HEMBREE: Viva Las Vegas

HEMBREE: Viva Las Vegas

Insights & Analysis

HEMBREE: Viva Las Vegas

There are dueling pairs of cowboy boots in Las Vegas this week.

It happens here most years as the calendar turns from November to December. The two events don’t always coincide, but this year, again, they do – NASCAR Champion’s Week and the National Finals Rodeo.

The two events are not altogether congruous, but there is a definite interface. The guy in the Wrangler jeans, George Strait-cut Western shirt and ostrich boots could be in town to watch bulls and barrel racers, or he could be looking to snag an autograph from Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano or any of the other NASCAR notables parked along the Strip in exotic hotels.

Or maybe both.

No matter his allegiance – horses or horsepower – he’ll find plenty of outlets in and around the sprawling Strip this week, as NASCAR spins its racecars along Las Vegas Boulevard and the rodeo crowd fills bars and restaurants around town and samples the particular goodies that one of the country’s biggest tourist magnets offers.

Something big is happening in Vegas virtually every week – from conventions of every sort to major sports events to marathons to concerts featuring big-name entertainers.

In another time, before professional boxing lost much of its glamour, championship matches held in Vegas set the town on fire. Fans flooded the streets and casinos, many in town simply to be in the same zip code as the event, with no hope of actually snaring a ticket to the fight. It was enough to be somewhere under the neon, within range of the shouting.

Now one of the biggest annual draws is for an event not held in Vegas – the Super Bowl. Thousands fly into town to place bets on the game, gather for monster Super parties and watch the game in the vibrant atmosphere of casino sports books. The biggest winner is the city itself.

Vegas is so huge and its offerings so widespread that many events can be held almost without notice from people who are in town for other reasons. This is generally not the case for NASCAR Champion’s Week, which this year honors only the third (after Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.) seven-time champion in the sport’s history – Jimmie Johnson.

In a brightly colored and noisy place, NASCAR brings brighter colors and more noise. Fans and others among the simply curious lined the Strip Thursday as NASCAR drivers cruised along the street in a loud salute to the champion. Tires squealed and smoke drifted over the palm trees and into the neon signs. Even accountants and office-machine salespeople in town for conventions couldn’t fail to notice.

NASCAR and Vegas is a marriage that seemed ideal from the start. Neither is shy nor bashful about its product, and both stretch the boundaries of brash.

Outside town, but close enough to be within view of the Strip’s skyscraping casino/hotels, sits Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which has hosted Sprint Cup races once a year since 1998. In an era in which NASCAR race attendance has suffered (dramatically in places), the Vegas track has done reasonably well, in part because the myriad attractions of the gambling and entertainment mecca provide a second (and maybe third and fourth) incentive pulling people into town.

Friday night, Johnson’s championship will become official with the awarding of the Sprint Cup trophy (the last one under the Sprint banner) and an evening of food and drink at the Wynn hotel/casino as drivers and officials parade uncomfortably in formal attire in a ballroom big enough to host large-scale military maneuvers.

The NASCAR celebration was enhanced Thursday with a significant announcement – the signing of Monster Energy drink as the new title sponsor for what has been the Sprint Cup Series and previously was the Winston Cup Series. Monster, a brand officials hope will be a great fit for younger fans, who aren’t flocking to NASCAR in large numbers, has a history of selling its products through motorsports and should bring a new approach to a sport that needs a boost – caffeine or otherwise.

After a week of backslapping and trophy polishing (and bumping into those rodeo folks), NASCAR will leave town Saturday with Johnson as king once again and with roads to build toward an uncertain future.

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