SPARTA — The first time Kentucky Speedway owner Bruton Smith saw that the walls around the track had been painted "Quaker State" green, he was taken aback.
"He was like 'Wait a minute, what happened there?'" said Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger. "I told him we did it for Quaker State and they really like it."
One week from Saturday, the green flag will drop for the third time on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. The new greenish hue on display at the track — with the finish line joining the walls in having been painted green — is designed to give the primary race sponsor more vroom, vroom, vroom for its bucks.
From the time he first bought Kentucky Speedway in 2008 and vowed to bring Sprint Cup racing to Sparta — a promise he fulfilled in 2011 — Smith has always envisioned the Sparta racetrack yielding lots of green.
"Bruton told me one time he believed the (Sprint Cup) race in Kentucky could be as big an event as the Daytona 500 or the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte," said Owensboro native Darrell Waltrip, the longtime NASCAR star turned FOX TV color analyst. "But then we had that traffic debacle, that fiasco that first year. It's just going to take more time than any of us thought, I think, to get all the fans and that momentum back."
In 2011, when enthusiasm for the inaugural Cup race at Kentucky Speedway was running white hot, talk of Kentucky becoming a signature NASCAR event did not seem far-fetched. More than a week before the race, the Speedway announced a complete sellout of its newly expanded 107,000-seat grandstands.
On race day, of course, the massive fan turnout overwhelmed the Kentucky Speedway parking plan and its traffic infrastructure, yielding a case of gridlock for the ages.
So last year, many of the fans from the first year did not return. In 2012, the crowd in the stands appeared to me to be in the 70,000-80,000 range. In the current NASCAR environment, that was a solid showing. It did not, however, suggest the Cup race at Kentucky Speedway was on the verge of becoming one of the NASCAR circuit's crown jewels.
"It was the traffic," Smith said of what caused the attendance decline. "I think we reaped — which was not beneficial — the benefits of that. The first event, we had such a huge crowd, and the traffic problem, a lot of people did not get in (for the race)."
Last year, after Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc. and the commonwealth of Kentucky each invested millions for improvements, the irony was Kentucky Speedway had the increased parking capacity and improved road system around the track to handle a crowd like it drew the first year.
That isn't what showed up, however.
Smith says he believes, as word of mouth spreads from last year's race about how improved the parking situation is at Kentucky Speedway, that many of the fans from 2011 who stayed away in 2012 will come back.
"I've spent $136 million here since I (bought) this place," Smith said, listing many improvements that have resulted. "We do all these things here to accommodate our fans. My whole company, the philosophy is 'fan-friendly.' We want to treat the racing fans right."
Anyone who has followed Smith — a billionaire auto dealer who is still something of a force of nature at age 86 — during his often colorful career as a racetrack owner knows that he is not bashful in lobbying government officials for actions that would benefit his facilities.
His present cause in Kentucky is what he sees as the poor condition of I-71. The interstate has been widened near the exits for Kentucky Speedway, but Smith would like the road similarly altered all the way to the I-75 exchange.
"It's a disgrace to the state of Kentucky," Smith said of I-71. "I would like to plead with the politicians, your governor and everybody, to see if we can't get somebody in the federal government to look at this terrible situation on this interstate and correct it."
Smith says he still believes the market(s) served by Kentucky Speedway have the potential to yield an event that becomes something special on the Sprint Cup circuit.
"Oh absolutely," he said. "This is a huge market. And the people in this market love NASCAR, love what we do. It's up to us to make it more of a pleasant experience for these fans."
As for Kentucky Speedway's new green walls, Smith says they are growing on him.
"They look like money to me," he said.
At Kentucky Speedway
Camping World Trucks: UNOH 225, 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Speed)
Nationwide: Feed the Children 300, 7:30 p.m. Friday (ESPN2)
Sprint Cup: Quaker State 400, 7:30 p.m. Saturday (TNT)