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NASCAR promoters making a bet that sports gambling can attract new interest

The Gander Outdoors 400 wasn’t the only action at Dover on Sunday. (Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

DOVER, Del. — Sandwiched between the Bud Light beer pavilion and the 46-foot Monster statue that dominates Dover International Speedway’s fan plaza was a new amenity for NASCAR fans heading to their seats for Sunday’s 400-mile race.

“Sports Betting: Vegas style,” a banner proclaimed next to the trackside kiosk, where, for the first time, stock-car racing fans could legally wager on the action at Dover’s so-called “Monster Mile,’” a one-mile, high-banked oval akin to a concrete mixing bowl.

And two hours before the start of the Gander Outdoors 400, would-be bettors were stacked up double-file and more than 20 deep, waiting to place their bets. Standing by was John Hensley, senior director of horse racing and sports betting for the adjacent Dover Downs Hotel and Casino, who fielded questions and walked fans through their myriad options beyond simply picking their favorite driver to win.

Fans also could bet on which driver would win the first two stages of the race, at Lap 120 and Lap 240. They could bet on head-to-head matchups: Would Kyle Busch finish better than Kevin Harvick, for example, or would Kyle Larson outduel Brad Keselowski? They also could try a prop bet: How many caution flags would fly? How many lead changes would there be? How many drivers would finish on the lead lap?

“I’m going for the oddball stuff — the props,” said Tony Licastro, 50, of Florham Park, N.J.

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Sporting a Bass Pro Shops T-shirt that declared his allegiance to driver Martin Truex Jr., Patrick Quinn, a longtime NASCAR fan from Long Island, bet on Truex to win. But he also bet on Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott to finish in the top five and put money on the Denver Broncos and New York Giants, too, because the kiosk took wagers on virtually all sports.

“You’re going to root for your favorite driver anyway,” Quinn explained. “But this just adds to the whole experience. It gives you another reason to root.”

Chasing fans

That’s the hope of NASCAR in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision May 14 that radically altered the sports-betting landscape by striking down a law that had barred most states from offering legal wagering on sports. Delaware, which had enjoyed a partial exemption, acted quickly to approve full-scale sports betting in June. New Jersey, Mississippi and West Virginia have passed similar laws. D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) introduced legislation in September that would allow sports betting in the District. Nevada has long permitted sports betting.

At NASCAR tracks across the country, promoters hope that legal wagering gives their declining fan base new reason to stick with the sport following the retirement of such stars as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart.

Ideally, it also will attract new fans, giving them reason to invest, both literally and emotionally, in the budding careers of future stars Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Bubba Wallace.

From a marketing standpoint, Chris Powell, president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, likened legal wagering as “manna from heaven.”

“It very well could be a shot in the arm to NASCAR and other forms of motor sports because it could add a new element of excitement — whether it’s wagering on who’s going to win or who’ll win the first segment or a one-on-one bet, just like in golf, where it might be Bubba Watson against Tiger Woods,” Powell said in a telephone interview.

“You could have millennials in the grandstands high-fiving because one of them placed a wager on the first stage of a race. And this is the very demographic we’re trying to reach now.”

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Powell is especially excited about potential applications for mobile phones and handheld devices that would let a NASCAR fan in Mississippi, for example, place a wager on the Daytona 500 from his living room couch.

That, in turn, raises the question of revenue.

Few expect legal wagering to generate a significant stream of revenue for NASCAR.

It could represent a new category of sponsor for teams and tracks alike if NASCAR lifts its prohibition on deals with online gaming companies.

But in the relatively austere motor sports economy, in which declining TV ratings have been followed by an exodus of corporate sponsors, any new revenue is significant. How those proceeds would be divided among track owners, team owners, drivers and NASCAR itself is among the many unanswered questions as NASCAR steers into the uncharted gambling space.

Unresolved issues

In response to the Supreme Court decision, NASCAR assembled a task force to study the implications of legalized gambling for the sport, according to two people with knowledge of the panel but not authorized to speak about it publicly because NASCAR has not acknowledged it exists.

Its top priority is addressing questions of “integrity” in the sport in a world of legalized gambling. How will the sport guard against race-fixing? How will it monitor aberrant betting patterns that might suggest nefarious activity? Who should be allowed (or not) to bet on races?

For now, NASCAR has no policy on whether drivers may bet for or against themselves — or a policy that speaks to team owners, engine builders or tire changers. Until such a policy is devised, NASCAR will rely on an elastic clause in its rule book that prohibits “actions detrimental to racing” as a stick to punish wrongdoers.

On Sunday, NASCAR President Steve Phelps told the Associated Press that the sanctioning body would implement new guidelines on sports betting next year.

The task force’s second priority is “fan engagement” — how to leverage gambling to build its audience. On this, its speedways in Dover and Las Vegas will be pioneers, expected to share data on wagering promotions with the task force as fodder for potential “best practices.”

The Dover track is unique in its proximity to Dover Downs Hotel and Casino, which has a separate corporate structure and offers year-round wagering in its Race & Sports Book located inside the casino. It was a lively spot Saturday, offering a restaurant and bar on one side, groupings of comfortable arm chairs in the center and individual seats with TV sets. On the walls were 24 large-screen TVs tuned to the college football games, horse racing, the baseball playoffs and the NASCAR Xfinity Series race that served as the undercard to Sunday’s Cup race.

“We’re optimistic that it’s going to continue to catch on with fans,” said Gary Camp, assistant vice president of marketing for the Dover track, “and get them even more engaged with the events here.”

Said Hensley, the Dover casino executive: “They’re already attracted to the sport and the NASCAR brand. This just gives them something more.”

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