Memphis International Raceway Readies for World Series of Drag Racing

By Don Wade

No one is suggesting that Memphis International Raceway will duplicate the economic impact numbers generated by the Bristol Motor Speedway. For those numbers – more than $417 million in direct economic impact from 2012 to 2014 – are otherworldly.

Memphis International Raceway has been in growth mode since coming under new ownership in 2011. Long-term, the track operators hope to bring back NASCAR events to the Millington raceway. The last NASCAR event, a truck series race, was held there in 2009. (Submitted)

Memphis International Raceway is the site of the World Series of Drag Racing on Aug. 26-27. The two-day event is expected to have anywhere from $5 million to $10 million in economic impact. (Submitted)

Memphis International Raceway is the site of the World Series of Drag Racing on Aug. 26-27. The two-day event is expected to have anywhere from $5 million to $10 million in economic impact. (Submitted)

But with the 2016 World Series of Drag Racing coming to MIR Aug. 26-27, supporters are expecting to rev up the local economic impact from the track located in Millington. Those numbers could range from $5 million to $10 million, just for that one event. Local and industry projections for the next five years of racing at the track are $50 million to $70 million.

Along with Sunoco, the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau is a presenting sponsor of the World Series of Drag Racing. Recently Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the MCVB, said the raceway “gives us an advantage over many destinations,” adding, “it offers strong economic impact from another important travel segment.”

It also doesn’t hurt that for the first time since the old Memphis Motorsports Park reopened in August 2011 with a new name and under the new ownership of IRG Sports + Entertainment, the track will be the site of a truly big-time event bringing in multiple household names to racing fans.

Among them: Don “Big Daddy” Garlits, considered the King of Dragsters; current National Hot Rod Association Funny Car World Champion Del Worsham; four-time world champion Shirley Muldowney, known as the First Lady of Drag Racing; six-time International Hot Rod Association Top Fuel world champ Clay Millican of Drummonds, Tenn.; and current NHRA Pro-Stock world champion Erica Enders-Stevens. Fans will have a chance to get autographs of one and all.

“These are rock stars,” said Chris Lencheski, vice chairman of the board of managers and president of IRG Sports + Entertainment.

When the new group purchased the track in the winter of 2011, there was little left but memories. The last high-level event at Memphis Motorsports Park was a NASCAR truck series race in 2009 won by Ron Hornaday Jr. The raceway generated an estimated economic impact of $54.5 million for Shelby County in 2009.

“The track was stripped,” said Memphis International Raceway president and general manager Pam Kendrick. “We had to start from scratch. They had auctioned off everything all the way down to a desk and a chair.”

IRG Sports + Entertainment is owned by TPG, a leading global private investment firm with more than $70 billion of capital under management. Memphis International Raceway is one of four major tracks owned by IRGSE as part of its International Raceway Group. Other tracks include Palm Beach International Raceway, Maryland International Raceway, and Cordova International Raceway in Illinois.

The Illinois track had been the site of the World Series of Drag Racing. But Lencheski said they moved the event, now in its 63rd year, because of the “growth potential” in Memphis. And make no mistake, that potential for growth always harkens back to racing’s past. Fans here remember that NASCAR rolled into town.

“We’re trying to put ourselves in front of as many as people as possible,” Kendrick said of the effort to attract sponsors, partners and fans. “The reception has been great. We get a constant ask: ‘When is NASCAR coming back?’”

The answer, Kendrick says, is eventually. The timetable is uncertain, but Lencheski says there are ongoing discussions.

While the World Series of Drag Racing gives MIR a signature event, the raceway is humming much of the year now. More than 30,000 fans came out for the three-day Super Chevy Show last April.

Kendrick says their target fans are males ages 18 to 54. The Millington location, she admitted, has been an educational challenge – “we’re 20 minutes from Downtown, 25 minutes from Collierville” – and racing is not the main sport in the market.

“The Grizzlies and University of Memphis sports are pretty dominant in this market,” Kendrick said, adding that they are working with both.

Kendrick says they also are trying to offer more options for fans, and a VIP party deck on top of the control tower will be introduced for the World Series of Drag Racing, if not sooner. Tickets for the two-day event are $25 for Friday only, $35 for Saturday only, and start at $50 for both days.

Lencheski also notes that with FedEx and AutoZone headquartered in Memphis and already involved in motorsports, success and growth at MIR could move into the fast lane.

“There’s a business reason to make Memphis healthy again,” he said.