This past weekend I attended the inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Speedway Motorsports, Inc.’s newly-acquired track, Kentucky Speedway. I had a thought when I arrived at the track; many of you may have read it on Twitter (yes, I’m tweeting now -- @eddiegossage):
Deep reflection of the day: Perplexity is the beginning of knowledge.
I’m sure everyone has heard by now that Kentucky Speedway’s traffic and parking wasn’t idyllic. To be honest, it was a horrific mess. A lot of folks began bringing up Texas Motor Speedway’s inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, so I’ve had a lot of requests for feedback on how it compares. Let me take you back to our opening day, April 6, 1997 -- the Interstate Batteries 500.
My daily thought for months while construction was underway for our 1.5-mile speedway was, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” During the ‘90s, speedways had opened in places like Florida, Kansas, Pikes Peak, California and elsewhere. But they were small -- significantly smaller speedways than Texas. All I could figure is those people didn’t believe in the sport as much as we did, didn’t believe in their market or didn’t trust their abilities to promote and be successful. Certainly that’s proven to be the case, especially given the problems the California track has fumbled with.
But Texas Motor Speedway was, well, a Texas-sized speedway with more than 150,000 seats. It takes the level of difficulty much higher. Not only did we have to sell roughly twice as many tickets as those little speedways in Kansas or Homestead, it was also our very first event. We didn’t have the chance to run smaller events prior to that race weekend. No dress rehearsal. Race day was the real deal.
What I remember most about that weekend was the rain. It started the Thursday night of the event weekend and poured steadily throughout Friday, which created a huge parking debacle for us considering the flat landscape and North Texas soil that made up the majority of the property.
We had to construct a plan to accommodate 300,000 people for Saturday and Sunday, and the result was finding hundreds of buses to shuttle people from remote parking lots. We called bus companies, city bus systems, school districts, churches, etc. You name somebody with a bus, I bet we called them. Then we received a huge helping hand from the Texas Department of Transportation, which allowed us to close a large stretch of Highway 170 and turn it into a parking lot. Without TxDOT, the race would have never happened.
It was NASCAR Sprint Cup race day and the weather had become clear and sunny, but we were still experiencing issues like any other new operation. We still had problems from the rain, parking and traffic had become an extremely stressful situation and I had drivers complaining about the geometry of the track. They were not happy with the transitions in the turns -- a flaw that eventually was exposed when a huge wreck happened on the first lap of the race.
The pressure was beginning to rise inside of me. To top it all off, our national anthem performer was MIA. Internationally known concert pianist Van Cliburn was scheduled to play, but the maestro was left sitting at home just outside Fort Worth, watching the race broadcast on television. The helicopter that was arranged to pick him up had gotten behind schedule.
I became very angry and frustrated. That was the final straw and I was about to blow a gasket. And then my old boss came to the rescue of my well-being. H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, then president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, told me “You can work on the problems tomorrow. You got everyone in their seats an hour before the race. Look”
He was right. The race was happening. For us, that was a success. It wasn’t an artistic success, but we got it done.
One thing I have to say about the NASCAR community is that it's a group of very forgiving people. It’s part of what this is made of -- passion. Despite a few individuals and race tracks that have exposed themselves as they tried to capitalize on the misfortune of others, breaking a long-standing unwritten code in the sport, part of that passion is coming together and moving forward. We all supposedly want to see this sport succeed. We were very fortunate to have fans, drivers, media and sponsors give us a second chance.
And that is our story. One day Kentucky Speedway will tell their story. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.