Kentucky Speedway will always be a special place for Darrell Waltrip, and he breaks down this weekend's events.
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Now I admit I am very biased when it comes to Kentucky Speedway. I love the joint. I was fortunate to be asked all those many years ago to join in as a consultant. I was there when they turned the first shovel of dirt and have been along for this bumpy ride, yes, both literally and figuratively.
The short-term goal at the time was to grab the attention of NASCAR and hopefully secure a Camping World Truck Series event. From there the goal became to secure a Nationwide Series event. I told them from Day 1 that while they were focused on their short-term goal, they really needed to take a hard look at the Big Picture. By that I meant they needed to build Kentucky Speedway so that one day it could host a NASCAR Sprint Cup series event.
They were successful in both endeavors. While the track was built to specs to handle a Cup race, the fans flocked to the truck and Nationwide events. The track held 70,000 fans and was filled time after time. Heck for that matter it wasn’t uncommon for it to be sold out for an ARCA race and the IndyCar races. That’s how hungry and passionate the fans in Ohio, Kentucky plus the surrounding area were to have NASCAR events in their backyard.
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The initial investors also made it a point to make the purses big. There was a point where the truck and Nationwide races were second to only Daytona International Speedway in what they paid out to the drivers. That in itself was huge. The investors did everything right in my book, again with the ultimate goal of being able to join the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule.
The problem was it never happened. The battles between the initial investors and NASCAR are well documented and don’t need to be rehashed here. That is way long in the rearview mirror now. As good as the initial investors were to work with, personally it was like a dream come true to me when track owner Bruton Smith came onto the scene. Not only did he buy Kentucky Speedway, he upgraded it even further and then moved a Cup date from one of his other tracks to Kentucky Speedway.
Again, the problems the first year have been well documented. While the track and the road system was built to hold those 70,000 fans that always came, when it was time for the very first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway, the crowd doubled and Mother Nature wasn’t very kind to anyone that weekend.
I was there and I never expected to see so many people. While it was such a beautiful sight, it quickly turned into a nightmare as everyone was overwhelmed. There were fans that came that couldn’t get out. There were fans that came and sat for hours in traffic only to finally be turned away. The road system and the parking literally and figuratively were flooded. It was nothing short of a track owner’s worst nightmare.
The saving grace is Bruton Smith never has been or ever will be considered a normal track owner. He stood up and admitted the problems. At the same time he looked everyone in the eye and told them they had his word it would be fixed. That’s why Bruton remains our sport’s No. 1 fan’s fan. He cares about the fan and their experience at his tracks, so he went to work like only Bruton can.
He bought more property to expand the parking. He vastly improved the logistical nightmare that comes with getting so many people in and out of a professional sporting event. The Governor of Kentucky also stepped in with help widening and improving the Interstate. So through the sum of all the parts, that became a problem solved.
In the second year obviously some fans were reluctant to go back. It’s like going to a restaurant the first time and getting bad food along with bad service. Why go back and spend your hard-earned money there? Luckily the fans that did go back had a great time. When they left they told their friends, who told their friends, etc., etc. So slowly and surely the folks gave Kentucky Speedway another chance.
This past weekend at Kentucky Speedway I probably heard the same two words easily a million times. They were "Keselowski" and "bumpy". The reason I kept hearing about Brad was he was bad fast from the moment he unloaded. He blistered that old surface at 189 miles an hour setting yet another new track record. That in and of itself was nothing short of phenomenal.
Brad had one of those weekends that drivers dream about. He had what is known as max points. He was fastest in practice, he sat on the pole and he dominated the race leading 199 of 267 laps. Probably the only bad thing Brad experienced Saturday night under the lights happened, in all places, Victory Lane. In a freak accident, he cut his hand on a champagne bottle celebrating his win. He had to leave Victory Lane, get some stiches in his hand, change into a clean uniform and return for pictures. Brad’s fine, though, and I doubt the cut hand will give him any problems this Saturday night in Daytona.
The other word I heard all weekend, as I mentioned was bumpy. You didn’t see one interview by anybody either in the truck, Nationwide or Cup series where they didn’t mention the track surface in some form or fashion. The reality is Kentucky Speedway has a very old surface. It’s rough and bumpy. It doesn’t surprise me that the track is bumpy. Actually I mean it’s ironic the track is bumpy cause it sure was a bumpy ride getting Kentucky Speedway to where it is today.
Have no fear, Bruton will take a hard look at what the next step should be at Kentucky Speedway. That track is no different from any of the others he owns. He’s constantly looking at ways to improve the fan experience. He listens to what the fans have to say. If there’s an idea out there that can make a positive difference, Bruton Smith is the man to latch onto it and put it into motion.
The only thing no one can control — you, me, Bruton or even NASCAR – is Mother Nature. I hated the thunderstorms we had in the area a few hours before the race Saturday night. That always has had and always will continue to have a negative affect on what’s called your "walk-up" crowd. A walk-up crowd to any race track is huge. So when fans are thinking about driving over to the track and it’s raining at their house, human nature tells you they are going to assume it’s also raining at the track and they’ll simply stay home. So I know that hurt the overall attendance Saturday night.
For the weather conditions I thought we still had a pretty good crowd. It was simply amazing to me how one team, in this case, Brad’s No. 2 bunch was able to get a handle on that old bumpy, worn-out surface better than anyone else. Here is some more irony for you. As I mentioned, Brad led 199 laps. Guess who led the second most laps? It was Brad’s teammate, Joey Logano, who led 37 laps. It’s just always fascinating to me how on certain weekends, some teams hit right on that magic setup and all the others end up simply racing for second.
Brad kicked everyone’s butt. He got his second win of the season. He punched his ticket into the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, and, oh yeah, he got four stitches in his hand. Overall, it wasn’t a bad Saturday night’s work in the Bluegrass State.
So now we head to the Sunshine State and Daytona International Speedway for another Saturday night race. It’s the Fourth of July weekend. Brad’s got a full head of steam right now and in championship form, so I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see him win another Saturday night race. Happy Fourth of July to everyone and I hope if you are traveling that you get there and back safely. Enjoy the fireworks, not only at Daytona but those in your own backyard!