Why Doesn’t NASCAR Race At Kentucky Speedway?

NASCAR races at private tracks and they have no obligation to hold races if they don’t feel a certain venue gives them financial benefit. There can be multiple reasons why NASCAR no longer races at certain tracks. With this in mind, you may be asking why NASCAR doesn’t race at Kentucky Speedway.

NASCAR doesn’t race at Kentucky Speedway anymore because the venue didn’t produce very competitive racing. The Cup Series first raced at Kentucky in 2011, but by 2020, stale racing and poor attendance numbers forced NASCAR to drop the track from the Cup Series schedule.

Below, we will discuss what factors NASCAR considers when they schedule their races. We will also look at a few tracks NASCAR returned to, and tracks they are considering revisiting. We will also outline if there is still hope for racing to return to Kentucky Speedway.

When Did NASCAR Race At Kentucky Speedway?

NASCAR raced at the Kentucky Speedway from 2001 to 2021. It started racing at the track when the Xfinity series raced a summertime 300-mile event in 2001. However, the Cup Series and Truck Series only started racing at Kentucky in 2011. All 3 NASCAR Series stopped racing there in 2022.

Like the Xfinity event, the NASCAR Cup Series ran races at the speedway during the summer, between June and July, depending on the year.

Brad Keselowski dominated the NASCAR Cup Series’ short stint at Kentucky, winning 3 of the 10 races in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. both had 2 wins. Busch won in 2011 and 2015 while Truex Jr. took the checkered flag in 2017 and 2018. Kurt Busch (2019), Matt Kenseth (2013), and Cole Custer (2020) each won at the speedway, with Custer winning the final event.

Why NASCAR Raced At Kentucky Speedway

In 2005, the speedway filed a lawsuit against NASCAR citing the organization violated antitrust laws. The track’s owners dropped the case 1 year after they sold it to Bruton Smith of Speedway Motorsports, whose goal was to bring a NASCAR Cup Series event to the track.

In August 2010, NASCAR explored the idea of hosting a Cup Series event at the track. And in March 2011, Quaker State signed on to sponsor the 400-mile, 267-lap race.

Why Did NASCAR Stop Racing At Kentucky Speedway?

NASCAR stopped racing at Kentucky Speedway because the track did not bring in enough money. Given the overall costs of racing, NASCAR needs to consider what is best financially. No track on the calendar, even Daytona, is immune to losing its spot on the schedule if the finances are not there.

However, the decision to stop racing at the Kentucky Speedway wasn’t only made by NASCAR. Tracks are owned by a parent company that helps decide whether their tracks will host an event. Kentucky Speedway is owned by Speedway Motorsports, which will not lobby to place a venue onto NASCAR’s schedule if they are not earning revenue from the event.

Racetracks and their parent companies earn money via TV contracts, sponsors, ticket sales, concessions, parking, and camping. The speedway was not bringing in the desired amount of money for Speedway Motorsports, which forced them to pull the plug on all NASCAR events in 2021.

What Went Wrong?

Kentucky Speedway had a TV contract with NBC Sports and its Quaker State sponsor was one of the strongest in the industry. However, less-than-ideal attendance is the biggest reason the event went under.

But it wasn’t just the struggles to bring in attendance that cost the speedway its event. NASCAR had also seen declining ratings and attendance as a whole throughout the latter portion of the 2010s, forcing it to overhaul its schedule to feature more road courses and distinct races in 2021.

Boring Racing?

Kyle Busch once claimed racing at the Kentucky Speedway involved one car leading all the others. In other words, there were few lead changes at the Cup Series event, and this created a boring product for an organization that has continually seen waning interest.

In 2015, NASCAR tried to remedy this by featuring a new aerodynamics package including 3.5” spoilers and a 25” splitter extension. Goodyear even brought special tires with more grip to the track, hoping this would bring more excitement. NASCAR introduced the new package in the points-paying race. However, this attempt failed, and NASCAR dropped the speedway from the schedule for 2021.

Will NASCAR Ever Return To Kentucky?

NASCAR is unlikely to return to Kentucky. This is due to the subpar product that Kentucky Speedway brought to NASCAR, as NASCAR needs to race at tracks that allow for exciting races. NASCAR realizes fans like more exciting races, whether it is on a road course, superspeedway, or oval track. 

However, parent companies can always revamp a track to try and lure NASCAR back to it. And it is not like NASCAR hasn’t returned to tracks in the past.

