SPARTA — On the week before the Sprint Cup Series ran at Kentucky Speedway for the first time in 2011, I wrote a column that included two questions:
1. What will the Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway come to mean to the commonwealth and its sports fans over time?
2. Will it "cross over" and become a major event to general sports fans in our state who don't follow NASCAR?
Since then, it's been a bit of a bumpy (intended) ride at the Speedway. In the years since Bruton Smith brought NASCAR Sprint Cup racing to Sparta, it has often seemed Kentucky Speedway operates under some strange hex.
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2011: Quaker State 400, traffic debacle.
2012: Quaker State 400, withering heat with a scary wind storm thrown in.
2013: Quaker State 400, torrential rain.
2014: Quaker State 400, so-so crowd.
2015: Quaker State 400 week, more ark-worthy, heavy rains.
On the eve, weather permitting, of the fifth Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway, it seemed a good time to take stock. So I surveyed some members of the Kentucky sports media on their views of what having Sprint Cup racing in the commonwealth has meant.
Topic one: Where does the annual visit by NASCAR's major league rank in our state's sports hierarchy?
Kent Taylor, WAVE-TV, Louisville: "I think (the Quaker State 400) is in the top five of yearly things we do. I'd say we have the (Kentucky) Derby, the NCAA Tournament — which may not always be in Kentucky but is always such a big deal here — and then the NASCAR race is in the next tier. I do think (Kentucky Speedway) is still making up with some people over what happened (the first year)."
Dick Gabriel, WKYT-TV, Lexington: "It's definitely top five. I'd put it behind the Derby, both UK-U of L games, football and (men's) basketball. But (the Cup race) might be next."
Fred Cowgill, WLKY-TV, Louisville: "I would like to answer the question by saying it is the biggest thing since diced cheese. When (the Cup Series) came here, we hoped it would be that way. And certainly, the thousands of cars (trying to get in) indicates there was that interest. But let's face it. They took a big punch (that first year). And that's altered everything.
"I hoped back in 2000 when they built this track and we could see what was coming that this would be top five. And, unfortunately, it is not."
Topic two: How much, if at all, is the traffic fiasco from the first year still having an impact on the Speedway?
Taylor: "I think it hurt it a little bit. I think for people like us who have come back after (the first year), they've fixed it. And I really do think they've fixed it. Maybe they haven't had as many people coming in (as the first year), so it's hard to judge that. But I've been impressed with how easy the ingress and egress (are) since that first year."
Gabriel: "Less and less each year. I know there are people who had a bad experience and will never give them a second chance. But with each passing year, I think that is less an issue."
Cowgill: "There's no doubt in my mind that all the momentum they had that first year has been stopped. Have they stopped the negative momentum (since Carmageddon)? Yes. Can they get some traction now and take it back in the area code of where they were? I think they can."
Topic three: Five years in, is the Cup race in Kentucky as "big" as you thought it would be when it came in 2011?
Taylor: "About what I thought it would be."
Gabriel: "I thought it would be a little bigger. But some of the issues, I think, are bigger than Kentucky. NASCAR itself has not had the momentum it had in the 1990s or at the start of the 2000s. But this is still a big-league, professional sports event. We don't have many of those in this state."
Cowgill: "It's just a tough time in the world of sports and our society. The hit financially in 2008 that everybody took, trying to rebuild from that has really put a dent. The middle class has been gutted to some extent, and that is in their wheelhouse (at Kentucky Speedway).
"... So they've got some problems to solve. But if they can get a more exciting product on the track with this new rules package (for the Cup race), that would be a big start. The bottom line is, they need to make some positive (Cup Series) history here, and so far they haven't had a lot of that."