Part 4 in a five-part series addressing issues facing NASCAR in 2012
As the 2012 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
Did Kentucky Speedway do enough to appease dissatisfied fans after its Cup debut disaster? And how will this affect its future on the circuit?
Kentucky Speedway fought for years to land a coveted Sprint Cup Series race, only to be blocked with every shot it took. So when Speedway Motorsports, Inc. bought the venue, then awarded it a date formerly housed at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it was a slam dunk, a Bluegrass bonanza for hardcore Southern supporters who waited over a decade. But for 100,000 ticketed fans, their dream come true turned into a hellish nightmare on July 9, 2011. Traffic flow and infrastructure shortcomings plagued the inaugural Cup date to the point that Kentucky Speedway may hold the title of having hosted the most disastrous major sporting debut in history. Traffic was so bad some estimates claimed as many as 20,000 people never made it to the speedway, while others sat idle for up to seven hours, then parked three miles away to get in.
SMI’s response? An apology two days later and a ticket-exchange offer to any of the remainder of its 2011 dates (including upcoming Truck Series and IndyCar events at Kentucky Speedway) or free admission to this season’s Kentucky date.
Did that heal the wound? Not even close. What SMI CEO Bruton Smith failed to understand was that for many, that weekend was it. That was the vacation, the time off from work, the hotel reservation, the gas money, the time, effort and planning … that weekend — not one seven weeks later at Bristol — that many hard-working fans saved for and invested in.
Perhaps it's hard for a billionaire to comprehend. Regardless, Smith offered no ticket refunds in a rambling, bizarre press conference the following weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, he laid blame on everyone from the state and local police, the company hired to direct traffic in the parking areas, local and state officials who did not bend to his roadway demands, local residents who parked cars on their property to — get this — the fans themselves for not planning properly!
The scary part of this mess was that Smith had traffic and parking issues at his Las Vegas and Texas tracks on opening Cup weekends in the past, plus Kentucky track officials had concerns going into the July date. Did SMI know what was coming? Would it allow a debacle on this scale to unfold simply to force state officials to invest in roadway reconstruction around the track? It certainly felt that way.
As to how this will affect Kentucky’s future events, it’s impossible to foresee. SMI has made improvements to the facility with expanded parking areas, additional restroom facilities and plans to widen the interstate and ease incoming traffic to the track itself. Time heals all wounds and, obviously, NASCAR did not yank its 2012 date. However, 100,000 fans were treated not like paying customers, but more like pawns in a multi-million dollar game of chicken, pitting SMI against the Kentucky state legislature. Let’s hope no one — even those who did not suffer that day — forgets that.
What steps should NASCAR take to curb start-and-park efforts?
In 2009, NASCAR referred to start-and-park teams as a “passing phase.” But as we enter year four of the collect-a-check experiment dominating the back of the Sprint Cup pack, it’s clear these profiteering teams aren’t going anywhere. In fact, the practice is only getting worse. As many as eight cars pulled in early during races last fall — that’s nearly 20 percent of the grid showing up with no intention of competing.
And why should they? In the last three years, Joe Nemechek has only finished five of his 97 starts but collected a cool $7.8 million in purse money. While saving on engine, pit crew and chassis costs, the only penalty the driver/owner may get is an occasional teardown as being selected for post-race inspection. Even then, a rebuild three or four times a year isn’t enough to wreck the profit margin. It’s become a big enough business that those who were initially putting up an honest effort, like Robby Gordon’s No. 7 outfit, have decided to join in.
That disturbing trend is why NASCAR needs to act. Either come up with a system of paying on a per-lap basis — reducing the profiteering of these teams — or simply reduce grid size to represent the number of cars showing up to compete. Dropping from a field of 43 to 36 increases the purse for each participant, ramps up the qualifying competition (maybe drop from 35 to 25 locked-in spots?) while better reflecting the number of fully funded cars. You can always expand back over time, as the NASCAR economy improves, right?
The question, of course, then becomes whether the sport’s television deal allows it to do that — a question that’s been disputed for years and whose answer lies within a contract no one’s allowed to see.
Visit AthlonSports.com each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season.