Multiple tracks have been cut out of NASCAR’s schedule only to be added back years later. NASCAR held a race at Road America in 1956. Tim Flock won the race and NASCAR never raced there again until 2021 when Chase Elliott won the event. NASCAR also raced at Watkins Glen in 1957, and again in 1964 and 1965. The venue would not see another race until 1986.

Hope For Kentucky

In April 2022, Speedway Motorsports confirmed that late-model racing will return to North Wilkesboro Speedway. They also didn’t rule out a potential Truck Series race in 2024. The infrastructure will not currently support Cup or Xfinity events, but that could always change. NASCAR had not raced at the North Wilkesboro Speedway since 1996 so this provides hope for Kentucky.

The 117-year-old Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway could also see the Cup Series return once the track’s infrastructure meets NASCAR’s standards – something many fans in NASCAR spheres have clamored for.

The NASCAR Cup Series left the Fairgrounds Speedway following the 1984 season while the Xfinity and Truck Series left in 2001. With the Fairgrounds all but seeing NASCAR’s return take center stage, the Kentucky Speedway may eventually see NASCAR return.

However, both North Wilkesboro and the Fairgrounds are historic venues. Kentucky is not. So in their case, they may need to renovate the track if they want to see the Cup Series return. And that would be up to Speedway Motorsports.

How Does NASCAR Choose Where To Race?

NASCAR chooses to race at the tracks that are the most popular. Some tracks are only raced on for a few years until NASCAR decides they don’t bring in enough revenue. Others, like the Daytona 500, are considered historical tracks that are unlikely to be cut from the schedule.

You may think the NASCAR schedule never changes, as some of NASCAR’s biggest races land on the same tracks every year. For example, the Daytona 500 is always the first points-paying race and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte always occurs on Memorial Day Weekend.

However, the 36 points-paying races were not always set in stone. The NASCAR Cup Series once held 62 races in a season. The season started in November 1963 and it ended in November 1964.

Clearly, NASCAR cut a few of those race tracks off of their schedule. Some, like Riverside, were demolished and turned into a shopping center. Others, like North Wilkesboro, lay abandoned before Speedway Motorsports bought and cleaned up the venue.

NASCAR Races On Privately-Owned Tracks

Just as Speedway Motorsports owns Kentucky Speedway, NASCAR races only on privately-owned tracks.They don’t, by any means, race on public venues and they are the only major sport in America holding that distinction.

Therefore, NASCAR has no obligation to a specific city or community, unlike the major North American sports leagues. For example, the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals must play in Phoenix, Arizona for a specified number of years on their lease with State Farm Stadium.

The same thing goes for the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, and the other 122 professional sports teams. Theoretically, teams can relocate before their lease is up, but they must buy out the remainder of their lease.

How NASCAR Chooses

Some tracks are more popular than others, as are some races. NASCAR knows this and they will always schedule races at their most popular events, regardless of whether Speedway Motorsports owns the track or International Speedway Corp. (ISC) owns them.

While the France family owns ISC, it does not mean NASCAR gives those tracks more priority. Bristol and Atlanta Motor Speedway are the more popular tracks in NASCAR, which prompts them to schedule 2 events per season at those tracks.

However, sometimes NASCAR does not have a choice. Remember the old Rockingham Speedway? Bruton Smith bought the track and closed it off to NASCAR, forcing them to schedule a second event at the Texas Motor Speedway, which Smith also owned.

This means privately-owned venues also have no obligation to NASCAR. If Speedway or ISC wants to close a track off they can.

Schedule Evaluation

Each season, NASCAR evaluates its schedule, the dates they ran races, and how much money and ratings the race brought in. If the race shows poor attendance, NASCAR could drop it from the schedule, or in the case of its Indianapolis Race, opt for a road course over the oval.

The same thing occurred with the Southern 500, a crown jewel race. NASCAR noticed they could make more money on a second Fontana race on Labor Day Weekend. For a certain time period, they raced at Fontana that weekend instead of Darlington. The Southern 500 has since gotten that date back.

On the other side of the equation, if NASCAR believes a specific track with a one-off race sees increased ratings and attendance, that track may get a second race. So when NASCAR chooses schedules, it is all about how well the venues perform financially.

Final Thoughts

NASCAR stopped racing at the Kentucky Speedway because the racing product wasn’t there and the venue suffered poor attendance and profits. While NASCAR has not raced at Kentucky since 2020, it does not mean it won’t return to the schedule, as NASCAR can return to tracks it has dropped.