Our Kentucky 300 weekend stated with an evening of camping in southern Indiana. A strategic move to position ourselves for an easy drive into Sparta, Kentucky via the bridge from Madison, Indiana. The facility was a mere one hour from our Saturday morning location and finding the track was very easy. We arrived, not at our final destination, but a maze of roads and cones, directing us in no discernable directions. We ordered our camping and tickets online in a package deal; to pick them up we were told to go to the credentials office, which wasn’t the easiest building to find as it was a little bit of the beaten path. Of course, once we found the office, we were told we were in the wrong office, and we must head towards the main ticketing office at the track. We headed up to the main gate and were given a similar story; we were told all of our tickets and information was at our respective campground guard hut. We said our thanks and, once again, continued the chase for our tickets. Not the best way to start the weekend.
About an hour of driving and standing in line on the grounds of the speedway, we finally found the mythical camping hut and were promptly given our camping information by a wonderful campground staff. The attendant guided us to our paved site; this would not work as we were loaded with tents and needed some grass to set up on. The attendant called up to the credentials office and we were swiftly handled and squared away to a slightly more conducive site for tent camping. We had finally made it; camp was set up and we had tickets in hand, time to head to the track and catch some practice and qualifying.
We embarked on a long, arduous, uphill journey to the racetrack. Being seasoned Coke Lot campers during the 500, we were prepared for a hike of sorts to get onto the grounds. What we weren’t prepared for was the small mountain that Kentucky Speedway sits on; quite the hike from our relatively close sleeping location. Thankfully there were trams running from every corner of the property to the main gate and were able to catch a ride nearly every time we needed to commute from track to tent and back.
Before we got our tickets scanned to enter the track, we checked out the fan village and merchandise trailers just outside of the main entrance. I purchased a TrackScan scanner; very crucial pickup and after today I will never go back to my manual scanner. My roommate, on the other hand, was on a hunt for something a bit more nostalgic. He finally found what he was looking for; a 2011 Kentucky Indy 300 hat. I was very surprised that they actually went through the trouble of making one, but kudos to INDYCAR. It was a standard, full wool construction, the same kind of hat indycar always likes to use.
We then stumbled into the fan village, full of show cars, loud music and the obligatory stage for interviews and fan interaction. Right when we walked in the announcers were having a trivia contest. Being one of maybe 50 people standing there, I answered one of the questions correctly, my prize? A set of IZOD INDYCAR suite passes for that evening’s truck race. Considering what the forecast looked like for the evening, I considered this an absolute blessing. We would be able to watch the night race from the comfort of a heated room. Score. We finally scanned our tickets and made our way into the track.
The fan concourse is in the shadow of the massive 107,000 person grandstand. Standing behind the massive structure could not convey actually how large it was. We got wristbands and headed to the infield and watch some practice, and of course se if we could catch some of the stars of indycar. Unlike IMS, there is only one pedestrian walk tunnel leading to the infield. The entrance to the track was built up to about half way up the grandstands, so there were three very large sets of escalators and stairs to descend before we were actually able to traverse the walk tunnel. As a quick observation, I could only imagine how hot and sticky that place would have been in the middle of summer.
One set of stairs up on the infield side and we were in. Witnessing the usual smattering of tens of fans during practice days is always a bit disconcerting; add that the only media scrum style gathering is around Danica gives the impression of a club scene. We ran into the always sweatpants clad Robin Miller and had a short chat. That guy is something else. For the next few hours before qualifying we just mingled behind the pits. It’s always interesting to see the teams working during practice and having the ability to listen in on driver and engineer debriefs is always a fun part of practice days. The main thing I noticed about the infield was how well the very distinct 98 percent ethanol exhaust from the engines really lingered in the area. I have seen many different types of race machines, and this smell is synonymous with indycar racing; at least for one more race.
Finally sitting in the massive grandstands, I could really get a feel for how empty they really were. The grandstands at IMS are big, but the shear amount of seats in one place is impressive. Michigan Stadium, the largest sporting arena in the United States is a mere 2000 seats larger in capacity, but all of Kentucky Speedway’s seats are in one enormous area.
Qualifying was fun, if not a bit anticlimactic and we caught a well timed shuttle back to the tent for a bit of dinner before the truck race started. We made our way into the fantastic suite provided to us lucky few people to watch the truck race. About fifty laps were all we could take and left the slug like competition to start a fire and hunker down for a bone chilling night.
Nightlife was unsurprisingly subdued because of the chilly weather, but I made it through the night and was greeted by the first honest clear day we had had since entering the state of Kentucky. A kings breakfast of bacon, sausage and eggs kicked off our day. As the green flag for the lights race didn’t fall until about noon, we packed up and loaded the car in preparation for a quick escape after the race. The majority of campers were packing up and leaving before the race; my guess is that there were quite a few people who had come out only for the truck race. It was a very disappointing sight. Another short tram ride and we were promptly in our seats in the Indiana tower for the start of the lights Race.
There was literally no one in the stand to witness the five drivers eventually take the checkers. Again, very disappointing. My stand, Indiana Tower, seemed to fill up a small amount for the indycar race. There were lots of scanners around me but not much indycar swag. A mediocre anthem, an invocation given by a man who couldn’t remember the name of the series or the race, and a noticeable replacement parachute jump in lieu of a flyover was not the kick off I had in mind. No matter, the green flag was moments away and throughout the afternoon, we were treated a great race and one of the most amazing finishes I have ever seen. The crowd in my area not only booed Danica during driver introductions, but also knew exactly who Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher Racing were and why the win meant so much. The 20,000 or so people who did show up knew their indycar racing and had one heck of an afternoon to remember.
Another tram ride; and we were back to our campsite. Egress was straight forward. I would guess there was one traffic cop for every five cars. The dearth of traffic control was almost comical given the low volume of cars leaving the venue. Knowing the bridge through Louisville was out; Cincinnati would be our route of choice for the return trip to Indianapolis. There were only two short traffic jams; one right after getting on the highway outside of the track, and another entering into Cincinnati. All in all it took about three hours to get home after a very easy drive.
It’s too bad this was most likely the last edition of the Kentucky 300 that will be held for a while. The facility was great, the guest infrastructure was wonderful, and the racing was more than I could have ever dreamed of. Looking back, I was initially upset it was not a Saturday night event bit it was probably for the better that it ran during the sunny Sunday afternoon. Words cannot describe how good of a time I had. The race, camping, and everything in between was just spot on. SMI really knows what they are doing in terms of fan comforts. They had free showers outside of the main gate. That is just unheard of.
Thanks to everyone who followed along during the weekend, and read my rambling during the race. The indycar community, though small, is a great place. I met some new fans who had no idea an indycar race was in town; buying tickets on a whim when they attended the truck race. I also met fans who had come to every edition of the Kentucky 300 and were lifelong supporters of the sport. The atmosphere was jovial and had an air of excitement all afternoon long. I will really miss this trip to Kentucky as it doesn’t look like I will have a close oval next year outside of IMS. Come on Chicagoland…