Q&A: Kentucky Speedway trying to put focus back on racing

mstory@herald-leader.comFebruary 23, 2013 

SPARTA — At Kentucky Speedway, the "off-season" has been a little more tranquil than a year ago.

In 2011, of course, the inaugural Sprint Cup race at the track was marred by a massive traffic snarl as well over 100,000 fans tried to get into the facility. In reaction, Kentucky Speedway owner Bruton Smith and the commonwealth of Kentucky each invested millions to improve the traffic and parking infrastructure around the track.

The second running of the Quaker State 400 last June went off without any traffic issues — albeit also with what appeared to be a substantially smaller crowd.

"This off-season has been much, much different," Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said last week. "After (the 2012 race), I bet we didn't have, total, 10 complaints. For anything. We didn't have a single complaint about traffic because there was nothing to complain about. We probably went from worst to first on traffic."

The Sprint Cup Series will run for the third time in Sparta on June 29. On the Sunday when the green flag drops on another season of NASCAR with the Daytona 500, it seemed a good time to catch up with what is going on at Kentucky Speedway.

Question: If Job One for last year's Cup race was to get the traffic issues fixed, what is this year's main goal for the 2013 Quaker State 400?

Simendinger: "I think this year's Job One is to get the focus back on the racing, which we are doing. And to convince people to come back out here because it is a great facility. We've kind of labeled (the Cup race) 'Kentucky's Can't Miss Event of the Summer.' That's how we feel about it. It's an event. It only happens one time (a year). So don't miss it."

Question: Obviously, there were not as many people in attendance at last season's Cup race as there were for the inaugural event in 2011. What do you attribute that to and can you get those missing fans back?

Simendinger: "That's a good question. Last year, I think it was a combination. We had some disaffected customers because of traffic. We were not an inaugural race. But the other thing, (ticket sales) started to spike pretty well toward the end, but then, if you remember, (race week) was a very, very hot week. All week. Not just on race day.

"Look, we're going to have our race near the Fourth of July, it's going to be hot. But I don't know that it is going to be over 100 degrees for the entire week (too often). So I think that was part of it, too. ... We just flat had some people who didn't use their tickets because it was so hot.

"Now, can we get them back? Yeah. I mean, we're counting on getting them back."

Question: Geographically, was the attendance down most from outlying areas far from the track?

Simendinger: "Yes, definitely. We were down across the board, which means we had fewer people from Cincinnati than we had in the inaugural year. From the inaugural year to the second year, we were down everywhere. But we were down way more further out from the core.

"... The positive thing is, we've got data on everybody who was here in 2011. We've got data on everybody who was here in 2012. We know who came back, we know who didn't come back. We can have conversations with those fans now (about how to get them back)."

Question: Did Kentucky Speedway get any boost in attendance from the fact that Nashville Superspeedway closed in 2012?

Simendinger: "Not as much as you'd think. I thought we would do better. ... Cincinnati is huge for us. Lexington, Louisville, Dayton (Ohio), Indianapolis. There's just a lot of race fans in Indianapolis.

"We've done well, probably better than even I anticipated, throughout the state of Kentucky. Being an old real-estate developer, I had the mind-set of Golden Triangle (Lexington, Louisville, Northern Kentucky). I underestimated how much support we got from the rest of the state. It's really opened my eyes. And it's been gratifying. I think we are building a (state) pride in Kentucky Speedway. Which is what we are trying to do."

Question: You have any kind of NASCAR prediction for 2013?

Simendinger: "I think one of the biggest stories in NASCAR, I'm really looking at two people, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. If you would have told me that those two guys were going to miss The Chase last year, I would have bet a lot of money against you on that one.

"... I want to see how they and their teams rebound from not being in the show at the end. I suspect they are both going to do pretty well."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230 Twitter: @markcstory Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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