Kansas Speedway was added to the Cup Series schedule in 2001, perhaps the pinnacle of NASCAR’s financial success if certainly not its peak of on-track competitiveness. Back then, new race tracks patterned after the 1.5 mile tri-oval at Charlotte were popping up coast to coast like crabgrass on a springtime suburban lawn. Most long-time fans of the sport treated the new speed palaces with the same warmth and affection as crabgrass, derisively referring to them as the “Cookie Cutter” tracks. I object to that term. Cookie cutters have a useful function. Who doesn’t love a plateful of hot cookies fresh out of the oven?
On the other hand, racing at the Cookie Cutter tracks tended to stink. Cookie Cutter race tracks’ useful function seemed to be to reduce enthusiasm for the sport of stock car racing, which was so overheated at that point NASCAR was struggling to keep up with demand. A handy fire extinguisher in the O’Leary’s barn in Chicago couldn’t have doused the flames and prevented tragedy as well. Neither could have a pair of modern day American La France attack pumpers with full crews.
Part of the problem with the Cookie Cutters is that they were designed to be what was termed “dual-use” race tracks, because the plans were to also host open wheel type racing (as in the IRL and CART in that era if I’m recalling correctly). Turns out that the reduced banking in the corners for the open wheel races made for bad open wheel races, because relatively speaking there was still too much banking for those cars. But it didn’t make for good stock car races either, because there wasn’t enough banking for the NASCAR taxicabs.
Thus the track owners, individual and corporate, learned some overdue but harsh lessons. You couldn’t make money trying to sell tickets to an open wheel race on an oval track anywhere outside of Indianapolis. Given overhead expenses, you’d have been better off just having a security guard unlock the main gate and try to solicit donations from anyone who wandered by to see what all the commotion was about.
But if its popularity was soaring, the powers that be in stock car racing were also in the thralls of narcissistic arrogance that convinced them new tracks demanded new ticket policies. Originally, to buy tickets to the stock car race, you had to buy season tickets which also allowed you to attend open wheel race(s) at the track as well as what was then the Busch Series event. Whether you wanted to or not. Of course, you could sell those unwanted open wheel tickets, but most of the people who just wanted to see the NASCAR race were trying to get rid of them too. You had a huge supply going head on into zero demand.
Some of the new Cookie Cutter tracks also tried to buck NASCAR traditions by refusing to allow fans to carry in coolers with outside food and drink (which is French for “a whole lot of cheap beer”). That didn’t go over too well either.
The first Cup race at Kansas was held Sept. 30, 2001. Jeff Gordon won that race. That was not an uncommon state of affairs in that era. Naturally, the Jeff Gordon fans were thrilled. Also naturally, the ABG (Anyone But Gordon) fans that hounded him back then were not at all pleased. Barbie’s boyfriend racer, Gordon, had won at the new “Barbie Cookie Cutter Speedway and Fun-Land Playset.” Gordon came back to Kansas in 2002 and won that race too.
The first few Cup races at Kansas were advertised as sellouts though a lot of Midwestern types shows up dressed as empty seats. Attendance numbers in those days were typically greatly exaggerated. Attendance at the track is said to have hit an all-time high of 135,000 in 2005-2006 and cratered at around 60,000 in or around 2010-11 — at which point the track stopped releasing attendance figures. What better way to solve a problem than to deny it exists?
From 2001 until 2010, Kansas hosted a single Cup date in either late September or early October. Starting in 2011, the track hosted two dates annually with the second date taking place in mid to late April.
There’s an old saying that even a blind hog will occasionally find an acorn before he gets up close and personal with a staff member from Jimmy Dean’s. On Oct. 10, 2004, Joe Nemechek (running Army sponsorship in that era) won a foot-stomping barn-burner of a race against Ricky Rudd (then driving the Wood Brothers Air Force-sponsored car) and Greg Biffle (carrying National Guard sponsorship for Jack Roush). Fourth place? Believe it or not, Elliott Sadler sponsored by The Wizard of Oz. Seriously, I have it right here on the result sheet. Therein lies another constant problem since Kansas joined the schedule. Hack NASCAR writers, this one included, have been known to base columns with really bad puns about The Wizard of Oz. I will probably lapse and do so at least once in this column. I crave your kind indulgence if I do. I mean, one time I compared the top finishing drivers to characters in that classic movie, only I was stumped by the Cowardly Lion’s part so I added in Brian France as the Slovenly Wino.
Kansas City is one of those strange cities that stretches into two states. The Kansas Speedway is in fact on the Kansas side of the state line, not in Missouri. (Old joke. Half of Kansas City is in Missouri and the other half is in Misery. The Kansas side is in fact the bad side of town. Which might have to do with why it ended up with the race track.)
In for a penny, in for a pound. Kansas City was so all aboard the NASCAR train they even competed to build and house the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the first decade of the 21st century. Other cities vying for the honor included Charlotte, Daytona Beach and Atlanta. Ultimately, of course, Charlotte won, though by now I am quite the certain the powers that be in the Queen City would be quite happy to ship the entire enterprise to Kansas City freight free if they agreed to take on the bills that come with the place as well. I do recall that Brian France (surprise) favored Daytona Beach and wasn’t too keen on Kansas City.
