It's pretty much a given that the twice-yearly NASCAR events in Dover have a major impact on the area's economy. Each year, thousands upon thousands of race fans come to the Dover International Speedway for three days of exciting racing.
Many arrive ahead of the event or end up staying afterward to take advantage of Dover's many stores, restaurants, museums and recreation areas.
The economic benefits to the area can run in the millions of dollars, said Judy Diogo, president of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce.
"Any time you have close to 100,000 people or more coming into our community, there's going to be a huge impact," Diogo said. "They'll be staying in hotels, shopping in stores.
"Most will be here for three days, and in our view the cash registers are ringing. That's what we like to see," she said.
But there's also a side benefit that can last longer than the few days the racers are in town, Diogo said.
"It's nice to have all these people visiting, and when they come in for the first time, they'll see what Dover and Kent County has to offer, and then many will be repeat visitors.
"That's all very good for our community."
Jim Waddington, Kent County's director of economic development, concurred.
"With NASCAR coming in twice a year, typically our hotels sell out, and there's a fair amount of spinoff," he said. "Not everyone coming to Dover brings their own food, so they've got to have a place to eat, a place to stay, they go to museums. It's a real boon for Dover."
From a tourism standpoint, putting real numbers on NASCAR's impact on Dover and Kent County is difficult, said Cindy Small, executive director of Kent County Tourism. The most recent formal study is more than 10 years old, and things now are so different than when the study was written that the old numbers are practically meaningless.
A much more recent study, published in 2011 in the International Journal of Motorsport Management, shows how NASCAR's presence can have a positive effect on an area's economy. The report looked at the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway, whose owners spent millions upgrading the track to make it eligible for Sprint Cup racing. Seating capacity at the renovated track now reaches 107,000, slightly less than the 113,000 fans who can be accommodated at Dover.
The track's home base is in tiny Sparta, Ky., which has a population of less than 300, but the races there draw fans from across the Bluegrass State and from neighboring southern Ohio.
The report showed hotels, motels and campgrounds in the area were sold out for the July 2011 race, with each fan spending approximately $233 on tickets, concessions and lodging.
Page 2 of 3 - The report estimated the total economic impact on the area for the three-day race exceeded $38 million.
But even though similar studies are not available locally, the races still are a bright spot on Kent County's economic horizon, she said.
"For our hotel community, NASCAR is a very big deal," Small said. A check on Sept. 16 showed only sporadic room availability over Sept. 27 through Sept. 29.
"You won't find anyone with rooms for the entire weekend, but some may have a Friday night and a Sunday night, but not Saturday," she said.
Dover's hospitality business can put up approximately 2,750 rooms, which is down slightly due to the closing of the Rodeway Inn and the leasing of the former Dover Sheraton to Delaware State University. That number should go back up once the Rodeway's replacement, a Home2 Suites by Hilton franchise, opens in early 2014.
People book their rooms early, often making reservations for next year when checking out after the most recent race, Small said.
Fans come to the Dover International Speedway from all over the United States – even from other countries – but most are from the Mid-Atlantic region. Dover is a big draw for people who want to make a three- to four-hour drive for a race and then head home, she said.
"In terms of our fans, we're within a short drive of a population base of more than 10 million people," she said.
But some of those fans are not staying as long as they used to, Small said. People used to come down in campers and stay at the beaches, as well.
"That doesn't happen as much today, but it's still not totally gone away," Small said.
"When you look at it in terms of business, NASCAR and Firefly are like Christmas in June and September. Even though it's not what it used to be, it's still the biggest event in the area," she said.
Gary Camp, director of communications for Dover International Speedway, concurs.
"We'd like to think that when NASCAR comes to Dover, it really puts the city on the map, especially in the motor sports world," Camp said.
Along with the Firefly music festival, now in its third year, NASCAR, which has been running races at Dover for more than 45 years, Dover has become even more of a popular place to go, he said.
"When you travel to different places, if you say you're from Dover or that you work in Dover, everyone instantly recognized that's the home of Dover International Speedway," he said.
The speedway also is looking to make race weekends more attractive, particularly for Dover residents, who traditionally shun the area as crowds move in.
Page 3 of 3 - "We've always had the stigma that when race weekend comes to town, local people don't go to the store or just don't want to go out," he said. "We'd like to turn that around and help people realize this great event is right in their backyard. We've really tried hard to improve the fan experience at the track so that there's much more to do than just watch a race. You can be entertained for an entire day just as soon as you set foot on the property."