nascar week at kentucky speedway

Mark Story: Kentucky Speedway founder can only watch as his Cup race dream realized

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 4, 2011 

FORT MITCHELL — For some 10 years, it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that Jerry Carroll's every waking breath was dedicated to getting a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race to the commonwealth of Kentucky.

"I was obsessed," he says.

Now, after a decade-plus of dashed hopes, Kentucky Speedway — the track Carroll conceived out of a Gallatin County farm field, financed with private money and promoted as relentlessly as P.T. Barnum — is days away from finally playing host to NASCAR's major league.

Yet in the weeks leading up to Saturday's Quaker State 400, the 66-year-old Carroll has been in an internal argument with himself over whether he will even attend the race he fought so long to make happen.

"The other night, I'm laying there, and I said, 'You know what I'm going to do?'" Carroll says. "'I'm just going to say that I'm sick. I'm going to go to Nashville and check into a hospital, get my doctor there, and just check in. Because I don't want to go'" to the race.

In the saga of Cup racing coming to Kentucky Speedway, Carroll fills the role of Moses: able to see the promised land, but not able to enter it as the Speedway owner.

When in excess of 106,000 fans jam the already sold-out grandstands to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon compete there for the first time, it will be new Speedway owner Bruton Smith taking deserved bows.

When he bought Kentucky Speedway in 2008, Smith vowed he would bring the long-elusive Cup date to the commonwealth. Last August, the Speedway Motorsports, Inc., mogul proved true to his word, announcing he would shift one Cup race from SMI's Atlanta Motor Speedway to Kentucky.

"Bruton Smith," Carroll says, "has kept his word to this state right down the line, has done everything he promised me he would do."

Carroll, meanwhile, is trapped in a form of purgatory. Smith has retained him as a consultant to Kentucky Speedway and treated him with respect, but the old boss has no formal role with the track.

Yet much of Kentucky Speedway's current full-time staff are veterans whom Carroll hired. His long-time right-hand man, Mark Simendinger, has assumed day-to-day operation of the track as general manager.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Carroll was sitting in the Fort Mitchell office where all Kentucky Speedway business used to be conducted. Now, Smith has moved the track's business operations to Sparta.

"We're sitting right now doing this interview in a building that I put Kentucky Speedway in," Carroll said. "The hustle and bustle, it's gone. All the people are gone. Mark (Simendinger) is gone. I'm sitting here and, all of a sudden, I realize I'm all alone."

'We didn't scare' NASCAR

Carroll first started dreaming of bringing big-time NASCAR to Kentucky in the late 1990s. This was after the former Nashville-area office-building developer gave up on his plan of adding a casino to Turfway Park, the Thoroughbred horse racing track he had bought and revitalized in Northern Kentucky.

"I just realized 'this ain't going to happen,' " Carroll said of casinos in Kentucky. "We're not going to get this gaming thing. So I realized, around 1997, I've got to do something else."

That turned out to be Kentucky Speedway.

Famously, Carroll looked at 47 sites seeking a space to build a speedway that would be capable of hosting NASCAR's major-league events. He wound up in Sparta, a town that was barely a speck on the map — but that was well-located off Interstate 71 between Louisville and Cincinnati.

"We're coming home from a (horse) racing commission meeting in Louisville, and Jerry says, 'Pull off at Sparta. There's a farm I want to look at for (building) the speedway," recalls Damon Thayer, now a Republican state senator from Georgetown but then Turfway Park's publicist. "And I'm like, 'Right, we're gonna build a speedway in Sparta.' "

Yet Carroll did it, raising private money from well-heeled investors such as Outback Steakhouse's Chris Sullivan; Cintas Corp.'s Richard Farmer; longtime Arlington Park owner Richard Duchossois; and John Lindahl, a retired CEO of a water-heater company.

The facility opened in 2000 by drawing a whopping 63,000 to a NASCAR Trucks Series race (stock car racing's Class AA). In the ensuing years, it regularly packed in more than 70,000 for races in the series now known as Nationwide Series (AAA).

Yet for all Carroll's skill at hype and putting fannies in seats, he never could unlock the secret to getting a Cup race to Kentucky.

He tried appealing with NASCAR itself to be given a race or at least given a process to bid for a Cup date. When that didn't happen, Carroll sought to buy other independently owned tracks (Pocono, Dover and, at the time, New Hampshire and Martinsville) that had Cup races with the idea of moving a date to Kentucky.

When all that failed, too, he and his investors filed an antitrust suit against NASCAR and International Speedway Corp., which owns and operates many tracks that have Cup races. Both entities are controlled by the family of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.

That didn't work, either. The suit was thrown out of federal court, then Carroll and his partners lost on appeal.

"I think we went for too much. We should have gone for something narrower than antitrust," Carroll says now. "And NASCAR, I think, had us out-lawyered. We didn't scare them a bit."

Once the lawsuit failed, Carroll said, "I realized I had one (bleeping) buyer in the world for this racetrack. And I knew there was only one person in the world at that point who could get the Cup here."

He called Bruton Smith.

The track that took $152 million to build was sold for $78 million, $15 million in cash and $63 million in assumed debt.

Says Carroll: "We lost a lot of money."

A vision confirmed

Carroll likes Smith, feels a kinship with him. Yet it is difficult for the Indiana native to see Smith do what he couldn't. Close the deal on the Cup.

Says Simendinger: "I understand why Jerry feels the way he does. At his core, he's a businessman and his investors lost money, so he feels like he failed. But he also needs to see that what we are doing here is all vindication for him. This might not be happening the way he wanted it, but it is happening."

As the Quaker State 400 approaches, there are some basic facts that should not be ignored: Without a Kentucky Speedway, there would be no Cup race in the commonwealth. And there wouldn't be a speedway without the guy who envisioned it while standing on a pasture in the middle of nowhere.

"I feel sorry for Jerry in a way," says Darrell Waltrip, the NASCAR driving legend from Owensboro who was a consultant to Kentucky Speedway in its early years. "But he's a developer, a guy with vision, and hopefully he'll be able to see that what is going to happen Saturday with a sold-out Cup race proves his vision was correct."

Thayer, who now works as a consultant to Kentucky Speedway, likens Carroll to Col. Matt Winn, whose skill as a promoter launched the Kentucky Derby on the path to national prominence early in the 20th century.

"Jerry is the Matt Winn of Kentucky Speedway," Thayer said. "Just as Matt Winn didn't get to see all that the Derby and Churchill Downs became after he started it, Jerry played the same role at Kentucky Speedway."

Carroll is trying to see things that way. But it's hard. After arguing for weeks with himself, he says he will be there Saturday night to see the first Cup Series race at the track he built.

Says Carroll: "There is a feeling that only one person in that whole place on that day will have, and that is me. For me it will be really emotional. I'm probably going to cry. And once the race starts, I'll probably want to leave."

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