Southern 500 in Darlington racing with plenty of tax dollars

August 30, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

The thousands of fans who are expected to attend the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Sunday aren’t the only folks supporting the annual NASCAR race.

For years, taxpayers have subsidized the private stock-car racetrack dubbed “The Track Too Tough to Tame.” State comptroller general records, for example, show that the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (PRT) has paid the raceway a collective $500,000 since fiscal 2010, including $150,000 – the single-highest annual amount – last fiscal year.

PRT has a link to it its website on the Darlington Raceway’s site and is listed among the Southern 500’s “partners,” which also include the S.C. Education Lottery.

PRT spokeswoman Dawn Dawson-House said in an email response Friday that $100,000 was paid last fiscal year to the raceway as a “legislative grant.”

In addition, the agency paid the raceway a collective $150,000 in fiscal years 2016, 2018 and 2019 for an advertising contract as part of “our Ultimate Outsiders marketing campaign for state parks,” she said, adding the “demographics of the NASCAR audience are favorable for the market we’re trying to reach.”

The advertising package includes, according to Dawson-House:

  • A package of VIP and reserved tickets for all Southern 500 weekend events;
  • Pit passes and “opportunities to interview with NASCAR personalities”;
  • Access to the “corporate hospitality tent called the Palmetto Pavilion”;
  • A web banner on the raceway’s website for this year;
  • Advertisements on Southern 500 tickets and ticket envelopes;
  • Two 30-second commercials on the track’s jumbotron every day during the race weekend;
  • A double-sided billboard facing the trackside and a highway; and
  • A full-page advertisement in the souvenir program.

Besides PRT, the state Department of Agriculture has paid the raceway a total of $42,700 since fiscal 2014, state comptroller general records show. Asked about recent expenditures, agency spokeswoman Eva Moore in an email response Friday said a collective $16,700 over the past three fiscal years was provided by the S.C. Pork Board through the agency for Pork Board “promotions,” including “track wall signage and participation in the raceway’s annual barbecue event in October.”

The department also paid $16,000 in fiscal 2018 for a “promotional program for the Certified SC Grown program, which included a billboard and other promotions,” Moore said.

Under a state budget proviso first introduced in 2011 by state Sens. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, and Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, who runs an automotive consulting business and has strong ties with NASCAR, a “motorsports entertainment complex facility” can receive up to $114,000 annually in admission tax rebates for events held at a “NASCAR sanctioned motor speedway or racetrack that hosts at least one race each year featuring a preeminent NASCAR cup series.”

Lawmakers have annually renewed the proviso, including for this fiscal year, which started July 1. The state admissions tax is 5%. Ticket prices for this year’s Southern 500 range from $40 to $104, according to PRT’s website; three-day basic packages range from $70 to $129, according to the raceway’s site.

And the raceway has received other taxpayer-backed breaks. Under a state House bill that passed last year, state and local sales taxes are exempted on “building materials, supplies, fixtures, and equipment for the construction, repair, or improvement of or that become part of a motorsports entertainment complex.”

The state Department of Revenue can approve the tax break based on a “practical plan” of a capital investment of at least $10 million within a five-year period, under the legislation.

In an interview last year with The Nerve, Darlington Raceway president Kerry Tharp estimated that the tax savings under the bill would be about $400,000,” noting the company expected to reach the $10 million investment threshold under the legislation “in a relatively short period of time.”

In May of this year, Daytona Beach, Fla.-based International Speedway Corp., which owned the Darlington Raceway, announced that it had agreed to sell the racetrack to NASCAR Holdings Inc. in an approximately $2 billion deal that included other top stock-car racing venues in the country.

The 2018 tax-break legislation, the main sponsor of which was House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, contended that with the inaugural running of the Southern 500 in 1950, “South Carolina has served as a cornerstone in the development of stock car racing, one of the fastest growing and most popular spectator sports in the country.”

Yet NASCAR as of late has been racing to halt a slide in attendance and TV ratings nationwide, according to media reports.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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