying to work out an amicable resolution with NASCAR to get additional dates at the SMI-owned facilities in Las Vegas and Texas.

"Look, SMI has to co-exist with NASCAR," the source said. "It doesn't do anyone any good to have animosity involved in all this. The key is to have a fair and equitable solution for everyone. We want to keep things as amicable as possible because, regardless of what was said or promised -- or what NASCAR says wasn't promised seven years ago -- the fact is we have to all get along for the betterment of the sport.

"There's no point in holding any grudges or pointing fingers. If we can work out a solution where everyone wins, that would be the best for everybody. This way, SMI gets second dates for some of its tracks, NASCAR doesn't have to worry about potentially having to pay what some have estimated could be anywhere between a half-billion and a billion in damages, and everyone winds up getting something. It's a win-win for everyone."

As an aside to the negotiations currently underway -- which several sources from both sides have indicated are getting closer to a harmonious finalization -- the tentative schedule for 2005 is on hold until a settlement is reached. But by all indications, we're going to see a dramatically different slate of races and host tracks moving forward.

As mentioned in last week's column, there may be even more changes afoot, like switching the annual July 4 Pepsi 400 and the season-ending Ford 400 and their venues, with Homestead getting the Independence Day weekend date, while Daytona would host the season finale.

But for now, the lawsuit in Texas is the first order of business. In a few weeks perhaps, we'll have a clearer picture of what the Nextel Cup future holds.

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.