SPARTA — Bruton Smith surveyed what will imminently be the latest addition to his motorsports realm. The soon-to-be king of Kentucky Speedway said he will do “whatever it takes” to bring the long-coveted Sprint Cup race to the commonwealth.
“I'm convinced this is a fabulous market. We are going to do some great things here,” Smith said Saturday afternoon. “This is a superior market to a lot of places NASCAR already goes (for Cup races), I know that.”
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With a pair of engineers and an architect in tow, the colorful 81-year-old billionaire spent the hours before Saturday night's Meijer 300 presented by Oreo kicking the tires on the nine-year-old Speedway.
It was on May 22 that Smith's Speedway Motorsports, Inc. — owner of Bristol, Texas and Lowe's (Charlotte) motor speedways, among other racetracks — announced that it would buy Kentucky Speedway in a $78 million transaction. Smith said that day his intention was bringing Cup racing to Kentucky.
Since that time, Smith has been one of the most discussed sports figures in Kentucky. Saturday was the first time we got to take an up-close measure of the 317th richest man in America (according to the 2007 Forbes 400 list).
This very shrewd businessman comes with a personal style heavy on Southern good ol' boy. Early Saturday afternoon, Smith saw someone among the record crowd of 73,195 wearing one of those “Getting Lucky In Kentucky” T-shirts.
He couldn't stop talking about it.
One doesn't accumulate a net worth of $1.5 billion by being a shy wallflower. Bruton isn't. Among Smith's first stops upon arriving here — with outgoing Kentucky Speedway mogul Jerry Carroll serving as genial tour guide — was the media room.
Media: Any progress on getting a Cup Series date for Kentucky?
Smith: “The progress I've made is nothing to talk about. We would love to have a Cup race here next year. I'm talking to NASCAR on a daily basis.”
Media: What changes do you envision to the track before a Cup date comes?
Smith: “I don't think I can get involved in exactly what the changes are. But I believe I have publicly said that the first thing we'll be doing is adding 50,000 more seats.”
Media: Would you move a Cup date from one of your present tracks in order to have one here?
Smith: “Whatever it takes.”
In the past, Smith has acquired Cup dates for his tracks by buying other raceways that already have races. Pocono and Dover are the only two remaining facilities that have two Cup races and are independently owned.
Last evening, in a meeting with two local newspaper writers, Smith said that he “does not expect NASCAR just to give me a date.”
If he can't buy either Dover or Pocono, does he have a particular date in mind to move to Kentucky from one of the places he already owns?
“Yes, I do,” Smith said. He would not specify which race that was.
It's funny how circumstances change. After years of trying for a Cup race in Kentucky without any success, Carroll & Co. thought an anti-trust suit against NASCAR and the International Speedway Corp., both of which are controlled by the France family, was the only viable option.
The current Kentucky Speedway owners are appealing a federal judge's dismissal of the suit.
Now, Smith says that pending legal action is the biggest obstacle to bringing Cup racing here.
“I think Jerry already knows that's a problem,” Smith said. “NASCAR wants that to go away. Jerry knows that. I know that. But I'm not going to be used to make that go away. It's up to the current ownership.”
Carroll says he and his partners “are not budging from the lawsuit. He bought this track knowing the lawsuit was in place. I don't think (the lawsuit) will interfere with the (deal) closing at all. But we're not budging at all. It's too important to us.”
What if NASCAR sends a signal that giving up the appeal would mean Cup racing at the track Carroll built?
“That would be Bruton's problem,” Carroll said.
Well, it will be once the deal finalizes. There is a 90-day period before Smith's purchase of Kentucky Speedway is official.
Any reason why it won't? “I can't think of one,” Smith said. “Not at all.”
After Smith's afternoon news conference, NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston told reporters it was not feasible for a Cup Series date to be shifted to Kentucky for 2009.
Asked about that subsequently, Smith said “P.R. people are not right all the time. I don't go to him to get a Cup date.”
Anyone who follows the business side of NASCAR even casually will tell you Bruton Smith gets what he wants.
If his purchase of Kentucky Speedway finalizes, it will be a matter of when — not if — the long coveted Cup race finally comes to the commonwealth.
Early in the evening, Smith was still talking about that ‘Getting Lucky In Kentucky' shirt.
Once Smith closes on his new racetrack, it will be sports fans in Kentucky who got lucky.