Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010 | 1:50 a.m.
There's a moment on Sunday of NASCAR weekend that Chris Powell looks forward to every year.
Although it's the busiest day of Powell's year, he always takes a few moments to pause and gaze out in awe of the 140,000 fans filling Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the event.
Powell, president of the speedway, said that was one of the most rewarding aspects of his job. He'll have that opportunity this Sunday when the Shelby American NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race rolls into Las Vegas.
Powell took time to speak with the Sun about race weekend.
Did you grow up a NASCAR fan?
I was always a big sports fan, but I was never strictly a NASCAR fan. I would keep up with the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 and kept up with who won the championship each year, but I can't say I kept up with NASCAR from week-to-week. I was not the passionate fan in my youth that I am today.
What do you think about the sport's rapid growth over the last decade or two?
It has been amazing. I can remember when NASCAR was very much a niche sport, and today I think everyone would agree that it's very much a mainstream sport. Any peripheral sports fan knows that Jimmie Johnson has won four Sprint Cup championships. I don't know that peripheral sports fans in 1985 knew that Darrell Waltrip had won three.
Do you have a favorite driver or drivers you root for on a weekly basis?
I can't help but root for Kurt and Kyle Busch because they are from here. I root for Brendan Gaughan because he's from here, too. I've known all three of those young men since I've been here for 12 years. In my previous job (in NASCAR media relations), I got to know several of the drivers who happen to be competing today like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. I've got a lot of respect for those guys for the way they've come up through the dirt track ranks.
What specifically makes this year's race exciting?
Certainly, Danica Patrick competing in Las Vegas for the first time would have to be one thing. Another thing about our event is it's the third event of the year, so everything is still pretty fresh and new. There's a lot of uncertainty. I think that's one of the things that makes our event so special — it's early in the year and anything can happen.
In what ways have you seen the Las Vegas race grow in the 12 years since its inception?
We've added two massive grandstands since then — the Dale Earnhardt terrace and the Richard Petty Terrace — and just alone that added 37,000 seats, so the event has grown that way. But I think it's grown in stature because the fans love coming here not only because of the racing, but because of the city itself and everything it has to offer.