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Volume 21 No. 1
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SMI chief eager for better times at Kentucky, weighs in on NASCAR

A year ago, NASCAR convened its first Sprint Cup race in Kentucky and found nothing short of disaster. Traffic backed up for miles. Parking at the speedway was insufficient. Fans missed the race.

Speedway Motorsports Inc. Chairman Bruton Smith, whose company owns the Kentucky track and seven others, made a rare public apology after the race. His company spent the better part of the last year working with the state to make improvements in and around the speedway before NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series returns this weekend. The state spent $3.7 million to expand the highway and interstate near the track, and the track spent $8 million to $10 million constructing 15,000 to 20,000 parking spaces.

Smith spoke with SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Tripp Mickle about those improvements and more last week.

Bruton Smith said ticket sales were tracking well for the race at Kentucky.
Photo by: ICON SMI
What do you wish SMI had done differently before the inaugural Cup race in Kentucky?

SMITH: I wish we could have convinced the highway patrol of Kentucky. I kept trying to explain what a huge crowd we had coming. … The biggest thing that hurt us was the rain. It converted the parking we had into an impossible situation.

What do you have to do to reconnect with fans?

SMITH: I made promises on what we would do and we’ve done it. And I’ve done it with the state of Kentucky. The governor of Kentucky came forward and got the state to approve a lot of things. We have what was a two-lane road operational at seven lanes. They also installed a 12-foot-wide pedestrian walkway, and the state built a tunnel under [Kentucky highway] 35 so that people can walk right on through the tunnel and onto the speedway side.

You don’t apologize often. Why did you apologize for this race?

SMITH: We hated that we didn’t do a better job. Here again, I’m not going to knock Kentucky, but they were not aware of what was going to happen. This time [the state highway patrolmen] went to school on it. … They know what to expect and they will do an outstanding job.

How are ticket sales tracking?

SMITH: Very good. I won’t say we’ll sell out, although we might with Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. winning a race. It’s really making the phones ring.

How would you characterize the state of the sport?

SMITH: It’s better today than it was two years ago. It’s not where we want it. … Ticket sales [are better].

What do tracks need to do in order to get more fans in the stands?

SMITH: It’s back to what we produce. We’re in racing. We’re in show business. We’ve got to put on a great show for the fans. If we do that, fans will be there.

What could NASCAR do to help tracks cut expenses?

SMITH: Sanction fees. Staff. There’s a lot of areas. You could list all 50 or 60 and see where we can cut. We’ve allowed the expenses to become a runaway freight train. We need NASCAR’s support on that.

What about shortening the season?

SMITH: I’m not for that at all. These speedways cost an awful lot of money. We spend millions of dollars on these speedways to make them comfortable for fans and teams and everyone. We need the races.

How do you feel the current leadership of the sport is doing?

SMITH: You’ve still got people there doing a great job. Brian [France, NASCAR chairman and CEO], NASCAR does a good job. [NASCAR President] Mike Helton does a good job. But I think sometimes what they do is [when] they have something they want to do, they jump in and have too many people. I’m saying hypothetical, they need five people but they hire 15. I’m in business. I have 15,000 employees in the two companies we have. We don’t just throw people at something. We like to train, train, train. I have a college of knowledge. We school people constantly in what we’re doing. That’s what is important: well-trained people, knowledgeable people, people who want to succeed at what they’re doing.