Shifting into high gear for NASCAR

I used to drive fast cars. They were Hot Wheels. Few activities provided a thrill that exceeded that of flinging a sleek Camaro down, and often off, the plastic track.

A Chevy guy, at 16, I plunked down $900 on a metallic blue ‘66 Chevelle Malibu with a raised tail end and wide, fatty tires, bench seats and an 8-track player. It had a hot-rod look without the racing guts. No matter, the car’s coolness trumped my pubescent geekness, unlocking the door to adulthood. In other words, it helped me get my first date.

So I can understand why so many of the state’s influential citizens are smitten with the very real prospect that NASCAR is coming. It is cool, it confers status and it brings the sweet embrace of money.

International Speedway Corp. of Florida says the time is now for the NASCAR-less Pacific Northwest. This Microsoft of track building is seeking the perfect piece of unkempt countryside on which to plop a concrete oval surrounded by 80,000 seats.

Washington lawmakers desperately want to prove that our state is the best suitor for the Southern gentlemen. The package of incentives being discussed behind closed doors is quite a few gyrations shy of the lap dance given Boeing.

Even so, elected officials are gearing up for a major change in state law so they can pump tax dollars into the International Speedway tank without siphoning them from pockets and purses.

They want to use tax-increment financing, or TIF for insiders. It’s the hottest catalytic converter of economic development in the nation.

Models differ, but the principle is the same: A government agrees to pay a share of the loans or bonds that fund a major project. That pledge is paid for with taxes generated from the development itself, and possibly the surrounding region, if not the entire state.

In Washington, the focus is on using sales tax dollars. Buy a T-shirt at the raceway, and a chunk of the sales tax would pay down the tab on the wider roads, extended utilities or land purchases that made it all possible.

Past attempts to legalize TIF failed. The future may be different.

State Sen. Tim Sheldon of Mason County is out corralling support for a bill he will introduce in January. Lt. Gov Brad Owen — one of the state’s point men in negotiations — thinks the timing is right.

Numerically, opponents in the state House of Representatives and Senate are declining.

Economically, it’s one of the few unused tools left for cash-challenged governments that might not require voter approval.

Emotionally, lawmakers faced with cutting programs because of a budget deficit may be moved toward it to ease their pain.

Politically, track foes may be overrun by NASCAR fans — which nearly one in three people in this country claim to be.

Lawmakers’ rising confidence is revving up efforts to help International Speedway, and by extension NASCAR, find at least 900 acres within 60 miles of Seattle on which to settle.

At least 10 sites in three counties — Snohomish, Kitsap and Thurston — are on the list of possibles.

Now, teams of public and private powers in each county are secreting data to International Speedway officials and their lobbyist, Mark Greenberg, on why they offer the best vehicle for success.

This cloak-and-dagger stuff is igniting not so jocular jockeying among county siblings.

Take Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon. In the same breath, this governor-in-training is diplomatic — "I will support wherever NASCAR decides to go" — and determined — "It’s a competitive process. I plan on being damn competitive."

He’ll need to be.

It’s no secret that more than a few lawmakers feel Snohomish County has garnered more than its fair share of state-sponsored projects in recent years, the latest case being Boeing. These folks say other counties deserve to reap a little benefit. State Sen. Paull Shin of Edmonds responded: "You don’t get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate for."

There’s a lot to negotiate for. A date with International Speedway leads to marriage with NASCAR, the hottest mama and sugariest daddy in the sports kingdom. A civil union means thousands of jobs, gazillions of dollars and a crack at world peace.

A "NASCAR event" — one of the Nextel Cup series races starring Jeff Gordon and televised worldwide — would uncork a Super Bowl-sized burp for the economies of cities and counties nearest the track, and for the state.

Any day now, the Checkered Flag Task Force — a collegial cadre of Snohomish, King, Thurston, Mason and Kitsap county leaders — will issue a report on how thick a silver lining they anticipate.

Their report will put forth educated guesses on how many new jobs will be created and the millions of dollars that will be generated from construction contracts, raceway events, and ultimately from hotels, restaurants and megastores that will crop up near the enterprise. There will be no dark cloud in this report, no waving of yellow flags.

Republican Rep. Dan Kristiansen of Snohomish, whose district includes potential racetrack sites, says he likes what he’s been told about the positives.

"But I want to hear the negatives," he said, referring to the effects on traffic, noise, pollution, farmland conversion and growth. "If this happens," he warns, "it will happen fast."

Buckle up for the ride.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or

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