KANSAS CITY, Kan. — During the last three years, NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. couldn’t help from peeking at the ARCA series races from his motorhome parked at Kansas Speedway.
Those races, on the Fridays preceding the fall NASCAR events, ran at night under the lights.
Now it’s time for the lights to shine on NASCAR for the first time at Kansas Speedway. The Camping World Truck Series SFP 250 is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday, and the 5-hour Energy 400 Sprint Cup race will start at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
“Heck yeah,” Stenhouse said when asked about watching the ARCA races. “These cars look cooler under the lights. They look shinier, they look faster, and when the fans can see sparks when we’re bottoming out, it adds another level of excitement.”
When Kansas Speedway was completed in 2001 for about $260 million, it did not include lights, but the track, and its owner, International Speedway Corporation, had night racing in mind. During the speedway’s construction, all of the necessary electrical infrastructure for lighting, except the poles themselves, were included in the 80,000-seat facility.
ISC approved installation of the light poles in 2011, and the ARCA series began running at night at Kansas Speedway, crowning its champion in each of the past two October races.
“As we look at the race tracks, we like to build them with the future in mind,” said Lesa France Kennedy, chief executive officer/vice chairperson of the Board of Directors for ISC and NASCAR executive vice president, who designed many of the amenities at Kansas Speedway.
“Night racing is going to be a great addition to the speedway activities and to the area. It’s going to add a real extra element of excitement to the race track. Any time you can provide something new for the fans and a new experience, that’s a lot of fun. I think it’s going to be very popular and appeal to a wide group of people.”
It took four years for Kansas Speedway to get night racing on the NASCAR schedule, but officials are hoping this week’s races will be the start of a nighttime tradition at the track, whether the date remains in May or, preferably, moves to the summer if NASCAR makes some changes to the 2015 schedule.
“We’d like to be in June or July, ideally,” said Kansas Speedway president Pat Warren, “not just for a little bit more consistency in the weather, but to avoid to the greatest extent possible, the risk of severe weather.
“It looks like we’re not going to have severe weather this weekend, but in May in Kansas, those things happen.”
Based on ticket sales, the response to the night race has been overwhelmingly positive, said Warren.
“I don’t think we’re going to sell out, but we’re going to be close,” Warren said. “We’re sold out at certain price points already. If people didn’t buy early, like our lowest-priced tickets are no longer available. We’re up considerably (from last year).”
That doesn’t surprise Sprint Cup star Carl Edwards of Columbia.
“Our sport was built on night racing,” said Edwards. “It’s built on the Saturday night race. That’s what the fans around this area are used to. They used to go to I-70 … or Moberly … There’s a nice race track in Grain Valley .. to have that Saturday night feel at Kansas, which is such a huge, beautiful race track, is going to be cool.”
The night racing, combined with the restaurants, retail stores and hotels surrounding Kansas Speedway, will turn the Legends area into a festival of speed.
“This place at night is going to be a lot of fun,” said Stenhouse. “The fans are really going to enjoy it. With everything Kansas Speedway has around it, the amenities outside the race track are awesome. It is one of the favorites of the drivers, being able to go outside and get anything you want.
“For us drivers, we grew up racing at night on the weekends. It’s something that has been a big part of our lives. Until I got to NASCAR, I had never raced during the day, except for practicing go-karts. We’d always race at night. This race at night is going to be really fast, and hopefully we can continue to get this track wider and wider.”
The Kansas 400 is one of four night races in a five-week span for the Sprint Cup drivers, and if were up to the drivers, most every race would be under the lights.
“Kansas at night will be fun,” said Martin Truex Jr. “Anywhere we race at night is fun. There’s something about the way it feels … I don’t know if it takes you back to when you were racing short tracks on Saturday nights, but the excitement level is up. The drivers enjoy it more, the fans like it more … Everywhere we go, when we move to a night race, everyone is jacked up about it.”
Truex has another reason for liking the lights.
“I’m not a morning person either,” he said. “I like to sleep in. So night races are right up my alley. Sleep in until noon, 1 o’clock … go to the driver’s meeting at 3 or 4 … and race … a perfect day in my book.”