By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Kentucky Speedway must have felt positively Dickensian on July 9, because in many ways, it truly was both the best of times and the worst of times. 

The excitement and spectacle of the track’s inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race was tempered somewhat by issues on a different type of driving surface. Traffic delays prevented some of the more than 100,000 ticket-buying fans from seeing the beginning of the race; missing the start of the start, you might say. 

In another bumpy start, the first time I met the late Jim Hunter, former vice president of corporate communications for NASCAR, things didn’t go too well. 

I was working at the local newspaper at the time, and was new to both the town of Darlington and to NASCAR in general. After attending a race, I was forced one way by the South Carolina Highway Patrol when I wanted to go another, literally got lost in my own backyard, and completed the 14-mile trip home in just under two hours. 

More than a little irritated, I decided the best way to handle this might be to rip both the track and the SCHP on the editorial page; the term “buzz-cut Neanderthals” may have been used. Hunter, who was president of Darlington Raceway at the time, in turn decided the best way for him to handle things was to invite me to come out to his office for a little chat. 

Clearly enough even for someone who considers math a four-letter word, he explained the difficulty of things like two-lane roads divided by tens of thousands of fans, and the multiple challenges this equation presented to the speedway and the overworked state troopers, who literally worked night and day to move fans in out of the races both quickly and safely. 

Basically, he advised this then-young lady to watch her mouth because, “One day, you just might be looking at this from the other side.” I told him I got the point; it was all just a matter of perspective. “No,” he said. “It’s a matter of respect.” 

Years later, when Hunter was my boss and I was working my first race as DR’s public relations director, those words proved prophetic. It became painfully clear to me in a hurry that I was completely reliant on state troopers, local law enforcement and track personnel to do their best to get our fans in on time. They worked hard; they deserved respect. 

NASCAR has taught me a lot about respect over the years. I have gone from being Rita Road Rage to someone who understands that attending a huge sporting event comes with its share of waiting. I have evolved from Go Fast, Turn Left Girl to a NASCAR fan with a real appreciation for the technical precision and athletic skill necessary to excel in the sport of stock car racing. 

But the thing that has taught me the greatest lesson about the importance of respect in NASCAR is the seeming lack of it in other sports. 

I have watched baseball star Mark McGwire admit he used steroids when he broke the home run record in 1998, and am keeping an eye on powerhouse pitcher Roger Clemens, currently on trial for perjury for lying to Congress about his own alleged steroid use. No determination has been made, but nothing involving the phrase “used syringes” can be all that positive. 

I have read the recent national magazine interview with Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a crook, a dictator and a devil, among other things. 

These stars aren’t doing much to brighten their skies. I cannot in my wildest dreams picture any NASCAR driver acting cagey at a Congressional hearing, or using a national magazine as a vehicle to hurl insults at NASCAR President Mike Helton. It is simply unthinkable. The reason? Respect. Small issues invariably crop up from time to time, but to the last man (and woman), NASCAR drivers respect their sport, the people who legislate it, and one another. They are fierce competitors on the track, but they also work fiercely together to positively reinforce and build NASCAR up, not tear it down with controversy and criticism. 

Thousands of fans were understandably disgruntled by their Kentucky Speedway experience; they paid for an entire race, and they wanted to see one. The speedway has suffered for it, as media coverage of the traffic issues has nearly eclipsed coverage of the actual race. The track’s owner, Speedway Motorsports Inc., in an effort to make amends, has offered ticket exchanges for any races at SMI tracks – including Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway – for the remainder of this season, or for Kentucky Speedway next year. 

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France issued a statement, saying, “While NASCAR was thrilled by the incredible response to our inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in Kentucky, we also are extremely disappointed by the traffic problems and inconveniences endured by fans who wanted to be part of our races at Kentucky Speedway. NASCAR will be in close communications with Kentucky Speedway and Speedway Motorsports Inc. to see that they work to resolve the issues. This situation cannot happen again."

Tickets to NASCAR events generally include a no-refund policy, yet SMI is showing both regret and respect to its fans by offering admission to another of its premier facilities. Kentucky Speedway, by its own admission, did not at first succeed, but NASCAR respects it enough to give it the chance to try, try again. I suspect it will do a very good job. 

NASCAR continues to demonstrate a firm commitment to its credibility, its image and its legions of supporters. You give what you get in this world, which is why in this case we should all feel free to offer our respect. In ways both large and small, NASCAR works hard to earn it. 


Cathy Elliott, the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway, is a syndicated columnist for NASCAR and author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” (for David M. Kinchen's review on this site: Contact Cathy