Lapping the Field



She admittedly didn’t know a thing about the business of motor sports. And in her first meeting with the International Speedway Corporation on April 1, 1997, she told representatives that she wasn’t quite sure what constituted a major motor speedway.

But Carol Marinovich, then the mayor of Kansas City, Kan., was convinced that building a racetrack along I-435 was the ticket to rejuvenating a city.

 

Rallying behind a vision

Every preceding proposal for development in that area over the years had naysayers, and this one was greeted with similarly robust skepticism. But Marinovich attended the opening of what is now the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., in June 1997 with a couple of city and county officials. It only gave more credence to her idea.

“That’s when I saw these people descending on this area, buying all these things, and thought maybe this could be the spark to ignite interest in development along that corridor,” Marinovich says. “So when we got back from that weekend in Fontana, the administrator came to my office that Monday morning and said, ‘Well, Mayor, what should we do?’ And I said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ And we never looked back.”

Fifteen years after Marinovich had an inkling about what a track could do for KCK, Kansas Speedway has already received accolades as one of the most respected venues in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series since its inaugural race in 2001. And with more retail and restaurants in Village West and the dice that roll at the new Hollywood Casino, those who compete and spectate consider it a top-tier destination on race weekends.

“From a driver and team perspective, they know what they’re going to get when they come here from a basic operational standpoint,” says Pat Warren, president of the Kansas Speedway. “They know that we’re close to shopping and restaurants. A lot of tracks don’t have the amenities that we do in our immediate neighborhood. The teams will tell you that every time they come here, they feel like there’s something new.

Not talking about the racing on the track, but talking about their experience. They have a good time while they’re here. I think now with the new track, we’re just getting ready to launch a new era of competitiveness.”

 

Repaving the way

As he scrolls past photos of his kids on his phone, Warren arrives at one of the culprits for why the Speedway track needed to be repaved. A huge chunk of asphalt, looking like a meteorite that crash-landed in someone’s backyard, uncorked during April’s races. Fortunately, that part of the track didn’t get more cavernous. With any deterioration of the track, pothole repairs wouldn’t make the grade for future events.

Get Your Motor Runnin’

It’s a big slate of races at Kansas Speedway in October, with NASCAR’s Sprint Cup race as the main attraction.

Oct. 19
ARCA Racing Series - Kansas Lottery 98.9, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 20
NASCAR Nationwide Series - Kansas Lottery 300, 2:30 p.m.

Oct. 21
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series - Hollywood Casino 400, 1 p.m.

Bulldozers growled as Denny Hamlin’s name was etched into the trophy for winning the STP 400, and as with most repaves, drivers grumbled. Most of them actually prefer track surfaces to be bumpier than Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and if it’s a patchwork quilt of repairs out there, fine and dandy. But it seems as though every time they raise a ruckus about a repave, like at Phoenix International Raceway in 2011, it’s as if a friend keeps recommending a TV show you’re expecting not to like and you wind up liking it and finding nothing to criticize. The Phoenix project led to a terrific race. And true to form, drivers complimented the Kansas Speedway project during an August tire test. Warren says this should be as good as the old track, with a paver that’s the only one of its kind in the world applying a better compound and a better surface for the speedway.

The track has also been reconfigured, taking out 200,000 cubic yards of dirt and installing increased variable banking that was once fixed at 15 degrees in the turns but can now be between 17 and 20 degrees.
“What it does for us when the cars are racing is that there are three race lines that the drivers can run so you can have three-wide racing around the track,” Warren says. “If you have fresh asphalt and you don’t have variable banking, generally the fastest way around the track is the lowest line around the track. So moving up higher with more banking, you can travel with more speed and the computer modeling we’ve done, both before and after but more importantly after, shows that the cars will run within a tenth of a second of each other during the course of a race in any of the three lanes.”

 

Exponential economic impacts

Consequently it will make for more exciting racing long-term for the fans as much as it will for the drivers. For a relatively young market, there’s no shortage of loyal racing fans in the Midwest within a 300-mile radius of Kansas City, and choosing to see their favorites became twice as easy in 2011 when NASCAR added a second Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway. The dissolution of Indy Car Series races at the track in a pure business decision, coupled with the ISC’s commitment with Hollywood Casino, opened up the second date.

And whenever NASCAR swoops into Kansas City, it is prodigiously profitable. With two Sprint Cup weekends and a throng of people traveling in — and spending some coin at Village West — Warren estimates that those races will bring in $300 million annually.

“We’re the equivalent of 15 Big 12 Tournaments every year,” says Warren, who was formerly in the University of Kansas athletic department and compares the atmosphere of a Sprint Cup event to a Final Four. “You can’t replicate that impact on the economy.”

There’s also an interactive exclusivity that feeds into the popularity for fans, a quasi-huddle in which you’re given carte blanche to eavesdrop.

“I think the thing that makes motor sports unique in all of professional sports is the ability to see and understand so many different layers of the competition in real-time and in a way you can’t do it in the NFL or Major League Baseball or anything else,” Warren says. “There’s no other sport that allows you to listen to, in racing, the driver and the crew chief and the spotter. In a football analogy, you could sit at Arrowhead Stadium with a headset on and listen to the quarterback talk to the offensive coordinator and the head coach. Well, nobody gives you that kind of real-time ability to listen to the strategy of an event as it unfolds.

The ability of a fan, the average fan, to walk in and listen to that communication, and understand everything that’s going on, and hear the driver complaining to his crew chief or talking about another driver, is what makes our sport unique.”

And the racing palette expands by adding more asphalt in the form of a road course in the infield, which has been completed and brings Grand Am racing into play. Car clubs that have been invited have raved about the route permutations that can be taken on the road course. The speedway is in discussions with Grand Am about making its road race date for next year a night event, a circuit that doesn’t have many of them on its slate under the lights other than the 24 Hours of Daytona.

 

Feeling the power

Until then, all eyes of NASCAR aficionados will be trained on Kansas this month in a race that could have implications for determining the Sprint Cup champion. The best drivers in motor sports will be riding on the fine-tuned track at the Hollywood Casino 400 on Oct. 21.

“I haven’t found anything in the world,” Warren says, “that is the same as 43 Sprint Cup cars coming around turn four on a re-start and what it does to a crowd and the energy and the excitement. You feel the power of the engines as they come around. I’m not a gearhead. I can change the oil in my car, but that’s about it. But I have a tremendous respect for the sport, for the people that are in it, and everything that they do every day.”

It’s principally through Marinovich’s leadership, too, that thousands of fans can watch Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson or Brad Keselowski jostle and scrap for a win on the mile-and-a-half oval. “I never did believe,” she says, “that what we see out there now wasn’t what was going to happen.” 

For more information on practices, qualifying and tickets, visit kansasspeedway.com.

photos courtesy Kansas Speedway