WARSAW — At 99 square miles, Gallatin County is the smallest county by land area in Kentucky. It ranks 109th of 120 counties in population. But this week, as thousands of NASCAR fans come to see Kentucky Speedway's first Sprint Cup race, Gallatin will be the mouse that roared.
More than 120,000 NASCAR fans are expected to come to the county of 8,600 residents to see the inaugural Quaker State 400. Previous races at the track that opened in 2000 drew between 36,000 and 73,000 fans.
Ask residents whether the community is ready, and they'll typically answer the way Gallatin County Judge-Executive Ken McFarland did last week.
"Are we prepared? We're prepared as we can be," McFarland said in his office in Warsaw, the county seat, with 1,600 residents, north of Sparta, the speedway's home. "This is going to be a learning experience."
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The race is a big deal not only because Kentucky Speedway is the first new track to join the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule since 2001.
And it's a big deal not only because Saturday's Quaker State 400 will cap three days of a racing triple-header. The Camping World Truck Series race will be Thursday, followed by the Nationwide Series Feed the Children 300 on Friday.
But it's also a big deal because Speedway Motorsports Inc. owner and chief executive Bruton Smith, Gov. Steve Beshear and others anticipate that the economic impact will be an estimated $150 million. For comparison, the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games had an economic impact of $201.5 million, according to a financial study commissioned by the state.
Figuring economic impact is an inexact science. Officials in Henry County, Ga., home of the Atlanta Motor Speedway 30 miles south of Atlanta, another track owned by Smith's SMI, said they have not been able to pin down that track's economic impact. Atlanta Motor Speedway's loss of one of its two Sprint Cup races cleared the way for Kentucky Speedway to secure one.
Tourism spending in Henry County totaled $165 million for all of 2009, but it's not known how much of that was generated by the speedway, said Laura Luker, director of tourism for the Henry County Chamber of Commerce.
About the best that Georgia officials can say is that Sprint Cup races do attract thousands of fans and bring lots of money into the community, but they can't say specifically how much money.
"Kudos to Kentucky, because you will prosper from this race," said Andy Pippin, city manager of Hampton, Ga., population 5,120, the city closest to the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
In Kentucky, the state Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet will conduct some work to determine the economic impact of the Sprint Cup race, spokesman Gil Lawson said, but he didn't know what form that would take.
Stocking up for race fans
According to demographic research, 55 percent of NASCAR fans earn $50,000 or more. Kentucky Speedway has conducted its own surveys of its fans, and the results track closely with those figures, said Mike Schmaltz, director of communications for the track.
Fans are expected to spend $500 or more per family, so local business owners and managers are preparing the best way they know: ordering more product.
For Keith Jones, manager of Goessling's Gallatin IGA, that means more soft drinks, chips, buns, bread, ice, water and picnic supplies.
"Anything and everything that these camping people and race fans are going to need," Jones said.
Jones, who describes himself as a NASCAR fan, said some early birds are expected to arrive Tuesday, when the speedway campground opens.
"This is a totally different level with the Cup guys coming," Jones said. "We've had races in the past, and we get a little bit of business from those. But not the impact we're going to have with the Cup guys coming in. The race fans come all week long, and they will be here for the duration, from Tuesday morning through Saturday night, when they leave."
Farmers and other landowners are allowing their land to be used as temporary RV parks and campgrounds. McFarland, Gallatin's judge-executive, said permits had been issued for 15 to 20 temporary parks.
Edge of Speedway Campground, an RV park, has rented all of its 600 sites on the west side of the speedway, co-owner Fred Berkshire said. Sites with electricity have been rented for two months.
"For the Nationwide race, which used to be just a single event, I would normally do 165 to 185 sites. So this is tripling that, and then some," Berkshire said.
Keeping the property mowed in a wet year has been a struggle, and improvements to the RV park have been expensive. Those include putting down gravel for more than a mile of road in the park.
"Just this past year, I spent $150,000. I bought probably 227 tri-axle loads of gravel," Berkshire said. "And there are 22 to 25 tons in each one of those tri-axles. But I've been self-employed all my life, and this is my 401(k)."
Other campsites in Gallatin, Carroll and Owen counties are sold out. Even Whispering Hills RV Park in Scott County, 55 miles from the track, had rented sites to fans.
The economic impact for Jewell's on Main, a corner restaurant in Warsaw, began almost as soon as the race for the track was announced last August, chef-owner Justin Mylor said. The restaurant seats 70 and had a full house on Wednesday — including Smith, the track owner.
"A lot of people don't know the true impact of what's going to happen until we actually experience it and we have some sort of history behind it," Mylor said. He said he thinks he's ready: "We're going to bulk up with food, more than I ever do, just to make sure."
Before the speedway opened in 2000, Warsaw "was just a dot on the map," Mylor said. "It was more of a reference point than anything. When I was in college and people would ask me, 'Where's Warsaw?' I would say 'Between Louisville and Cincinnati.' But now it's, 'Do you know where Kentucky Speedway is? We're five minutes away.' "
Communities will strive to make the NASCAR fans feel welcome. Shuttles will take visitors from the speedway to downtown Warsaw should they want to shop for groceries or get a sit-down meal.
And neighboring Carroll and Owen counties plan "fan fests" to welcome NASCAR folks, said Jesse Harris, an account executive for community relations with the speedway.
The Cup race's impact can also be felt across the Ohio River in southern Indiana.
Follow the River RV Resort in Florence, Ind., has had all 130 sites booked for months, owner Ken Perfect said.
The spots went quickly because the resort offers full hook-ups, wireless Internet, cable TV and picnic tables.
"We've probably turned away three times as many as we could accommodate," Perfect said. "Every campground around here is just slammed."