And to be fair, there is one significant contribution the state of Kansas made to our sport’s rich history. A fellow by the name of Jim Roper won the very first top division NASCAR race on June 19, 1949 at the wheel of a Lincoln. Actually, a fellow by the name of Glenn Dunaway took the checkered flag in that race but was disqualified for wooden wedges driven into the rear springs of his Ford, which may or may not have been a notorious moonshine-running car in the area during that era, depending on who you talk to. Certainly those wood wedges driven into the rear leaf springs would have raised up a car with a heavy load of white lightning in the trunk, as well as make it better able to survive on a rough race track. Either way, those wedges were illegal and Glenn’s win was Dunaway with. Just like Johnny Sauter’s apparent win at Talladega last Saturday. And from those humble wedges, we still use the term “put a round of wedge in it.”
Anyway, Roper was a Kansas native who towed his car South to that first race. For reasons lost to time, Roper would make only one more NASCAR Cup start, on Aug. 7, 1949 at Hillsboro. After which he presumably returned to Kansas, though what motivated him to do such a thing escapes me.
But nobody recalls who finished third or fourth or who finished off a fifth in a luxury suite prior to the race. Nemechek held off a hard charging Rudd coming out the fourth turn on the final lap. Marquis of Queensbury rules and ethics didn’t apply to stock car racing that afternoon in 2004. Tires smoked, fenders were dented and tempers frayed. Doubtlessly some grievous cuss words were hollered over the radios. The official margin of victory that days was .081 seconds (as in 81 one thousandths of a second). It was one of the finest finishes of a NASCAR race I’ve ever witnessed personally. The fact that Nemechek, a decided underdog, earned one of his four career Cup wins was just icing on the cake to disillusioned fans who were tired of seeing the same faces in victory lane week after week.
If you’re familiar with Pavlov’s experiments on dogs (other than being treated to one by politicians’ campaigns), you’ll recall old Mr. Pavlov rigged up a device so that every time a dog bumped a pole, it got a kibble treat. Now if the pole suddenly stopped working so that it never dispensed treats, the (doubtlessly unhappy) dogs would stop hitting it. But if once in a very great while moving the pole dispensed treats, the dogs would doggedly (forgive me) keep on hitting that pole thinking that eventually a treat would be dispensed. That Kansas Speedway finish in 2004 has had some fans buying tickets to races there waiting for another eventual treat. Yeah, best of luck with that. What if Pavlov’s dogs chased Schrodinger’s cat up a theory?
At the time, Kansas was the latest addition to the International Speedway Corporation’s portfolio. The ISC is run by the France family (they just finished buying out stockholders not part of the family, I am told), which of course also runs NASCAR. And NASCAR of course gets to decide which new race tracks are added to the schedule and when those tracks that host one date already get a second date. The tracks where the name of the place has either “Speedway” or “International Speedway” at the end tend to be ISC-owned tracks while the ones that end in “Motor Speedway” tend to be owned by SMS (Speedway Motorsports) run by Ollen Bruton Smith and family. As this is written, three tracks on the NASCAR schedule aren’t owned by the Frances or the Smiths: Dover, Pocono and Indianapolis. They host five Cup races between them. Go figure.
Even the ISC seems somewhat baffled with what to do with Kansas next. This year the track caps off the second round of the playoffs. Next year it will start off the third round. The spring race at Kansas is scheduled for May 31 next year. My guess is they could shift the race to Christmas Eve and they wouldn’t have any more challenge in selling tickets.
You thought the weather at Talladega threw NASCAR a curve ball? This week the Formula One Circuit ran in Japan. All on track activity Saturday had to be canceled as a typhoon took sight on the island nation. To add to the merriment, an earthquake shook the island and a powerful tornado left a swath of destruction in its wake. There were no plagues of locusts or Godzilla sightings I’m aware of. I guess by comparison a 20 hour rain delay was really no big deal.
In any enterprise run by humans, there’s going to be an occasional error made. See the 1970s. There was a surprise twist to the ending of that Japanese F1. The race ended a lap earlier than scheduled, and not because of the weather. Simply put, someone screwed up. The circuit has one of those large illuminated message boards. At the end of the race, it starts flashing graphics simulating a checkered flag waving. It just did so a lap too early. D’OH. The flagman was on the ball and waved the checkered flag at the scheduled end of the race. All the drivers and teams (who can remotely monitor data right down to the mili-drop of fuel remaining) knew the race wasn’t over. After much head-scratching, F1 decided that this weekend and moving forward the checkered flag graphics on the message board and not the waving of an actual checkered flag will signal the official end of the race. No, seriously. Afterwards, presumably the winner will be offered a virtual bottle of powdered champagne in a recyclable cardboard container while his self-driving race car does doughnuts.
Talk in the garage area is that Daniel Suarez will find out in the next two weeks if he will return next year. The decision is said to be based on how well Suarez does in some talks with sponsors in that period, not his actual on-track results. That’s a little off-putting. Should a guy’s goal to be a professional race car driver be based on his ability to win races or his gamesmanship in selling processed pig parts and boner pills? When asked who was the best race driver ever, the late Bobby Hamilton Sr. shrugged and guessed aloud that that best driver was probably driving a tow truck for a rural service station nights and weekends because he couldn’t find a competitive ride in NASCAR due to a lack of polish.
We all have our jobs and all jobs have challenges. But the latest NASCAR marketing campaign to draw fans to the races has gone from an irritant to a personal affront for me. I’m sure they have a nicer name for it, but I call it COG-WRDLY as in “Cranky Old Guy Who Really Doesn’t Like You.”
In the comments section of last week’s column (and several others when I’ve touched on a similar topic), it seems that a lot of you, especially the more “mature” among our numbers, feel NASCAR shouldn’t be called “stock car racing” any longer. So as NASCAR moves into a brand new era, let’s rebrand “NASCAR” as “Not Actually Stock Cars Anymore Really.” Grab your T-shirts today,