Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A note on NASCAR in Kentucky

I realize that this is a blog about hydroplane racing, but I still feel obligated to comment on the happenings of this past weekend's NASCAR race at Kentucky Speedway since there has been so much talk about in recent days.  First off to be fair, while I enjoy NASCAR racing I would not call myself a NASCAR fan.  I'm first and foremost an Unlimited Hydroplane racing fan, and in general I prever almost all forms of powerboat racing over almost all forms of auto racing for the pure spectacle of racing on water and the festive atmosphere that comes with attending a powerboat regatta.  Even in auto racing I am less interested in NASCAR than I am in IndyCar, Formula 1, and dirt track racing, although I do like NASCAR better than drag racing.  With that said there is no way of denying NASCAR's popularity and I'm not one of these gearheads who writes it off as "not real racing."  In general I was happy that Kentucky Speedway was awarded a Sprint Cup series race, not because I planned to attend the race but I saw it as bringing lots of money and people into the local area (Kentucky Speedway is a little more than an hour's drive from Madison) and I know how long people have waited to see a Cup series race in the now ten year old track.

As you have probably already heard, the event was a disaster.  Traffic conditions were horrendous, with reports of a traffic jam as long as twenty miles waiting to get into the track.  Many people simply got out of their cars and walked, and many others decided it wasn't worth it and turned around for home.  Perhaps worst of all a number of fans made it through the hours long traffic conditions got to the exit for the speedway only to be told to go home as the police were now reversing traffic on I-71 in order to begin letting people out of the track.  There are varying numbers as to how many people who had tickets for the race were not actually able to make it to the race.  The tickets were sold out (largely due to a last minute sales push) but large empty portions of the bleachers could be seen on television. 

The fans who did make it through the eight hour traffic jam to the speedway were treated to a race that itself resembled little more than a traffic jam.  It was almost as if someone decided to put together a race that would exhibit everything that NASCAR detractors deride about modern NASCAR racing.  The racing was almost exclusively single file with little passing and ZERO passes for the lead under the green flag.  Think about that for a moment, a 400 mile, 267 lap race that was over three hours long did not have a single green flag lead change.  One would almost have to try to ensure such a result.  Now, I realize that one of the biggest complaints about Unlimited Hydroplane racing is that many of the races resemble parades, but at least there is the jockying for lanes before the heat begins and even then the stereotypical heat where the boat favored to win makes a perfect start and wins the race going away will only last five laps, not 267.  Along with a "competition caution" after thirty laps, a caution for phantom debris a few laps later (noone had blown an engine or a tire, and whatever the debris was there wasn't anyone on the track to pick it up), and the only drama of the race being manufactured with a green white checkered finish, it was a race that many race fans would write of as yet another stereotypical snoozer of a NASCAR race on a 1.5 mile tri-oval.

So where does the blame lie for such a promising event that went so wrong?  There is plenty to go around, and not surprisingly the person who took much of the credit for bringing a Cup race to Kentucky Speedway is now taking none of the blame.  Bruton Smith, the CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. that owns a number of NASCAR tracks throughout the country (including Kentucky Speedway)  was at the forefront of accepting credit for Kentucky Speedway getting a Cup race.  He used his usual tactics of strongarming state and local governments in order to get tax incentives and construction of new roads.  Chances are that a small farmer in Gallatin County, Kentucky is paying more in taxes for his or her farmland than Bruton Smith is paying in taxes for Kentucky Speedway.  After nearly a decade of debates, tax incentives, legal action, and ownership changs, Kentucky Speedway finally got a Cup race when Bruton Smith merely transferred one of the two races from Atlanta Speedway (another track he owns) to Kentucky Speedway.  After the debacle this past weekend, Bruton Smith's solution was simple: ask for more public funds.  He has called I-71 the "worst road in America" and called for the widening of the road.  He has even pushed for an airport to be built in the sparsely populated area in order to accomodate the racetrack.  All early indications are, however, that the traffic problems began at Kentucky Speedway.  The traffic bottlenecked at the speedway parking lot with too few people directing traffic at a parking lot that was too small for the large crowd.  There have also been many horror stories of the facilities at the track itself, including too few port a pots for such a large crowd, people being sold tickets for a seat that wasn't there then being offered a metal folding chair instead, and the ban on coolers inside the speedway.  One thing that is clear is that while Bruton Smith did bring a Cup race to Kentucky Speed way his company did very little to invest money to ensure that it would be a top notch show.  Smith's idea of making up for the Kentucky debacle speaks of even more greed, as they will be offering those fans who had tickets but were turned away from Saturday's race either free tickets to next year's Cup race at Kentucky or a free pass to any of this year's races at a track owned by SMI, a move that seems to be an effort to get attendance numbers to increase at a time when NASCAR races have seen a steep decline in paid customers.  With Bruton Smith's SMI getting millions in tax incentives while simultaneously investing as little money as possible into ensuring the race runs smoothly, the economic fruits for the area are minimalized.

The biggest problem with having a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway, however, is probably Kentucky Speedway itself.  After all the fanfare and promotion Kentucky Speedway is just another 1.5 mile tri-oval track.  It has very little if anything to distinct itself from the cookie cutter 1.5 mile tri-ovals that were built in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago, Kansas City, Southern California, Miami, and Las Vegas metropolitan areas around the same time of Kentucky Speeday's construction, the only difference being Kentucky Speedway is in a remote area of Northern Kentucky that is near two small-market cities.  Furthermore, while the track is in the south, it is not in a traditional stock car racing hotbed.  So Kentucky Speedway is a cookie cutter track in the middle of nowhere in an area that does not have deep NASCAR roots.

One thing that is often brought up when discussing hydroplane racing is that H1 Unlimited should change a rule or try a different form of marketing on the grounds of "That's the way NASCAR does it."  From one side it would seem to make sense.  NASCAR is the most commercially successful form of racing in the United States, so if Hydroplane racing does it then they will be more commercially successful.  What this argument ignores is that these are two forms of racing with completely different traditions, hotbeds, rules, history, and fanbases.  If this past weekend's debacle in Kentucky shows anything it shows that the NASCAR way is not always the right way.  For me at least, sitting in an eight hour long traffic jam to watch an over three hour long  single file race does not sound nearly as exciting as walking down to the beach with my lawn chair and cooler and enjoying a day of fun where I get to see the boats and drivers up close, make new friends and reconnect with old ones, and watch multiple exciting boat races throughout the day.