SPARTA — Bruton Smith flew into the commonwealth late last week. The Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO was not happy to find snow on the ground and an arctic chill in the air.
"No good," he said of the weather.
After an interview in which the Charlotte, N.C.,-based business mogul mentioned working with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, billionaire H. Ross Perot and Ford CEO Alan Mulally on various issues, I half expected Smith to get God on the phone and get the weather changed.
The man who made Cup Series racing at Kentucky Speedway a reality was in our state checking on the expansion of the facility and the track's business plans in advance of the still-unnamed, July 9 Sprint Cup series race.
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Smith declared himself pleased with preparations for the inaugural Cup event in Sparta.
"Our ticket sales are exceeding our projections," he said. "The construction is one month ahead" of schedule.
Never shy to speak his mind, Smith also discussed several issues — how to combat declining ticket sales and TV ratings; whether Jimmie Johnson's dominance is good for NASCAR; what a resurgent season from Dale Earnhardt Jr. might mean — relating to "the state of NASCAR."
Question: I noticed during the NASCAR media tour, you were critical of the whole Chase for the Championship format. Why?
Smith: "NASCAR gets all caught up in points. I bet you've seen it, guy finishes fourth, and says, 'Well, we had a good points day today.' Well, the heck with that. I don't care whether you did or didn't. Your points don't mean anything to me as a race fan. You didn't win, so you're the third loser, right?
"I'm not hung up on points at all. I want to see guys race to win."
Question: So how does NASCAR get drivers to put more emphasis on winning races?
Smith: "I've been pressing NASCAR to take half the 'point-fund money' (the fund from which drivers are paid after the season depending on how high they finished in the points) and put it on race purses.
"Say you and I bought tickets, we're race fans sitting in the stands and there are 25, 30 laps to go, but we know that there's a $300,000, $350,000 purse difference between finishing first and second and there's about six car lengths between first and second.
"Well, with that much money at stake, we're going to believe that the guy running second is going to do something, good, bad or indifferent, to win that race.
"He's going to bump, rub, he's going to take chances. It's going to produce excitement, drama, maybe even a fight in the pits after the race. That drives our attendance."
Question: What does NAS-CAR say when you advocate for things like this?
Smith: "I talk to them all the time. Brian France (NAS-CAR's CEO), we're friends. I've talked to him and worked with him and preached to him. And he's always got some good argument (the other way).
"But I'll still be pushing. I guarantee you, I'll be pushing all year long. Let's get away from the point racing. Point racing does not sell tickets."
Question: Fox Sports Chairman David Hill recently said he thought the length of NASCAR races needed to be shortened to make it easier for broadcasters to hold an audience. As a guy who promotes a 600-mile race at Charlotte, your thoughts?
Smith: "It depends. There are certainly some places, if you cut (the races) in half, they would still be too long. And fans are not interested in buying tickets for some kind of marathon that goes on and on and on. But (races being too long) does not (apply) across the board. Across the board, I would say, no, the races are not too long."
Question: The Cup race here at Kentucky Speedway will be a 400-miler. Is that the right distance for this track?
Smith: "Well, I'm not sure. There is no magic to this, whether you go 400 or 500. I think you've got to realize, where's the excitement? How much excitement do you have in the last 100 miles? Is it worthy of that?"
Question: Your reaction to NASCAR's new, simplified points format?
Smith: "I may like it. I think I'm going to take a wait-and-see. It's a change. And something needed to be done."
Question: But as it looks to me, the new format really does not put that much, if any, more of the emphasis on winning races that you are calling for?
Smith: "No, it doesn't. That's the part, the fallacy of it. I'm hung up on this winning races, I really am. I just believe that is the way to go."
Question: Has Jimmie Johnson winning the past five Cup Series season championships been bad for the sport overall?
Smith: "There's gotta be something to that. Jimmie's a great driver, but beyond that, I'm not sure how much he brings."
Question: Conversely, has the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not run well in recent years been the biggest reason that NASCAR's popularity has seemingly stalled?
Smith: "I don't know how much that has hurt. It probably has hurt some. The main thing, had he done well and won, what would it have done (positively for the sport)? We don't know that, either. I do think the sport would have been better off than it is today (if Junior had run better).
"But we may see a new Dale Junior this year. Just watching him on TV, based on what he's saying, he may be a hard guy to contend with this year."