SPARTA — If you want to know how different life in the marketplace is for Kentucky Speedway now that it is a Sprint Cup track, Mark Simendinger has a pithy answer.
"We know now what it is like to be the girl in high school and get your braces off," the Speedway general manager said.
The Sunday of the Daytona 500 finds us 139 days away from the first Cup race (July 9) ever run at Kentucky Speedway. Seems an appropriate time for a status update.
After 11 years of having to peddle tickets, sponsorships, luxury suites, etc. ... without the lure of the most popular form of American motorsports, Kentucky Speedway is at long last selling as a big-league track.
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Without providing many specific figures, track officials seem somewhere between bullish and giddy over how things are going.
Track owner Bruton Smith said late last month that the Kentucky event "is the hottest ticket we've got of all the speedways right now." Smith's Speedway Motorsports, Inc., owns eight tracks that play host to 12 Cup races.
Simendinger declined to say how many total seats have been sold to date, and notes that "some pretty good seats" are still available.
"What I'm very confident in saying is that on July 9, this place will be jammed," he said.
Kentucky Speedway has already sold all of its 32 luxury suites it plans to sell at prices between $45,000 and $50,000 each. "The easiest sell in the history of mankind and creation," Simendinger reports.
The plan now for the Cup race weekend is to add temporary suites in the form of the corporate hospitality tents one sees at the Kentucky Derby.
A big piece yet to be put in place is signing a primary corporate sponsor for the Cup race.
"You're talking about a seven-figure sponsorship," Simendinger said. "It's a pretty complex deal that takes time to work through all the moving parts on both sides. I am very optimistic we will be having an announcement in the next couple of weeks."
Expanding the circle
With the expansion under way at the Sparta racetrack, seating capacity will be around 105,000 when Junior, Jimmie, Jeff and the Busch brothers hit the track in July.
Now that the most famous drivers in American auto racing will be competing here, Kentucky Speedway officials plan to try to expand the geographic circle from which the track draws fans.
Cincinnati, Louisville, Lexington and Dayton, Ohio, remain the core markets for the Speedway.
"But we've got a new product now," Simendinger says. "How do we pay attention to Columbus, Ohio; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Nashville and even Indianapolis without going in and doing the kind of ad buys we do in Louisville, Lexington, Cincinnati and Dayton?"
Simendinger says Kentucky Speedway has a two-pronged plan.
Part One: It hopes to cultivate the traditional media in outlying markets.
"If you are (sports journalists) in Huntington, W.Va., you probably don't know how NASCAR media works," Simendinger said. "But if we can contact you and help you get interviews with really good people (in NASCAR) and, maybe, better people than the other sports make available, then you might be more inclined to use our stuff and, in that way, call attention to our race."
Part Two: Unlike before, Kentucky Speedway now has access to the national marketing platforms of major corporate sponsors that work in the Sprint Cup.
"Because we have Cup, we may be able to do a promotion with, say, Gillette tied into their Young Guns program," Simendinger says. "Or we may be able to work through Coke in Atlanta and do something with the Coke family of drivers."
That could allow Kentucky Speedway to do promotions with those national sponsors, including Sprint itself, in the outlying media markets where, for reasons of cost, the track doesn't buy advertising, Simendinger said.
'Biggest race of year'
Some 41/2 months out from the Cup race, Speedway officials are trying to trouble shoot for potential problems.
With four new campgrounds being opened on the former farm land that surrounds Kentucky Speedway, a big, sustained rain on the July 9 weekend would not be good.
"That won't happen because Bruton Smith is far luckier than all of us," jokes Simendinger.
Late last month, I asked Smith what worries him about the first Cup race at Kentucky Speedway. His answer: traffic.
"I don't think I'm worried about it, but I do have a concern," he said. "Getting the people in here and out is going to be a tall order for us and the highway patrol. It's going to take a lot of hard work and planning to get that done. But we have been doing an awful lot of things on the planning."
Simendinger says SMI has "brought in some guys from Atlanta Motor Speedway who worked with the traffic down there to help us with our plan."
One reason traffic is such a concern, Smith says, is he is convinced there are going to be a massive number of people to be moved in and out of Kentucky Speedway on July 9.
"I've told people I believe this will be the biggest race on the entire circuit this year," Smith said.
Even if that is partially promotional bluster, such heady talk shows how life has changed now that Kentucky Speedway has "gotten its braces off."