Kentucky Speedway

Mark Story: Jerry Carroll unfairly vilified in Speedway saga

Dialed up Jerry Carroll on the phone Thursday.

Wanted to get the now-former owner of Kentucky Speedway's reaction to claims made last week by the new track proprietor, Bruton Smith.

It is, Smith said, the appeal of an anti-trust lawsuit against NASCAR filed by the Speedway's old owners that is now the only thing standing between the commonwealth and the long-elusive Sprint Cup date coming here in 2010.

I planned to ask Carroll why not just drop the suit, declare victory after Smith moved a Cup race here and then be heroes to Kentucky sports fans forever?

Even starting down that line of questioning, however, got the always effusive Carroll revving faster than Kyle Busch's engine.

"Totally, totally unfair, and totally, totally wrong to portray us as the villains or the hurdle to getting Cup," Carroll said. "I'm a little mystified by that portrayal, in fact; I'm not taking it very well.

"We are totally a third party at this point. We don't own the Speedway; Bruton Smith does. We don't assign racing dates; NASCAR does.

"So why should we or our lawsuit have any role, one way or the other, in whether Bruton Smith can move a race date from one track he owns to another track he owns?"

I fear the answer is: Because NASCAR says it does.

It's that reality of NASCAR's absolute power that eventually led Carroll and his partners into court against stock car racing's governing body in the first place.

After building Kentucky Speedway with private money and opening in 2000, Carroll and his ownership group spent years trying, without success, to get a Cup Series race at Sparta.

By 2005, their frustration boiled over and they filed a suit against NASCAR and the International Speedway Corp., both entities that are controlled by the family of NASCAR's founder, the late Bill France Sr.

Essentially, the suit claimed that the fact that the France family held sway over both the organization that assigned race dates (NASCAR) and a publicly traded owner (ISC) of race tracks that benefitted from NASCAR's assigning of Cup dates violated federal anti-trust laws.

In January 2008, a federal judge threw the suit out. It is that decision Carroll's group is appealing.

Even after Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc., bought Kentucky Speedway last year, the former owners' legal action continued.

Now, Smith says the appeal has to be dropped before NASCAR will sign off on his moving a Cup date to Kentucky from another of the tracks he owns (Atlanta or New Hampshire are most often mentioned).

Last week, Smith said that Carroll and Co. "have a moral obligation" to the state of Kentucky "to get out of the way."

He singled out two members of Carroll's former ownership group, Cintas Corp. Chairman Richard Farmer and Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossios, as the main obstacles to dismissing the suit.

(Chris Sullivan, one of the founders of the Outback Steakhouse chain, and the late John Lindhal, formerly the CEO of State Industries, Inc., a large water-heater manufacturer, were the other two original partners).

"As a group, we're united on our stand on the suit," Carroll said. "It's not just the two. For us, we won't be bullied anymore. They still want to bully us even after we sold the track. I mean, aren't they tired of kicking us?"

At the time of the Speedway's sale, Carroll said Smith knew that the lawsuit appeal would go forward. "We didn't hide that in any way," Carroll said.

Still, even after last week's "moral obligation" comments, Carroll says he has no beef with Smith.

"I respect Bruton Smith. He's become a great friend to me and to the state of Kentucky," Carroll said. "I think Bruton is just saying what he feels he has to say. He has to work with NASCAR every day. He certainly doesn't have to work with us (the prior owners of Kentucky Speedway)."

In the 10 years he oversaw Kentucky Speedway, Carroll put his heart and soul into the quest to bring NASCAR's big league here.

His group invested $152 million of its own money to build what was then a state-of-the-art racetrack. They eventually sold Kentucky Speedway for about half that — $15 million in cash and the assumption of $63.3 million in debt.

"It was always about getting Cup," Carroll said. "After we ran out of options ourselves, we made a deal that, financially, represented a pretty big hit for us because Bruton had what we didn't, (other) tracks with Cup dates" that could be moved.

Yet now, with a Cup race for Sparta at long last seemingly just over the horizon, I fear that Carroll and his former ownership group risk going from the deserved heroes of the story in Kentucky to the perceived villains by not giving up the lawsuit appeal.

From what he said Thursday, the prospect of that "unfair" portrayal bothers Carroll, too.

Just not enough to stand down when it comes to the legal fight with NASCAR.

"We've got some pride, some character about us," Carroll said of the former Speedway ownership group. "The lawsuit is not about greed. It's not really even about money. We believe whole-heartedly that we got a raw deal from NASCAR. We're not going to walk away now because they are bullying somebody else."