A Race to the Finish

When the CEO of Speedway Motorsports made announcements that the Sprint Cup would be held at the Kentucky Speedway, construction manager Steve Swift and his team went into action to complete renovations to the facility in less than a year

Speedway Motorsports added 20,000 new seats to prepare the Kentucky Speedway for the Sprint Cup.
Steve Swift and his team renovated the Kentucky Speedway in just 11 short months.

Steve Swift, senior construction manager for Speedway Motorsports, Inc., first heard about the massive renovation planned for the Kentucky Speedway at the same time everyone else did. That is, at a press conference—11 months before the renovation had to be complete.

The Sprint Cup, CEO Bruton Smith declared at the August press conference in 2010, was coming to Kentucky for the first time. And it was coming to his track. Kentucky Speedway, which Speedway Motorsports had acquired in 2008, had a capacity of 69,000 and an acreage of 820 at the time—nothing even close to what it would need to contain the 120,000 fans who would flood in to attend the popular NASCAR race. The raceway had to be overhauled to match the quality of Speedway Motorsports’s other facilities, including those in Bristol, Tennessee; Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Sonoma, California; Las Vegas; Loudon, New Hampshire; and Ft. Worth, Texas.

Swift was standing in the back of the room at the press conference as Smith, an octogenarian famous for unapologetic self-assurance and colorful sound bites, started ticking off the objectives. Sixty thousand new seats in the grandstands, he said. More ticket entry points. The pit road more visible to the fans. Swift, hearing these goals for the first time, immediately whipped out a scrap piece of paper and started taking notes. “I was like, ‘OK, we know what we’re building now,’” he says, laughing.

The Sprint Cup was set for July 2011, and with less than a year to go, he says, “we had zero plans, zero engineering, zero permits—you name it. Anything you need to do to get started construction-wise, we had none of. … We literally went into planning mode ASAP.” Swift sat down for an interview to map out what went into the project from start to finish.

1. Expand for higher capacity and begin grade work

This would be the largest event held at Kentucky Speedway to date, so the land surrounding the track was dedicated to more parking and camping. Once all the geotech and permits were in place and the contractors were on board (including Choate Construction; Southern Bleacher Company; Baker Concrete Construction Contractors; Musco Sports Lighting, LLC; and seven others), the team began grade work on the campgrounds, the infield, and the pit road.

Construction of two new grandstands at the racetrack added 20,000 seats. The firm poured the concrete for the stands quickly to beat the winter chill.

2. Begin construction on two new grandstands

The construction team broke ground in October, and with winter coming it was essential to get concrete foundations for two new grandstands—which would increase capacity by 20,000—completed before the ground froze. “The winters in Kentucky,” Swift says, putting it mildly, considering the 2010–2011 winter pummeled the state with more snowy storms than usual, “aren’t always conducive to construction.” The foundations consisted of more than 500 caissons at a depth of 80 feet, which would support an eight-million-pound steel and aluminum package. “We had three drill rigs drilling basically nonstop, and we were pouring concrete nonstop [to finish it before winter],” Swift says. The grandstands, once completed, would have 40 rows, stand 85 feet high, and include 10 attached elevators.

To ensure the Kentucky Speedway would be able to handle a Sprint Cup-size crowd, Speedway Motorsports expanded the amenities and restrooms level.

3. Provide more restrooms, ticket entry points, and concessions for fans

Speedway Motorsports uses a ratio to determine how many restrooms and concessions areas a raceway needs to prevent long lines. Kentucky Speedway only had 60–70 percent of what was necessary for the number of fans who would attend the Sprint Cup. So, restroom and shower buildings were constructed in campground areas; ticket entry points (small, basic buildings with canopies) went in; and once construction began on the grandstands, amenity buildings (restrooms, souvenir stands, and first-aid and concession areas) were constructed on the mezzanine level.

4. Construct grandstand elevators

The 10 elevators were constructed in conjunction with the amenity buildings and grandstands, with “five on each side … at the back rear portion, attached at the grandstand but only at certain levels,” Swift says. “We made the attachments toward the end of the process.” Safety dictated a rotating schedule between the grandstands to ensure workers weren’t hanging steel while amenity buildings were being constructed below.

5. Battle Mother Nature

The storms didn’t stop when spring of 2011 came to Kentucky; they just changed form. The season brought a few tornadoes, record wind gusts, hailstorms, and major flooding to the state. “It turned our dirt into a mud pit,” Swift says. “We actually did a lot of cement stabilization on the subgrade, where you come and mix the dry cement with your soil. It worked great up there, and we used a lot of it … to be able to continue the work and still meet our final goal.” This battle against nature wasn’t the first fought by Swift, whose first job after Speedway Motorsports hired him in 2005 was to rebuild the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 117 days after a tornado hit it.

Always working to improve the fan experience, Speedway Motorsports moved the pit road closer to the stands and added more camping space inside the track.

6. Move the pit road and relocate the crash wall

To bring the action closer to fans, Speedway Motorsports moved the pit road—where the race cars stop to refuel and receive tire or mechanical adjustments, if necessary—140 feet closer to the grandstands. Then, “70 days out, we decided to move the inside crash wall closer to the track,” Swift says. This increased camping space on the 1.5-mile track’s 100-acre infield. Even with this last-minute project, the construction team completed the Kentucky Speedway nearly a month early and within the $50 million budget. Tickets to the race sold out.

7. After the race, reevaluate

Parking and highway expansion leapt to the top priority on everyone’s list—Swift’s, Bruton Smith’s, even the governor of Kentucky’s—after the 2011 Sprint Cup. The Kentucky Speedway is located in Galliton County, and its massive footprint dwarfs that of the nearest town, Sparta (population: 235). There are roughly 8,000 people in the entire county, and on race day last July nearly 150,000 NASCAR fans flooded the area to attend. The infrastructure simply wasn’t there. Traffic backed up on Interstate 71 for about 30 miles, and many fans never even made it to the speedway in time for the race.

The race “was a huge success in one aspect,” Swift says—Sports Illustrated, noting the high-energy atmosphere, published an article declaring that “the buzz was back in NASCAR”—but on the other hand, it was a logistical debacle. Just days after the race, however, plans were already in motion to acquire 143 additional acres to provide parking for 10,000 cars. And at the end of the summer, Governor Steve Beshear pledged $3.6 million for expansions on Interstate 71. ABQ