LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As he prepares to welcome five races over four days with no spectators, Kentucky Speedway executive vice president and general manager Mark Simendinger remembers when he had a much different problem.
"Ten years ago, people were complaining that we had too many fans," Simendinger said. "And now 10 years later, we don't have enough."
That would be due to the ongoing pandemic that's changed sports across the country. As NASCAR continues to drive forward through COVID-19 with spectatorless races, Simendinger admits a weekend with no fans presents a weird turn.
"I never would've thought in my wildest dreams that we would be running races to empty grandstands," Simendinger said. "I think it's going to be really strange. I have been told by people who've done it how strange it is, but I think it's one of those things where until you experience it, you don't really realize it."
So he's hoping fans can still enjoy a Quaker State 400 weekend with virtual events. The track plans to have things like virtual happy hours, fan zones or stream events like the haulers arriving to Kentucky Speedway. Those who purchased tickets can roll over their tickets to next year's races at the track, other races at Speedway Motorsports tracks or get a full refund. Simendinger said Kentucky Speedway leads the Speedway Motorsports group in rollovers for next year.
"That was really gratifying and it makes me feel good about what we're doing," Simendinger said. "It makes me also feel good that I know how badly people want to go to this thing. I know how badly they want to see it."
Even if they have to just watch the races on television this year due to the unexpected change, the track GM said he always braces for anything when the cars get rolling in Kentucky.
"Something strange is going to happen," Simendinger said. "It always does. This year's thing might be the strangest that we've encountered and hopefully will be the strangest that we ever do encounter."
One thing he's made sure not to encounter is what Bubba Wallace's team saw at Talladega two weeks ago. A team member for Wallace, NASCAR's lone black Cup Series driver, noticed a noose in their garage and alerted NASCAR officials. Wallace himself did not discover it or know about it until NASCAR president Steve Phelps met with him.
The FBI investigated the incident and concluded the noose, which NASCAR said was the only garage pulldown rope to be tied as such after sweeping through 29 tracks, was not a hate crime against Wallace. Simendinger informed reporters of the checks his staff at the track has performed ahead of this weekend's races.
"We did go through every single garage bay to look and see what our pulldowns were," Simendinger said. "We've changed all of those pulldowns out and taken all rope of any type out of the garage and just replaced them with straps."
In light of that incident, this will be the first weekend of NASCAR races since President Trump asked why Wallace has not apologized since it happened and falsely categorized it as a hoax. He also condemned NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag from the sport.
Wallace responded with his own statement, emphasizing love and strength to those who follow in his path, particularly when faced with hate.
Simendinger admits you never know what can happen, but he "seriously doubts" any flag protests will be around the track.
"Five years ago, that was a hot-button issue," Simendinger said. "We didn't really know what to expect and our fans really behaved fine. We had very little issues. We had a few people that decided they wanted to wave the flag, which they had the right to do. And they came and did it. But we had asked people not to do it. And by and large, people were very respectful.
"I've been here for this Speedway for 20 years. I've been in Northern Kentucky for 35 years. My read on this market, it's a respectful market."