Royals OF Alex Gordon drives pace car at Sunday’s NASCAR race
They’re turning out the lights at Kansas Speedway for Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races, at least for the immediate future.
NASCAR has moved next year’s spring race date from the night before Mothers’ Day, a spot it has occupied since 2014, to May 31, 2020 — a Sunday afternoon and the week after Memorial Day.
Kansas Speedway sought to move the early May Saturday night date as a way to build attendance, but television rights-holder Fox didn’t want to televise a third consecutive night race following the All-Star and Coca Cola 600 races. So Kansas will host a Sunday afternoon event next spring.
This Saturday’s Digital Ally 400 will be the last night Cup race at the speedway — for now, anyway.
“In Kansas, in May, we discovered our challenge wasn’t so much Mothers’ Day, but the bigger challenge was commencements,” Kansas Speedway president Pat Warren said. “You know how many high schools are graduating on a race weekend? That is a once-in-a-lifetime event for people — they don’t miss it, they shouldn’t miss it.
“I know from people I invite to the races, so many say, ‘I’d love to be there, but I can’t.’’’
International Speedway Corporation and Kansas Speedway invested about $2 million installing lights at the track in 2011. The only remaining night racing likely will be the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Trucks Series in the spring and the ARCA series race in the fall.
But having the lights in place will play a large role in Kansas Speedway maintaining its fall date during the autumn NASCAR playoffs.
“I don’t feel we made a bad decision (on the lights) in a couple of ways,” Warren said. “We’ve been running night races for several years, and it’s been pretty well embraced by the community. But more importantly, the only track in the playoffs this fall that doesn’t have lights is Talladega.
“Increasingly, lights are going to be an important component for those playoff races, because if you don’t have lights, and you have rain, you may not get the race in. Just in the same way having a domed stadium has become a prerequisite for hosting a Super Bowl, lights for playoff races, even though it’s not a formal requirement, is a strong factor.”
Kansas Speedway’s spring date change was part of an overhaul of the NASCAR schedule for 2020, and could be a precursor to more alterations once the current sanctioning agreements with the tracks expire after the 2021 season. Beyond 2021, there’s no guarantee where races will occur and how many each track will receive.
“When you look at the other options, I’m happy with the (2020) date we got, and I’m happy we have two dates,” said Warren, whose Mothers’ Day weekend date was awarded to Martinsville, which just installed lights and is also a current playoff track.
In marketing the May night race, Kansas Speedway emphasizes the sights and sounds of the blazing engines amid the under-the-lights atmosphere.
“We certainly like the diversity of having one night (Cup) race and one day race,” Warren said, “but what has been interesting to me is I get as many positive comments as negative comments about fans who prefer a Saturday night race versus a Sunday afternoon race. I did not expect that to be case.
“I thought there would be much stronger interest in a Saturday night race, but the tradition of NASCAR racing on Sunday afternoon is so strong, and some people feel like Saturday night is a short-track racing night. And if you’re racing Saturday night, you’re hurting the short tracks, sort of like the same way folks still feel playing college football on Friday night is the right thing to do because it steps on high school football.”
When Kansas Speedway was given a second Cup date in 2011, the spring race fell on June 5, and in future years, the date following Memorial Day will typically be the first Sunday afternoon in June.
“Television ratings are generally better on Sunday afternoons than Saturday night,” Warren said. “Unless that trend changes, Fox is unlikely to want to add more night races.”
Warren found some silver linings in an early June date compared to mid-May.
“Having warmer weather than our current date is a positive thing,” Warren said. “And, we’ll be out of the school year.”