Lexington Herald-Leader Mark Story column [Lexington Herald-Leader :: ]
(Lexington Herald-Leader (KY) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) June 22--On the roughest track on the circuit, there is no place to hide.
In the run up to last year's Quaker State 400, Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger detected a theme running through his interactions with some of NASCAR's biggest stars.
Kevin Harvick was making a promotional appearance at a Cincinnati Reds game at Great American Ballpark when he spotted Simendinger.
"He didn't even say 'Hi,'" Simendinger said. "He just came over and said 'Whatever you do, don't repave your track.'"
Carl Edwards delivered the same message in more emphatic language. "Carl said 'If you try (a repave), I'll lay down in front of the paving machine,'" Simendinger said.
Before the first Sprint Cup race in Sparta in 2011, many drivers seemed stunned by how rough and bumpy the Kentucky Speedway racing surface had become. Jeff Gordon called for a repave before the race was even run.
By last year, the worm had made a dramatic turn regarding the track in Sparta.
Between 2011 and 2013, a number of other tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit repaved. The result was a series of super-smooth, high-grip racing surfaces -- which the Cup drivers came to loathe.
The reason was it was so easy on the new tracks for everyone to hit the set ups on their cars that most competitors wound up running the same speeds. That made it hard to pass and produced racing that even bored the drivers.
Conversely, the bumpy Kentucky Speedway surface puts a premium on crew chiefs getting their shock packages right and drivers having to find the best way over and/or around the bumps. It suddenly became popular because it is the complete opposite of the repaved racing surfaces.
For Simendinger, those interactions last year with Harvick and Edwards represented a "light bulb coming on" moment in terms of how to promote Kentucky Speedway. "It became clear to me, 'Hey, our track has an identity,'" Simendinger said. "I told our marketing guys, 'Let's go with it.'"
As the weeks have counted down to the 2014 Quaker State 400 on June 28, if you've been watching TV locally you've likely seen the results.
The best love it, while others fear it.
As the Kentucky Speedway advertisement starts, you see a group of highly confused spotters unable to understand a word of the gibberish coming over the radio from the cars of various Sprint Cup drivers.
"I didn't catch a lick of that ..." says one of the ad's exasperated spotters, his voice rising.
Viewers are to infer the drivers' words are incomprehensible because they are being spoken as the racers are jarred repeatedly going over the Kentucky Speedway bumps.
Simendinger said the Tombras Group, a Knoxville-based advertising agency, took the idea of promoting Kentucky Speedway's bumpiness and turned it into a full-scale marketing campaign.
The Speedway GM says it was in a Mad Men-style pitch meeting with Tombras that the phrase "the best (drivers) love it, others fear it" first came up.
"It was in one of the (commercials) we didn't choose," Simendinger said. "But it had that line and we were like 'Hold on a second, run that back.' We didn't choose that (overall) concept but we were like 'That (one line) really encapsulates how difficult this track is. We need to use that.'"
But when you take the checkered flag at Kentucky, no one can say it was luck.
In NASCAR, the drivers are not the only ones who can find a marketing niche off the right nickname.
Think Darlington Raceway, what comes to mind? The Track Too Tough To Tame.
Dover International Speedway? The Monster Mile.
Pocono Raceway? The Tricky Triangle.
Though it has tried, Kentucky Speedway does not yet have a memorable, alliterative moniker for the bumps. "We couldn't come up with any that were any good," Simendinger said.
There is some risk in hanging so much of Kentucky Speedway's identity in the marketplace on the bumpy racetrack.
For safety reasons, the day will come when the track surface will have to be redone.
It may come soon.
"The number one thing to me is safety. You can't compromise," Simendinger said. "So at a certain point, it will get too rough and we will have to repave this track. We're on a year-to-year basis right now. This year, with the very harsh winter, was not the best on it. We had to do a lot of work on it."
For now, Kentucky Speedway officials are basking in the track being known for something that has nothing to do with the facility's parking capacity.
"It's good for fans to come here and know they will see the best drivers in the world challenged instead of the best drivers in the world out for a Sunday drive," Simendinger said. "After three years (as a Cup track), I really think we've found our identity."
The Roughest Track on the Circuit
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @markcstory.
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