NASCAR & Auto Racing

Kansas Speedway transforms into ‘Bikini Bottom’ for SpongeBob SquarePants 400

NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers Greg Biffle (left) and David Ragan (second from right) checked out the trophy that goes to the winner of the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 on Saturday night at Kansas Speedway.
NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers Greg Biffle (left) and David Ragan (second from right) checked out the trophy that goes to the winner of the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 on Saturday night at Kansas Speedway. The Kansas City Star

Most people assume Kansas Speedway is in Kansas City, Kan., but that wasn’t the case Saturday for the running of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series SpongeBob SquarePants 400.

Kansas Speedway transformed into Bikini Bottom, the fictional town where Nickelodeon’s beloved absorbent, yellow and porous character, SpongeBob, lives in a pineapple under the sea.

The backstretch featured a long SpongeBob mural in the grass designed by Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist KAWS, who also created the SpongeBob trophy for “The Winner.”

Nickelodeon reached out to Kansas Speedway’s parent company, the International Speedway Corporation, and its chief marketing officer, Daryl Wolfe, in the fall about the possibility of serving as title sponsor for a race.

Wolfe promptly called Kansas Speedway president Pat Warren: “Hey, I’ve got kind of a crazy one for you. Would you have any problems naming your race the SpongeBob SquarePants 400?”

Warren considered it for a moment and fell in love with the idea. He might as well have said, “Aye, aye, captain.”

“It’s different, but it’s certainly not inappropriate and it’s very, very positive for us with the things we’re trying to do with kids and youth and everything else,” Warren said.

It also made sense financially, so the unique race was born.

“It would be neat if it was more than a one-year situation,” Warren said. “I’m not sure it will be, but I don’t think that’s a negative reflection on either us or Nickelodeon.”

SpongeBob characters weren’t hard to find around Kansas Speedway and David Ragan, Greg Biffle, Ty Dillon, Casey Mears, Michael McDowell and Ben Kennedy all drove SpongeBob-themed cars during the Cup race or Friday’s Camping World Truck Series Toyota Tundra 250.

“It certainly caught us all off guard when they announced that,” Emporia, Kan., native Clint Bowyer said. “We’re like, ‘SpongeBob?’ But SpongeBob’s loaded. He’s sponsoring the whole thing. It’s his race.”

Drivers quickly embraced the spirit of the race.

“I think it’s cool,” 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski said. “It’s great when we can cross-promote and work with other industries. I think everybody wins. … I never really watched it, but I’ve got a little girl on the way and I bet she will.”

Keselowski’s wife, Paige, is due to deliver the couple’s first child in two weeks.

“Can you believe the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 has finally arrived?” Bowyer said. “This is big in our world. My 5-year-old nephew, this is a big hit in his life. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

But it’s also serious business, too. NASCAR is making a concerted effort to ensure it’s a family-friendly experience with the goal, in part, to attract younger fans.

“A younger demographic is so important to any sport, and it’s a perfect tie-in,” Bowyer said. “How else do you get kids to come and be tuned in to these racecars going around? You put SpongeBob all over the place, and they’re pumped up.”

The SpongeBob trophy, of course, would be a welcome addition to any trophy case.

“That SpongeBob trophy is going to look really cool next to the giant Cheez-It that I have at home from Watkins Glen,” A.J. Allmendinger said before Saturday’s race,

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @todpalmer.

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