UK Football

Kentucky Speedway looks for way to make football feasible in Sparta

Tennessee’s 45-21 victory over Virginia Tech at the Bristol Motor Speedway drew a record 156,990 fans, the largest crowd ever to see a college football game.
Tennessee’s 45-21 victory over Virginia Tech at the Bristol Motor Speedway drew a record 156,990 fans, the largest crowd ever to see a college football game. Associated Press

For obvious reasons, Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger took a special interest in the Battle at Bristol. The spectacle of 156,990 fans at the Bristol Motor Speedway Sept. 10 to watch Tennessee best Virginia Tech 45-21 in a college football game wowed him.

“I was blown away,” Simendinger said. “I thought the Bristol Motor Speedway did a fabulous job, executed an event like that about as well as it could be done.”

Given that Bristol and Kentucky Speedway are owned by the same company, Speedway Motorsports Inc., Simendinger could not help but wonder what it would be like to bring a big-time college football game to Sparta.

“Regionally, we are in the perfect spot,” Simendinger said. “People could come and camp, and tailgate all weekend. In a lot of ways, we have the perfect place.”

The problem is, Kentucky Speedway officials still have no viable idea on how you could configure a setup that would allow them to use all — or even most — of the 106,000 grandstand seats at the venue for football.

Seating at Bristol Motor Speedway forms a true bowl around a half-mile short track.

Kentucky Speedway is a mile-and-a-half trioval, and all 106,000 of its seats are on the west side of the facility.

The grandstand at Kentucky Speedway must easily be a half-mile long, maybe longer. That is why aligning a 100-yard football field inside the Sparta track in such a manner that you could actually see the field from most of the grandstand is a daunting, maybe impossible, challenge.

In May, when I first wrote about the idea of playing the Kentucky-Louisville game at Kentucky Speedway, Simendinger said the great impediment to football at the Gallatin County site was how differently the Sparta track is configured than is Bristol.

This is the conundrum. To make football at a Speedway viable, it has to be more lucrative than a home game would be for the participating teams. It also has to yield enough revenue for the racetrack to make money, too.

The seating capacity for UK home games in Commonwealth Stadium is some 61,000. U of L’s Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium holds 55,000, but an announced expansion will take capacity to some 65,000 by 2018.

For Kentucky Speedway to make sense as an alternative for UK-U of L (or a different game involving one of the schools), you’d have to ensure you’d draw crowds well above the seating capacity of their home stadiums.

You couldn’t guarantee that at the Speedway, however, if you couldn’t use half (or more) of the 106,000 grandstand seats.

“Or we’d have to install a ton of temporary seating, and that would not be cheap,” Simendinger said. “It would be far more expensive for us (to host football) than it was Bristol.”

If you envision a regional power such as Ohio State or Notre Dame playing at Kentucky Speedway, the financial challenge would be even greater. Their home stadiums are far larger than UK and U of L, with OSU having capacity of 104,944 and ND headed toward 84,000 after a renovation.

As Simendinger fretted that there was no way to host a college football game at a mile-and-a-half racetrack, he was intrigued last week by comments from Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage.

Gossage told SEC Country that one of his aspirations is to restart the dormant Texas A&M-Texas football rivalry by playing the game in front of 200,000 fans at the Fort Worth racetrack. “I think everybody who lives in Texas would love to see them play again. It’s a crime they don’t,” Gossage said. “That would be a perfect game for us, because that’s a special one.”

Also an SMI-owned facility, Texas Motor Speedway is, like Kentucky, a mile-and-a-half track.

“I can’t wait to talk to Eddie,” Simendinger said. “If he’s got an idea that we haven’t thought of about how you could set up a configuration, I’d love to hear it.”

When he visits with SMI President and CEO Marcus Smith in coming weeks, Simendinger says he expects to explore whether the parent company has ideas that would allow Kentucky Speedway to play host to a college football game.

“I’ve started to worry that either there is no way to make it work or that I’m just not smart enough to figure it out.,” Simendinger said. “So, we are open to ideas. Because we’d love to do it.”

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