For NASCAR drivers, it’s ‘Ken-bumpy Speedway’
SPARTA — Brad Keselowski is rarely at a loss for words. Yet the reigning Sprint Cup champion paused when asked what it feels like to wheel a stock car over the famously bumpy track at Kentucky Speedway.
Finally, Keselowski smiled and said “it’s like running over a freeway that truck drivers have been on and (the road crews) have tried to patch in some spots where (the trucks) made some divots. It’s a rough trip.”
It’s funny how these things play out. When Bruton Smith moved a Sprint Cup date to the commonwealth in 2011, there was much wailing in some NASCAR circles because Kentucky Speedway became the eighth mile-and-a-half track playing host to a Cup race.
These “cookie cutter tracks” were said by critics to all be so similar they would produce the same boring races over and over and over.
Yet now, on the verge of Saturday’s third Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, the drivers say the Sparta racetrack has produced a unique racing challenge for them.
Because the track is so darned bumpy.
Asked if Kentucky is dramatically rougher than any other racing surface currently in the Sprint Cup Series, Kyle Busch said, “Oh yeah, oh yeah, for sure.”
Keselowski is on board with that. “Some tracks, it’s just one spot (that is bumpy),” he said, “but here it is everywhere.”
To get around Kentucky Speedway, you have to set up the car to go over the bumps, Kyle Busch said, because there is no viable way to go around them.
“The middle of (Turns) 3 and 4 all the way down the front stretch into the middle of (Turns) 1 and 2 is the roughest part,” Busch said of the track.
To avoid the bumps “you could exit Turn 4 lower and stay out of the bumps a little bit,” Busch said. “But then you are cutting speed because you are pinching the car tighter. You pretty much have to go over them.”
Some like the bumps
Stephen Swift, the Kentucky Speedway Vice President of Operation and Development, says ground water beneath the racetrack coupled with the frequent “freeze-thaw” cycles produced by the commonwealth’s ever-changing weather is the cause of the bumpy asphalt in Sparta.
One might surmise that a track that makes for this rough a ride would not be popular with those who have to drive 400 miles over it in a stock car.
Before the inaugural Quaker State 400 in 2011, Jeff Gordon called for a repave in Sparta.
Yet other NASCAR stars embrace the challenge of Kentucky Speedway, relishing the test of figuring out a way to get your car to glide across the bumps better than your competitors can.
“Just because something is bumpy or doesn’t have a lot of grip, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact most of the time it’s good,” said Matt Kenseth. “It gives you more opportunities (to find a way) to get through those bumps better than somebody else.”
Clint Bowyer says the Kentucky bumps are less a test of driving skill than a gauge of a driver’s ability to communicate with their team.
“It’s more on the team and communication and trying to find a shock package, a bump package, that can get through (the bumps) better than the next guy,” he said.
The bumps bite Busch
In Kentucky Speedway history, no driver has gotten over the bumps better than Kyle Busch. The inaugural Sprint Cup Series winner at the Speedway has also won there in the Nationwide Series, in the trucks and in ARCA. He’s the only driver yet to win in all four of those series at Kentucky.
Last year, Busch seemed well on his way to replicating his 2011 Quaker State 400 victory. Then, the Kentucky Speedway bumps finally got him.
“We ran really good last year, led some laps, actually led the most laps (118),” Busch recalled, “but then we broke our shock mount because the track is so rough, and we finished 10th. This place, it’s probably due for a repave, but all of (the drivers) hate to see repaves because it tends to make for one-groove racetracks.”
Swift, the Kentucky Speedway VP, says a repave of the Sparta track “is very close, I think.”
For some NASCAR drivers, if that were to leave a non-bumpy racetrack, it would cease to be Kentucky Speedway.
“It is rougher than the other tracks, but that’s what makes it Kentucky,” said Denny Hamlin. “We don’t want smooth, perfect racetracks everyplace we go or else we’d just run the same (race) set-ups everywhere. I enjoy the bumps. To me, that’s what makes Kentucky a fun racetrack.”
This week’s schedule at Kentucky Speedway
Camping World Trucks: UNOH 225, 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Speed)
Nationwide: Feed the Children 300, 7:30 p.m. Friday (ESPN2)
Sprint Cup: Quaker State 400, 7:30 p.m. Saturday (TNT)
By Mark Story
Lexington Herald-Leader Sports Columnist