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March 21, 2013

Darlington readies for wider fans ... and saving its tax break

The 63-year-old race track has plans to widen its seats, currently 18 inches wide, in order to make the race more comfortable for its fans.

If it’s not careful, Darlington Raceway could exempt itself from its own tax exemption.

The 63-year-old race track has plans to widen its seats, currently 18 inches wide, in order to make the race more comfortable for its fans, according to track president Chris Browning. But if it does that, Darlington’s capacity would fall below 60,000 seats – the threshold required to qualify for an exemption to the state admissions tax.

A Senate subcommittee Thursday advanced a bill that would rewrite that exemption to apply to any “motorsports entertainment complex” that “is a NASCAR sanctioned motor speedway or racetrack that hosts at least one race each year featuring the preeminent NASCAR cup series.”

“We accidentally defined ourselves into a box,” DeWitt Zemp, a lobbyist representing Darlington Raceway, said of the existing 60,000-seat exemption.

Critics often point to special exemptions as examples of politicians playing favorites. Darlington says its races contributes more than $50 million a year to the Pee Dee-area economy.

Darlington Raceway collects the admissions tax — 5 percent on the cost of a ticket. But the exemption allows it to keep half of that tax and use it for marketing. Last year, the raceway collected $97,610 — down from $124,000 in 2009 – Zemp said.

Attendance at NASCAR races has dropped nationally by about 30 percent, Zemp said, blaming the struggling economy and the fact that fans can watch the race on TV.

Browning and Zemp note other NASCAR tracks have widened their seats, so it makes sense for Darlington to follow.

“The trend in any sport right now is ... focused on guest comfort,” Browning said. “As our sport continues to evolve .. we just want to get ourselves in a position so that if we need to do that in some point down the road, we’ll be in a position to do it.”

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