04/10/2007 11:00PM

Interest in auto racing accelerates

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When you think of the home of auto racing, Indianapolis and Daytona probably come mind.

While Las Vegas will never challenge those two places - which have history and tradition on their side just like Churchill Downs in horse racing - this desert outpost is giving other racing cities a run for their money, especially these past two months. In early March, Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosted the Las Vegas 400 Nextel Cup race (aka the UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 for those who buy into the whole corporate sponsorship thing) for the 10th straight year, with crowds in the 140,000 range the past three years. This past Sunday, the Champ Cars were roaring around downtown in the inaugural Vegas Grand Prix in front of 40,000 fans. And this weekend, the National Hot Rod Association, which has held two major events a year at the speedway the past six years, will be hosting the eighth annual SummitRacing.com Nationals with about 60,000 fans expected to attend.

"This city has shown it supports big-time racing, and in a big-time way," said Micah Roberts, the auto racing oddsmaker for Station Casinos.

The NHRA elimination finals will be held starting at 11 a.m. Sunday, but it's really a weekend-long event. The top fuel, funny car, pro stock and top alcohol categories will hold qualifying runs Friday night, with Sportsmans divisions conducting their final rounds Saturday along with more qualifying in the top divisions.

"The drivers are always amazed by the crowds they see in Las Vegas," Roberts said. "At other tracks they might get 4,000 to 5,000 for the qualifying runs, but this Friday night there will probably be 25,000 people in the stands."

Asked why he thought that was the case, Roberts said: "I don't know. Maybe it's because people in Vegas like the bright lights and there are no brighter lights than the blue flames coming out of dragsters."

Of course, the thing that makes Vegas unique on the drag racing circuit is legalized sports betting. The fans love backing their favorite drivers before heading out to the track.

"Last week, we didn't get quite the handle we were expecting from the Champ Car race downtown," Roberts said. "The big money never showed up, but we'll probably top that with just the betting on the top fuel eliminations this weekend."

Stations has Tony Schumacher as the 5-2 betting favorite in top fuel, but the fan favorite will likely be Rod Fuller, a Vegas resident who is leading the top fuel standings heading into his hometown race. Fuller beat Schumacher on the way to a runner-up finish in the Bud Shootout last fall.

"I'm coming home as the points leader, and that was my goal coming into the season," he said. "My goal is to win this race. We did well last fall. I want to win this race really badly, even more than Indy."

Fuller is the second choice at 7-2, followed by Brandon Bernstein at 6-1, J.R. Todd at 7-1, and the trio of Whit Bazemore, Larry Dixon and Doug Kalitta all at 10-1.

Greg Anderson is the heavy 5-9 favorite to win the pro stock title. Funny car is more wide open, with Ron Capps at 3-1, Tony Pedregon at 4-1, Gary Scelzi at 5-1, and NHRA legend and reality-TV star John Force at 6-1. Force's daughter Ashley is 25-1 to win the funny car title.

* The Nextel Cup drivers took last week off but they return to action in the Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, at 11 a.m. Pacific Sunday. Stations has Jimmie Johnson, who won the Vegas race for the third straight year, starting a run of winning three of the last four Cup races, as the 4-1 favorite with Tony Stewart at 5-1, Matt Kenseth at 7-1, Jeff Gordon at 8-1, and Kasey Kahne at 10-1.

Horse bits

Jockey David Flores will be appearing at the Orleans race book at 9 a.m. Monday for a meet-and-greet with horse racing fans. Ralph Siraco of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show will host a question-and-answer session. Also part of the festivities will be a free $1,000 handicapping contest on the first five races at Tampa Bay Downs. Coast Turf Club players also will earn triple points during the event.

* The FEI World Cup Jumping and Dressage takes place April 18-22 at the Thomas and Mack Center. There are competitions on all days, with the Las Vegas Grand Prix at 1 p.m. April 21, the World Cup Dressage Final at 7 p.m. April 21, and the World Cup Jumping Final III at noon April 22.

Individual tickets are still available, ranging from $30 in the upper-deck to $85 on the floor. More information is available at worldcuplasvegas.com.

* The spring edition of the Pick the Ponies horse handicapping tournament at the Las Vegas Hilton, held the Wednesday through Friday of Derby Week (May 2-4 this year), has filled its 200-member field well in advance of the April 23 early-bird deadline that allowed contestants to pay a $400 entry fee instead of the $500 posted entry fee. The Hilton is now taking names for the also-eligible list in case there are scratches.

* After the Pick the Ponies, the next tournament in town will be the South Point Open on May 24-26. The same casino, which at the time was part of the Coast Casinos family and named South Coast, hosted the tournament next year, and will continue the tradition under new management (which is really the original management as Michael Gaughan, former owner of Coast Casinos, built the South Coast prior to his company's merger with Boyd Gaming and now has bought back this hotel and renamed it the South Point).

Contestants will make 12 mythical $20 across-the-board wagers on each day with points based on the horse's parimutuel payoffs.

The entry fee is $500 and those that pay in full by May 1 will be eligible to play in a free $5,000 contest on the Sunday following the tourney.

* If you're wondering why you haven't heard anything more about the Leroy's Horse Race Handicapping Tournament at John Ascuaga's Nugget in the Reno area, which was originally being slated for April 18-20, the reason is that it's being moved to the summer.