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By Mark Story
Just four years after the Sprint Cup Series finally came to Kentucky Speedway, should NASCAR fans in the commonwealth be concerned about losing the long-sought Cup date?
Noting the ample number of empty seats at Kentucky Speedway for the Quaker State 400, then harkening back to the Car-mageddon traffic fiasco in Sparta in 2011, Charlotte Observer motorsports writer Jim Utter raised the prospect that Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, Inc., might move Kentucky’s Cup date to Las Vegas.
“The old adage ‘You get one chance to make a first impression’ apparently still rings very true,” Utter wrote. “Less than half of the grandstands were filled (at Kentucky). How long before Bruton Smith decides he would be better served by a second date at Las Vegas than continuing to struggle to recover what’s left of the Kentucky track’s fan base?”
Because Kentucky Speedway no longer releases official attendance figures, we don’t know how many people saw in person Brad Keselowski dominate the race two Saturdays ago. As someone who has covered at least one race at the Speedway every year since it opened in 2000, I would say the 106,000-seat grandstands in Sparta were more than half full June 28.
But not dramatically so.
Last week, I asked Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger if race fans here should be worried about losing the Cup race. “I don’t think it was serious speculation,” Simendinger said. “To move this race to Las Vegas, I’d say that kind of talk is bunk.”
When Kentucky Speedway kept drawing 70,000-plus for Nationwide races during the Cup-less years of the first decade of the 21st Century, it branded this market as a motorsports hotbed.
“I remember watching Nationwide races on TV there and just seeing a packed house,” NASCAR star Matt Kenseth said before this year’s Quaker State 400. “The fans, I think, in that area or the area where the track is, they’ve always been real passionate and real supportive of (NASCAR).”
Smith saw the same fervor. When he bought Kentucky Speedway and subsequently moved a Cup date from his track in Atlanta here, he added 40,000 seats to the grandstands.
In the time since that expansion, however, the trend in seating capacity at NASCAR tracks has reversed dramatically. The International Speedway Corp., controlled by the France family that owns NASCAR, has reduced the number of seats at many of the most famous venues in motorsports.
Daytona International Speedway once had 168,000 seats; it is reducing to 101,000 (not counting suites). Talladega once held 143,000; it has dropped to 78,000. Richmond has gone from 91,000 to 71,000; Michigan from 137,000 to 71,000.
ISC President John Saunders told financial analysts in 2013 “we just simply have too many seats in inventory and it’s time to do something about that.”
Media reports described “tens of thousands of empty seats” when NASCAR raced at the independently owned Dover International Speedway on June 1.
“There are some markets that have had a lot of pressure (on attendance),” NASCAR CEO Brian France said last week at a news conference in Daytona, “and Dover is one of those.”
Even Smith’s SMI, which likes to go big and bold, chose not to make 10,000 backstretch tickets at Texas Motor Speedway available for sale this year for that track’s two Cup dates.
At Kentucky Speedway, it seems probable that there is some hangover from the traffic debacle that ruined the inaugural Cup race for thousands of fans in 2011.
However, it seems unjust to be talking about pulling Kentucky’s Cup date after four years because the track has not proven immune to the larger trends that have led to attendance falloffs at far more traditional Sprint Cup venues.
“So many things go into (crowd size) year over year over year,” Simendinger said. “Some may have to do with Kentucky Speedway or they may have nothing to do with Kentucky Speedway. Some of it is the status of (attendance at) live sporting events in general or at NASCAR races in particular.
“I can’t say I was disappointed (with this year’s crowds). I was hoping for a little more walk-up. But when you work in this business, you’ve got to dig hard, put on a great show and then hope word spreads about how good it was. And that’s our plan.”