Kentucky Speedway

State's stock-car glory fading

For decades, Kentuckians looking for a “home team” to root for at NASCAR's highest levels have had a reliable standby.

Over the better part of 35 years, there have been few national telecasts of NASCAR events that did not include the words “from Owensboro, Ky.”

A racer from Owensboro, Darrell Waltrip, won three Cup Series championships in the 1980s.

Another, Michael Waltrip, won two Daytona 500s in this decade. A third, Jeremy Mayfield, made the first two Chase for the Cups in 2004 and '05.

Two other drivers — David and Jeff Green — with Owensboro as their hometown each won a season championship in what is now known as the Nationwide Series, NASCAR's Class AAA.

For a town of some 55,500 to have had such a profound impact on America's most popular form of motorsports is little less than amazing.

“I'm not sure there is any quantitative way to gauge the impact on this town,” says Jody Wassmer, President of the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce, of the NASCAR prominence. “But it's been a great source of pride for people here. And it has to be a benefit any time a town gets so many mentions on national TV that are positive in nature.”

Yet as the Nationwide Series returns to Kentucky Speedway for Saturday night's Meijer 300, an irony hangs in the air.

With the impending purchase of the Sparta racetrack by Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc., the commonwealth seems closer to finally attracting a Cup Series race than it has ever been in modern times.

Yet the possibility of NASCAR's big league coming here coincides with what seems to be the impending end of Owensboro's unique place in the pantheon of stock-car-driver hometowns.

Of the six most prominent Owensboro drivers, only Mayfield (39) is younger than 45. Only Michael Waltrip presently has a full-time ride in either the Cup or Nationwide Series — and he's struggling at 35th in the Cup points standings.

NASCAR followers all around Kentucky can't be blamed for asking: Where is the next generation of Owensboro driving talent?

Certainly, in Owensboro, they're wondering.

“It just seems like things have kind of stalled out as far as getting our guys to NASCAR,” says Jake Jennings, motorsports writer at The Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer.

Even as its time as prominent hometown of NASCAR stars seems to be elapsing, Owensboro has hardly passed from the racing scene.

It's just the town's big-time 2000s star is Nicky Hayden, 26, the international motorcycle racing standout.

“People here still love racing,” Jennings says. “They're racing about every discipline — motorcycles, drag racing, go-karts. It's just our stock-car guys aren't getting noticed anymore.”

From the days of a young Darrell Waltrip right through the emergence of Mayfield, ambitious drivers from Daviess County essentially followed the same path to prominence.

Where many a young racer aspiring to NASCAR had to make a transition from local dirt tracks, Owensboro drivers had a built-in advantage. The track in their home county, the Kentucky Motor Speedway in Whitesville, was a banked asphalt course.

From Whitesville, one worked his way up to the track at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville. There, it was possible to catch the eye of NASCAR car owners or their “scouts” and gain entry to the big time.

Now, that pathway is gone. The track in Whitesville is closed. After the Nashville Superspeedway was built in 2001, the races at the fairgrounds no longer carry the same prominence.

“That was the way that the guys who made it from here did it,” Jennings said. “It doesn't work anymore.”

Those in Daviess County often mention two names as the most promising local stock-car racers.

Beau Mitchell, 24, is a former football player at Apollo High who has had considerable driving success in Nashville. Brett Hudson, 20, has been able to post some top 5 finishes in the ARCA Re/Max Series (stock car racing's Class A) in spite of running a part-time schedule.

Both drivers' families say they have everything it takes to carry on the Owensboro NASCAR tradition — except for the money to get a full-time ride in a national series.

It is hardly a secret that open rides in NASCAR often go to the drivers who can bring the most money to the team, be that either through the wealth of their families or from a corporate sponsor.

“It's more of a money deal nowadays,” says Willie Hudson, Brett's dad. “Most of the younger drivers coming up, they have lots of money from somewhere.”

The fact that the local track in Whitesville is closed has made it harder for local drivers to attract start-up sponsorship money from businesses in Daviess County, Willie Hudson said.

“They aren't going to see their names on the car (racing locally), so they don't get as involved,” Hudson said.

Gene Mitchell, father of Beau, says a representative of a team in the Nationwide Series once told him he didn't care whom he put in his car — as long as they brought $2 million to the ride.

“The way it is now, the working man can't really dream of racing” in NASCAR, Gene Mitchell said. “I'm on disability; I have a heart problem. Our family owns a machine shop. We build motors. There's no way we can generate the kind of money it takes.”

Which doesn't mean either family wants to give up on the dream.

The Hudson family has hired sports marketers to try to gin up big sponsorship money for Brett. The Mitchells have tried to work connections to Jack Roush and fellow Owensboro product Michael Waltrip to get Beau a chance.

So far, neither family has unlocked the secret to breaking into NASCAR's higher levels.

To enter NASCAR from Owensboro now “is almost impossible, I think,” Gene Mitchell said.

Which is why, after almost three and a half decades, Kentuckians might soon have to look somewhere other than Owensboro for their “home team” in NASCAR.