Friday, May 23, 2008

ANALYSIS: Bruton's Gamble, NASCAR's Call

Yesterday’s announcement that Speedway Motorsports, Inc., has acquired Kentucky Speedway sets the stage for some interesting wrangling over the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule.

SMI Chairman and CEO Bruton Smith said yesterday that he hopes to host a Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway next season, but NASCAR’s willingness to approve such a move remains in serious doubt, as does Smith’s willingness to move a race from one of his other properties.

NASCAR Managing Director of Corporate Communications Ramsey Poston said today that while Smith may want a Cup race in Kentucky, he may not necessarily get one. “There are certainly some hurdles there,” said Poston, alluding to NASCAR’s longstanding contention that the Sparta, KY, oval is too close to Indianapolis, Bristol, Chicagoland and Talladega, and would further saturate an already overserved NASCAR market.

Simply put, a change in the ownership of Kentucky Speedway does nothing to solve the track’s location issues.

Even if Smith is able to gain NASCAR’s approval for a 2009 race at Kentucky Speedway, there is are questions about where that race will come from. NASCAR has said repeatedly that it will not add dates to the 36-week championship schedule, while stressing that SMI is free to shuffle dates between its speedways, if it chooses to do so.

Most observers believe that Kentucky Speedway’s race date will come from either New Hampshire or Atlanta Motor Speedway, but the presidents of those two tracks say they are confident that they will continue to host two races in 2009, and beyond. NHMS President Jerry Gappens and Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Ed Clark say they plan to finalize their 2009 sanction agreements with NASCAR today, and that both tracks will host the Sprint Cup Series twice next season.

“Bruton has not given me any indication at all that he's looking to change anything," said Gappens, while Clark said, "I'm tired of people bringing that up. You can go ask Bruton, you can ask me. There is no chance (of losing a race). It is not going to happen."

Gappens hinted that there could be a more complicated deal in the works to bring NASCAR’s top series to Kentucky, without taking a race from New Hampshire or Atlanta. In his words, “I think there's more to the puzzle that (Bruton) has got to finish, to do some of the things he's thinking." Sources say that plan could involve the purchase of yet another track; either Dover International Speedway – owned by Dover Motorsports, Inc. – or the Mattioli family’s Pocono Raceway.

However, time is short for Smith to forge such a deal. NASCAR is in the process of finalizing its 2009 sanctioning agreements right now, making the timeline for moving a race extremely tight. Sources say SMI will have to submit a plan to NASCAR in the next two weeks, outlining which of its tracks will give up a race to put Kentucky on the 2009 schedule.

Even then, NASCAR has the final say on whether the change will take place.
Clearly, Smith would not have purchased Kentucky Speedway without a concrete plan to bring Sprint Cup Series racing to the track in the near future. Equally clear, however, is the fact that Kentucky Speedway’s fate does not lie solely in Smith’s hands.

Will NASCAR allow SMI to transfer a race to Kentucky, ignoring its longstanding concern with market saturation? Or will the sanctioning body stand on principle, denying Kentucky a spot on the Sprint Cup calendar and leaving Smith holding the bag on a multi-million dollar gamble gone wrong?

Only time will tell.

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