NASCAR & Auto Racing

What the NASCAR-ISC merger means for local Speedway Motorsports, future of NASCAR

NASCAR’s $2 billion deal to purchase International Speedway Corporation, one of the sport’s two main track operators, could end up putting pressure on the other major track owner: Concord-based Speedway Motorsports.

ISC currently owns and operates 12 tracks used in the NASCAR Cup Series. With NASCAR assuming control of those tracks, the sanctioning body may favor its tracks over SMI’s when it comes time to renegotiate the 2021 NASCAR schedule.

Some context: NASCAR’s current contractual agreements with its tracks expire after the 2020 season, meaning new agreements will need to be reached before 2021. The sanctioning body already revamped its schedule for 2020, but given the current agreements with both ISC and SMI — the only NASCAR tracks not owned by one of those two operators are Indianapolis, Dover, and Pocono — NASCAR’s hands were somewhat tied as far as eliminating specific races or venues.

But given NASCAR president Steve Phelps’ clear willingness to shorten the sport’s grueling 36-race schedule, it would be a surprise if some of those changes don’t come about by 2021.

Those new contract negotiations are what makes the timing of this move so key for both NASCAR and, as a result, SMI.

NASCAR could favor the 12 new tracks it will inherit as part of the ISC merger, meaning the sanctioning body would lean more heavily on those tracks it owns than those operated by SMI, including Charlotte Motor Speedway. The idea of rotating NASCAR’s All-Star Race away from its longtime home in Concord has already been broached, and other venues could also see one or both of their races eliminated.

“NASCAR buying a track (operator) is called vertical integration and often considered to be an anti-competitive attempt to monopolize an industry. SMI will certainly feel the heat on their bottom line,” Vanderbilt sports economics professor John Vrooman said in an email.

This NASCAR-ISC merger, which was first broached last fall and is expected to be finalized this summer, also comes at a time when Speedway Motorsports is trying to take itself private.

Last month, SMI CEO Marcus Smith told shareholders that Sonic Financial intends to buy all the outstanding shares of Speedway Motorsports, in a deal worth more than $734 million.

Sonic Financial is a holding company owned by Smith’s father and SMI chairman Bruton Smith. A Speedway Motorsports spokesman would not comment. “Given the Smith Group’s role in the sport and involvement in the company, we believe we are the best party to lead the company through the challenges ahead,” Smith wrote in his letter to shareholders.

NASCAR woes

In recent years, NASCAR track operators have faced serious headwinds, including declining attendance, tight discretionary budgets among the sport’s core fan base and increased competition from other entertainment venues, Wells Fargo Securities analyst Tim Conder wrote in a research note after the Smith family announced plans to take the local motorsports company private.

“We believe these factors are pushing the two facility operators (International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports) toward structural ownership changes that will allow greater flexibility as private companies,” Conder said.

It’s unclear whether the merger would trigger any layoffs for either NASCAR or International Speedway Corporation. In January, roughly two months after it announced its intention to buy ISC, NASCAR cut roughly 50 employees in a range of positions across the U.S., including some in Charlotte.

An ISC spokeswoman could not be reached. NASCAR spokesman Chris Tropeano said the company couldn’t comment beyond its corporate statement on the deal.

“With a strong vision for the future, the France family’s commitment to NASCAR and the larger motorsports industry has never been greater,” part of NASCAR’s statement said.

Once NASCAR assumes control of ISC later in 2019, it is possible that more layoffs could follow as the companies consolidate. Both NASCAR and ISC are already owned by the France family, but as part of the merger, marketing or sales operations could be streamlined to prevent duplication.

As the retail and sports business reporter for the Observer, Katie Peralta covers everything from grocery-store competition in Charlotte to tax breaks for pro sports teams. She is a Chicago native and graduate of the University of Notre Dame.
Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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