Kentucky Speedway

Will a new NASCAR racing tradition be a hit for all of Kentucky?

To prepare for its first NASCAR Sprint Cup event Saturday, Kentucky Speedway added two grandstand towers that stand over Turn 4, pictured, and Turn 1. The additions helped push the speedway's seating capacity to 107,000. All of those seats sold out on Thursday, speedway officials announced.
To prepare for its first NASCAR Sprint Cup event Saturday, Kentucky Speedway added two grandstand towers that stand over Turn 4, pictured, and Turn 1. The additions helped push the speedway's seating capacity to 107,000. All of those seats sold out on Thursday, speedway officials announced.

SPARTA — There is no evidence that T.S. Eliot ever followed sports in Kentucky during the summertime.

But if he had, he'd have found further inspiration for The Waste Land.

Even in modern times, from the moment a certain horse race on the first Saturday in May winds down until the universities of Kentucky and Louisville kick off their college football seasons, there has been an enduring absence of annual, mass-interest sporting events in the commonwealth.

On Saturday night, that finally changes.

After more than a decade of struggle and dashed hopes, Kentucky Speedway will at long last play host to NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series. The green flag drops on Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Co. in the Quaker State 400 Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

The three questions on the floor for debate this morning are:

1.) What will the Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway come to mean to the commonwealth and its sports fans over time?

2.) Does it "cross over" and become a major event to general sports fans in our state who don't follow NASCAR?

3.) Could it become bigger than the Kentucky Derby?

"I think (the Cup race) is going to be the summertime ticket to get," Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger says. "I think the (Kentucky) Derby is kind of the spring-time, social deal. I think the Cup race will be the sporting, grill-out and have-a-good-time thing to do."

It remains to be seen whether the average Joe and Jane sports fans in the commonwealth who are not weekly NASCAR followers will embrace the race simply because Sprint Cup has now come to Kentucky.

"That to me is the question," says Lachlan McLean, who is the host of the nightly Sports Talk 84 on Louisville's 50,000-watt WHAS radio. "You've got the gearheads, but does it cross over and become mainstream?"

'People are excited'

Every indication is that the first running of the Cup Series at Kentucky Speedway is going to produce boffo returns. The 107,000 grandstand seats at owner Bruton Smith's expanded Speedway are already sold out.

Jake Jennings, longtime motorsports writer at the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, the newspaper in Kentucky's unofficial NASCAR capital, says a bus company (Komfort Koaches) in the hometown of the racing Waltrip brothers has chartered three buses to take people from Daviess County to the Cup race in Sparta.

"And it was a deal where, because of the economy, that company hadn't chartered a bus to a NASCAR race in, like, five years," Jennings says. "I think that shows people are excited."

Long term, there may be strong enough motorsports interest in the commonwealth that the Cup race is a major event on a sustained basis, even if not one new fan is made.

The Louisville television market is consistently one of the strongest in the country for Cup Series races. This year, Louisville had the 10th-highest rating (14.6) for the telecast of the Daytona 500. In 2010, the Derby City TV market ranked sixth for the broadcast of the season-opening Daytona event.

Writing last week in The Daytona Beach News-Journal (the newspaper in the hometown of NASCAR's corporate offices), Ken Willis noted that two of the primary markets served by Kentucky Speedway, Louisville and Dayton, Ohio, are part of a triangle with Indianapolis in which all three "are often found in the top 10 of Nielsen's NASCAR (TV) ratings."

It's harder to quantify, but the belief is that NASCAR is highly popular in Kentucky's rural counties in the eastern and western parts of the state, too.

"I believe for a lot of people in the state, the Wildcats are No. 1 and NASCAR is 1A," says Tom Leach, the radio play-by-play man for Kentucky Wildcats football and men's basketball. "I personally have never been a NASCAR guy, but my sense of it is that it is very popular 'out in the state' of Kentucky."

'Polarizing sport'

McLean, the Louisville radio personality, notes a phenomenon that I, too, have noticed. For whatever reason, there seems to be no middle ground on NASCAR. The people who like it are passionate. The people who don't like it are not indifferent, they are openly hostile.

"It's a very polarizing sport," McLean says. "If I do a golf show, people may not be interested, but they still listen. If I do a NASCAR show, those same people who aren't interested get mad and switch (the channel). NASCAR is the only topic I do where I get both thank you and complaint letters after a show."

Not bigger than Derby

Here's what I think is going to happen with Cup racing in Kentucky. Across the years, the Sprint Cup race in the commonwealth is not going to be bigger than the Kentucky Derby.

While I believe more Kentuckians follow NASCAR week to week than follow horse racing, the Quaker State 400 does not have 137 years of tradition, the hoity-toity party scene or the unique tie to our state that the Run for the Roses has.

I'm not sure that, after the newness wears off, non-NASCAR Kentucky sports fans will be pulled in to the Cup race in Sparta.

NASCAR exploded in popularity in the mid-to-late 1990s and has been a national-level sport since. By this time, everyone has pretty well made up their mind, in or out, on stock-car racing.

Yet the state of Kentucky (not to mention southwestern Ohio and southeastern Indiana) is filled with auto racing fans. They will make this a signature event on our state's sports calendar whether the race "crosses over" or not.

Cup racing at Kentucky Speedway will be something like having the PGA Championship at Valhalla every year would be. All the biggest stars of the sport will be coming to our state to compete annually.

"I think the race itself is going to be really, really good," Kentucky Speedway's Simendinger says. "And I think it is something people are really going to look forward to."

Kentucky's days as a summertime major sports waste land are no more.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com.

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