When NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series comes to the commonwealth in late June, Kentucky Speedway commands center stage in our state's sports consciousness. For the track's September race weekend, when NASCAR's Class Triple-A Nationwide Series comes to Sparta as the headliner, the Speedway is mostly "off Broadway."
On Saturday night at 7:30, the green flag will drop on the (non-sponsored) Kentucky 300, the second Nationwide Series race of the season at the Speedway.
To an extent, Kentucky Speedway got lucky this year. The fall Nationwide Series race fell on a Saturday when the University of Kentucky football team has an off date. The Cincinnati Reds, in a drive to earn a playoff spot, are facing the Pirates in Pittsburgh.
Still, in the Kentucky Speedway "market" on Saturday, Louisville, Western Kentucky and Ohio State will all play home football games. The Cincinnati Bearcats will be at Miami (Ohio).
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"Well, clearly there's a lot of competition in September," Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said. "We understand that."
During the frustrating era before Bruton Smith brought Sprint Cup racing to the commonwealth in 2011, there was one way in which things were better. In the commonwealth of Kentucky, the summer is a vast wasteland for mass-spectator sporting events.
Back then, Kentucky Speedway featured three different major race weekends each year. The Nationwide Series would run in June, the trucks series in July and IndyCar in August. The Speedway was filling a major state of Kentucky sports vacuum at that time.
Now, the trucks series, Nationwide and Cup Series all run in Sparta in late June; this year, it is the ARCA Series and Nationwide running in September. Trying to get a college-sports-obsessed state to "tune in" to a September race weekend that does not involve the Sprint Cup is a massive marketing challenge.
"As far as 'does it work?' you have to be realistic," Simendinger said. "Our Sprint Cup date is pre-eminent in everything else we do. Where we sit on (the Cup) schedule in (late) June, we are not going to run any event ahead of that (weekend) on the calendar.
"Then after the Sprint Cup, there needs to be some time in between our events. Partly, that's for our people, who put so much into the Cup weekend. And, partly, it's for the market, you don't want to come back too soon after people have spent their money on the Cup weekend. Then, weather-wise, we can't go too much later (on the calendar) and be comfortable. So this is pretty much where the (fall) race has to fall."
Interestingly, the last seven Nationwide Series races at Kentucky Speedway have been claimed by three drivers. Joey Logano has won three times and Brad Keselowski and Austin Dillon twice.
Cup regulars Logano and Keselowski will not be in Sparta this weekend, which should benefit Dillon. He swept both Nationwide races at Kentucky in 2012 and finished sixth in June. The grandson of legendary NASCAR car owner Richard Childress is locked in a tight points battle with former IndyCar star Sam Hornish Jr. for the 2013 Nationwide Series championship.
Hornish Jr., a three-time IndyCar Series champion and the 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner, leads Dillon by 17 points with seven races left. He was ninth in June at Kentucky Speedway.
As for the future, I'd like to see Kentucky Speedway lure the IndyCar Series back to headline its September weekend. That at least would mean another "major-league" event in our state. After running in Sparta from 2000-2011, the highest-level of American open-wheel racing has not returned.
The famously bumpy Kentucky Speedway track surface is not ideal for IndyCars (which are lower to the ground than stock cars), though Simendinger said, "I don't think our track is significantly bumpier than the last time they raced here."
Simendinger said he, too, would like for IndyCar to return. However, before that can happen "I think they as a series have got some business-side issues of their own they need to work out," he said. "I also think they've got to reach a decision in their own minds about how many races they want to run on ovals, road courses and street courses."
For this year, on a September weekend when the commonwealth's attention is largely glued to college football, Kentucky Speedway hopes at least some people will want to go Nationwide Series racing.
"This is your last chance to see NASCAR in Kentucky this year," Simendinger said. "I think your real race fans will want to take advantage of that."
What: NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Kentucky Speedway, Sparta
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday