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Dover in it for long haul

Track officials aren't worried about empty seats.

DOVER, Del. - There will be empty seats at Dover International Speedway today, when NASCAR's stars perform in front of a crowd expected to be considerably less than the Monster Mile's capacity of 135,000.

No one can be sure how many seats will go uninhabited, but speedway officials acknowledge "soft" ticket sales leading up to the annual June stock-car racing bacchanal.

So why isn't Denis McGlynn, president and CEO of Dover Motorsports Inc., sweating under his starched white collar?

"Clearly, there's a number of people who aren't going to make it here, for a variety of economic reasons, whether it's gas prices or money issues at home or on the job," McGlynn said.

While not dismissing the declining attendance at some tracks around the circuit over the first one-third of the Sprint Cup Series' 36-race season, McGlynn projected a "been there, done that" attitude regarding the financial difficulties facing the sport's 75 million fans.

"I've been at this for 36 years, and for every 'up' cycle there's a 'down' cycle," McGlynn said. "The good news is that they are cycles - they don't last forever.

"We're weathering this storm the best we can, and I will say that in walking around the facility, I've met campers that are having fun and have had nothing but complimentary things to say about the improvements we've made in the off-season."

A lot of the changes to the exterior of the facility have been cosmetic, but one addition that's impossible to ignore is the five-story Monster Monument looming outside the Turn 4 grandstand. Part of a five-year, $30 million "Monster Makeover," the behemoth holding aloft a full-size race car seems to bring a smile to anyone who comes within its shadow.

Judy Diogo, president of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, had no problem putting on a happy face when discussing the windfall that Dover's auto-racing events bring to the state's coffers.

"A financial impact study [commissioned by the track in 2001] showed that the two race weekends generated nearly $95 million in direct spending statewide," Diogo said. "Considering inflation, a conservative estimate might put that figure closer to $100 to $105 million annually.

"While some of our newer hotels still had vacancies as of last week, I'd say that the hotels that have been here for years are totally booked."

An informal canvass of hotels along the Route 13 corridor bore out Diogo's assertion, including the 156-room Sheraton that lies within walking distance of the speedway's main entrance.

One person who had no use for a hotel room, and no stomach for what he called the "gloom and doom" economic scenario that might explain the scores of fans missing from the stands, is Ted Stensel.

A 72-year-old retiree from Seattle, Stensel and his wife have spent the last six months touring the country in their 38-foot motor home. On Friday morning, the Stensel's diesel-fueled land cruiser was parked amid a sea of RVs along the edge of Route 1, proudly bearing a flag honoring Washington state driver Greg Biffle.

"There are some things you can do without, but when it comes to entertainment value you can't beat a $55 ticket to a NASCAR race," Stensel said. "It cost me over $400 to fill up my 100-gallon tank, and I figure I'll spend another two grand on gas going back home. But you've got to live while you can, and enjoy what you can."

Though pinched at the pump more than the average race fan, Stensel might have chuckled at the notion that his RV's 81/2 miles-per-gallon is double what the Chevys, Fords, Dodges and Toyotas will average on the track today.

Then again, it appears that when it comes to watching races in person, cost is no object for many fans.

"It's been my experience throughout my career here that the most expensive seats sell out first," McGlynn said. "That holds true in boom periods as well as times of economic distress."

There will be no vacancy in Velocity, the speedway's posh sports bar/suite that overlooks the finish line, despite the $1,200 admission for the weekend. The track's 46 skyboxes sold out as well.

But are the sport's core fans, the bleacher creatures, being forgotten?

"We're anticipating having one of our most successful years in corporate sales, yet we understand the entertainment dollar is discretionary," said Michael Tatoian, executive vice president of Dover Motorsports Inc.

"We're not going to deviate from our plan by cutting ticket prices in half. That's a slippery slope, a short-term gain that would have a long-term impact on our track. Our plan all along has been to enhance the value of the NASCAR experience, and I believe that fans that come here will want to come back again and again."