COLUMBIA — Darlington Raceway could save $360,000 on renovations designed to provide fans more comfortable seating and better views at the historic stock-car track under legislation speeding through the South Carolina Statehouse.
The House voted 97-1 last week to give the self-proclaimed "track too tough to tame" a five-year exemption from paying state and local sales taxes on all building supplies and equipment — as long as total spending reaches $10 million. It's estimated that 60 percent of the spending would be on tax-exempt items.
The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Jay Lucas of Darlington County, heads to the Senate.
"The raceway is extremely important to tourism in South Carolina," said House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill.
Hopefully, the renovation will help draw more race fans, while ensuring NASCAR's oldest major speedway maintains its preeminent role in the sport, Simrill said.
According to the raceway, which hosted its first race on Labor Day 1950, a $7 million project launched in February will include wider, more comfortable seating, wider aisles and handrails. One grandstand will get a new slope to improve sightlines and stadium-style chairs with cup holders. Work is supposed to be completed in time for the track's traditional Labor Day weekend race.
The project will slightly reduce the track's 58,000 seats, though by how many is not yet known, Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp said.
"The main thing is a better seating experience for fans instead of sitting on a pretty uncomfortable metal seat," he said.
Future projects over the next five years should easily meet the bill's required $10 million investment threshold, Tharp said.
It wasn't too long ago Darlington fought for its survival. The Southern 500 was taken off Labor Day weekend in 2003 and shuffled around the NASCAR schedule for most of the next decade. The track regained its end-of-summer holiday weekend in 2015.
The raceway already gets a break on admissions taxes.
At attractions across South Carolina, the state collected $30.4 million last year from that 5 percent fee added to every ticket — whether to get into a zoo, sports game or museum, according to the Revenue Department.
A 2008 state law allowed Darlington Raceway to keep half of that fee to spend on marketing, but the law expires July 1. A separate provision written into every state budget since 2011 essentially lets the raceway keep all of that ticket-sales tax. Last year, it provided the Raceway about $90,000 for marketing, Tharp said.
Lucas said his bill will make it easier for the raceway to "continue to create jobs and spur economic growth."
"The General Assembly has consistently advocated for similar tourism attractions for decades in order to allow these events to benefit the citizens of our state," he said, pointing to a 2017 study by the University of South Carolina that estimates the raceway's annual economic impact tops $50 million.
Rep. Jonathon Hill, a Townville Republican who often is the only House member to formally oppose many bills, cast the lone dissenting vote on the raceway tax break.
Other sports venues getting tax perks include the Family Circle Tennis Center on Daniel Island and the soccer complex on Daniel Island where the Charleston Battery plays. Both are also allowed to keep half of their admissions tax collections for marketing.
Overall, the state returned about $194,000 in admissions taxes last year, according to South Carolina's Revenue Department. But the agency does not provide details on businesses receiving tax incentives, a spokeswoman said, citing disclosure laws.
None of the tax-break laws actually name the venues. But eligibility definitions are written in a way that identifies them.
For example, the sales tax exemption heading to the Senate is for a "motorsports entertainment complex." That's defined as a NASCAR-sanctioned racetrack that hosts at least one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race and has at least three days of motorsports events yearly. Only Darlington Raceway meets that definition.
Such specific definitions are also used to single out in state law what sports venues can sell liquor by the drink.
Legislation approved 42-1 by the Senate last month would add professional soccer games to a list that already includes the Darlington Raceway, the Family Circle Tennis Center, and — as of last year — baseball stadiums that host professional minor league teams, such as the Charleston RiverDogs, Columbia Fireflies and Myrtle Beach Pelicans.