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Stephens: Local race off to bumpy start

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By Brad Stephens

SPARTA – NASCAR fans in Kentucky had to wait more than a decade for Kentucky Speedway to be given a Sprint Cup Series date.

Now after its fourth Sprint Cup race, there remain questions about the track and its future.

Kentucky hosted the fourth annual Quaker State 400 Saturday night and this time it avoided the problems that plagued the first three editions of the race.

In 2011 inadequate parking led to an estimated 10,000 fans entirely missing the inauguarl race because they were instead stranded in traffic.

2012 and 2013’s races saw those traffic problems fixed. But brutal heat in 2012 and one-day postponement due to rain in 2013 led to smaller crowds.

NASCAR stopped announcing attendance figures last year, so there was no official count of Saturday’s crowd.

But press box estimates placed the number of people in the grandstand at about 60,000, with another several thousand in the infield.

Factoring the speedway’s grandstand capacity of more than 100,000, the bleachers were a little more than half-full Saturday to see Brad Keselowski win the race for the second time in three years.

That came after underwhelming crowds for the Camping World Truck Series race Thursday and the Nationwide Series race Friday.

Attendance issues at races aren’t a Kentucky-only issue. Crowds have declined at races since NASCAR‘s popularity began to fade about 10 years ago.

However the decline from sellout in 2011 to just over half-full in 2014 is a drastic one.

Many people may still be staying away due to the 2011 traffic fiasco.

Kentucky has fixed its traffic problems to the point that my commute Saturday from downtown La Grange to my parking spot in the speedway infield took 45 minutes.

But you only get one chance to make a first impression and some fans who had a bad experience in 2011 will forever associate the speedway with that experience.

The primary on-track issue is its bumpy surface, notably the front stretch.

Kentucky’s advertising campaign leading up the race celebrated the rough 1.5-mile tri-oval as the “toughest track in NASCAR.”

Drivers aren’t as enthusiastic about the track.

“It just sucks, man,” Dale Earnhardt Jr., told USA Today Sports after the race. “God almighty. It’s so brutal.

“It’s just terrible, man. And I hate it for the speedway, because they just got their date (in 2011). But man, it’s the most miserable thing out there. Ain’t nothing about that I want to do over again. I’m glad it’s over.”

That’s not exactly what you want prominent drivers saying after a weekend at your track.

Now the speedway must make the choice whether or not an expensive repaving of the track is the right way to go.

There probably isn’t any imminent danger of Kentucky losing the Sprint Cup date to another track.

After all, it’s only been four years and there aren’t many better options out there for that date on the schedule.

But the speedway will have to address attendance and track issues if it wants to maintain stability long term.

Email us about this article at sports@oldhamera.com.