Tim Tuttle
Thursday July 1st, 2010

There are rumblings that the Sprint Cup schedule for 2011 will undergo some significant changes, primarily impacting fans, sponsors and the bottom line at the two corporations--International Speedway and Speedway Motorsports--that control 31 of the 36 annual events. To quote Bob Dylan, there's something happening here, but we don't know what it is.

SMI Chairman Bruton Smith has been vocal of his desire for a date at Kentucky Speedway, which he purchased in late 2008, and to add a second event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which he purchased with an existing Cup date in late 1998. Under NASCAR's unwritten policy of allowing track owners to move events within their companies, Smith can deliver Cup races to both tracks next season.

Smith seems ready to make his move on both venues, which will require stripping two dates from his inventory. Smith began laying the foundation last week to take New Hampshire's June Cup race and deliver it to Kentucky, where it would slide neatly into the schedule.

Smith complained bitterly about what the local Loudon police chief charged for security, saying he could save $100,000 by using some of the Loudon force and hiring private security for the rest. It's impossible to believe Smith would move an event over such an amount, even in a struggling economy. That's not close to enough money to get Smith's blood pressure up. Smith wants respect and he wants cooperation from the local authorities.

Smith has talked about developing the New Hampshire property to include a hotel and a casino and maybe more and he'll need building and gaming permits and road improvements to make it worthwhile. Smith doesn't want to slog his way forward.

Smith also announced the IZOD IndyCar Series was returning, after a long absence, to New Hampshire in late July next year. New Hampshire General Manager Jerry Gappens will have done a good job if the IndyCar race draws 40,000, half of what last week's Cup race had, but IndyCar is showing signs of revival and it could grow substantially in the next several years. IndyCar carries a considerably less expensive price tag from the sanctioning body.

It's difficult to see the IndyCar event gaining momentum with Cup races a month before and seven weeks following it. Smith didn't bring IndyCar in to lose money. If he wants a third major event at New Hampshire, he could keep the Nationwide race that ran last weekend.

Smith expressed his unhappiness in general terms at the press conference on Sunday morning before last weekend's race.

"I've always been an optimist and we've had a lot of negativity here, which we don't like," Smith said. "We have not liked it, still don't like it and tomorrow when I wake up, I still won't like it. So, that's not good.

Yes, we have a lot of people here in this market, but we find--I don't care where we are--you can't do it alone. You have to have the blessings of the city, county, state in order to do what you do when you draw these huge crowds."

Smith undoubtedly believes Kentucky has more potential revenue than New Hampshire. It has 69,000 seats and Smith says he can add 50,000 by next season.

He thinks Kentucky, the closest Cup-ready track to Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville and St. Louis, can fill far more seats than New Hampshire's 93,000.

Finding the second Las Vegas Cup date is more difficult for Smith and more problematic for NASCAR to approve.

SMI owns Atlanta and its early March date has been troubled by poor weather and weak (by Cup standards) crowds in recent years. Atlanta is the best candidate to become the second race at Las Vegas, but pulling the trigger on a track that Smith rebuilt and is in the heart of NASCAR's traditional region may be hard personally for him. From NASCAR's perspective, Las Vegas already is in the early schedule, run this year on Feb. 28, and, because of weather considerations, a second Cup race would have to go into the Chase, where it would become the fifth 1.5-mile track in it. NASCAR wants more diversity in the Chase, not less.

NASCAR would lose an early date in the season without good options to replace it. NASCAR likes to keep the season going early to build momentum and take advantage of the good television ratings in the spring and the only other track capable of running in early March would be ISC-owned Phoenix, which is established in early April. Would ISC be willing to move to March? Maybe, maybe not. Baseball's spring training is in full bloom in March, filling up hotel rooms that are needed for Cup fans.

Smith is on the record as wanting Las Vegas to become the season finale, but he'll undoubtedly settle for the Auto Club Speedway's Chase date, scheduled this year for Oct. 10.

NASCAR Vice President Steve O'Donnell, in charge of putting together the Cup schedule, said at New Hampshire that ISC has made an official request for a second date at Kansas. ISC, publicly held but controlled by the France family, is looking for a late April date. It would replace the IndyCar event, which has had declining attendance in recent years.

The Auto Club Speedway is in the very attractive southern California market, but its attendance has failed to reach expectations since getting a second date in 2004. Returning to one date at Auto Club will fill empty seats and ISC thinks it can sell more to make up the difference at Kansas.

My predictions for 2011: A second date at Kansas in April, a date at Kentucky in June, no second date for Las Vegas, Richmond moves into the first race in the Chase, replacing Auto Club Speedway, and the rest of the remaining schedule moves up to end the season a week earlier.

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