NASCAR

How To Hang Out At A NASCAR Race Without Watching Any Cars

Martin Truex Jr., driver of the (78) Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota, leads the pack at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart on July 14, 2018, at Kentucky Speedway.

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A patch of blacktop at Kentucky Speedway where grandstands once loomed has been turned into a hangout called “Fireball Alley” for the race track’s annual Cup race. Admission to the alley, sponsored by the nearby manufacturer of a cinnamon-infused whiskey, is $30.

Fireball Alley, near the first turn of the mile-and-a-half oval between Cincinnati and Louisville, is being promoted as “an energetic environment geared towards ages 18-27,” with music, values on concessions, cornhole and giant jenga, and $2 beer (plus Fireball for sale).

People in that age range are prime targets for NASCAR and other professional sports — these folks are, after all, potential fans for many years — but they also can be a hard sell, since they have limited disposable income and they don’t have the patience to sit and watch much.

Fireball Alley will have plenty of other activities besides watching the race: eating, drinking, dancing, partying, walking around, flirting, playing giant jenga, etc. It is fine if fans watch a lot of the race, a little or not at all. It is a hangout, a very loud hangout.

The area was known as “Action Alley — The Official College Area” for two years, but it is now called a “trackside tailgate.” Adults have to be 21 to consume alcohol, but the area is intended to be a hangout that will attract people who might not even watch the race. The “Snake Pit” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Indy 500 is practically a separate event.

The seating capacity at Kentucky Speedway has been reduced twice since the first Cup race there eight years ago, from 106,000 in 2011 to 86,000 in 2017 to its current 69,000. NASCAR is less popular in general, but a downturn in interest has meant that Kentucky has never been able to build on its audience.

A large part of that can be blamed on the track, which added 40,000 seats for its first Cup race but failed to figure out a way to handle lots of extra traffic off nearby Interstate 71, leading to thousands of ticket holders missing the 2011 race in what was called “Carmegeddon.”

Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company that owns Kentucky Speedway, apologized after the controversy, then bought a farm adjacent to the track and adjusted traffic patterns to accommodate extra cars, but many ticket-holders for the first race vowed to never return.

Kentucky Speedway was added to the schedule just after NASCAR hit its peak of popularity, so crowds there, like at other tracks, have dwindled, even though the race track is in a superb location, 40 miles from Cincinnati and 60 miles from Louisville and Lexington, Ky.

After SMI and Bruton Smith bought the track, which was built in 1998, Kentucky was considered as a candidate to play host to two Cup races annually, not just one. But NASCAR was so upset with the traffic snafu that it said it might not even have one race there in 2012.

Kentucky was on the 2012 Cup schedule and has been on the schedule every year since, and NASCAR president Steve Phelps sounds as if he does not want to take away Cup races from tracks that already have one. But the schedule is under review for 2021.

The 2020 race in Kentucky has already been scheduled for July 11, a weekend after the rescheduled Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis and a weekend before the only Cup race at Loudon, N.H., another SMI track. But Kentucky, like other tracks, needs to keep adding to its fan base.

Kentucky Speedway is offering adult tickets to the Cup race that start at $69, and admission is $10 for up to two children for each adult ticket-holder. So the race track is trying to build a family audience as they also try to appeal to the millennials in Fireball Alley.

The weather is supposed to be clear and hot on Saturday night at the track, which is better than rainy, and the 400-mile race should wrap up in less than three hours, which means there won’t be too much standing around (although seats in an adjacent area are offered).

The success of Fireball Alley won’t make or break the event, but a decent turnout could entice more people to go there next year, and a track might stop leaking so many fans.



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