Kentucky Speedway

Mark Story: Good news for state, NASCAR

Kentucky Speedway owner Bruton Smith, left, reached to shake hands with Gov. Steve Beshear during a news conference Tuesday to announce a 2011 Sprint Cup race at the track in Sparta.
Kentucky Speedway owner Bruton Smith, left, reached to shake hands with Gov. Steve Beshear during a news conference Tuesday to announce a 2011 Sprint Cup race at the track in Sparta. AP

SPARTA — After 11 loooonnnng years, it happened so quickly.

At exactly 2:16 p.m. Aug. 10, Bruton Smith delivered the words so many Kentucky sports fans have yearned to hear.

"July the 9th of next year, you will have a Cup race," Smith said.

Just like that, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have a race date in Kentucky.

NASCAR's big league running here won't have the tradition nor the unique tie to the state that the Kentucky Derby has. It won't stir partisan passions in the way the Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals do.

But Cup racing in Kentucky will immediately become one of our state's signature sports events.

"I'm not gonna compare it to the Derby; I don't go there," Darrell Waltrip said of a rather famous horse race that runs in Louisville. "It's a different thing. But in terms of the energy and excitement it will bring to Kentucky and bring to NASCAR, this is going to have a huge impact."

Speaking to a crowd that included a Who's Who of Kentucky politicians, Smith filled in details about the Cup date.

The Sprint Cup series will race in Kentucky next July 9, a Saturday night. It will be a 400-mile race. Smith plans to add some 50,000 seats, bringing Kentucky Speedway capacity to about 116,000.

There is no small touch of irony in Kentucky finally getting Cup racing now.

When former track owner Jerry Carroll opened the gleaming $152 million speedway in 2000 on what was a former Gallatin County cow farm, NASCAR was the nation's "now" sport.

New fans were flocking to the races. NASCAR was expanding into new parts of the country. Television ratings were robust.

Carroll's goal was for Kentucky to join the party.

Problem was, Kentucky couldn't get an invitation.

NASCAR consistently refused to "give" Kentucky Speedway a Cup race. Carroll and his well-heeled ownership group couldn't get a track with an existing Cup date to sell them one.

Even the anti-trust suit Carroll's group filed against NASCAR failed to bring NASCAR's big leagues to the state.

In May 2008, SMI swooped in to pick up Kentucky Speedway for half ($78 million) of what it cost to build.

What Smith had that Carroll and Co. never did was other tracks with Cup dates. When Smith bought Kentucky Speedway, he vowed he would bring Cup racing to the state.

He lived up to his promise by moving a Cup date from his track near Atlanta to Sparta.

"Bruton Smith, when he gives his word, you can take it to the bank," Waltrip said.

When assigning credit for the Cup coming to Kentucky, don't forget Carroll. The former Turfway Park owner is the Moses of this story: Able to see the promised land, not able to enter.

"No one else in this state could have done what Jerry did here," Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said. "It took a very unique skill set, (real-estate) development, politics, organization, showmanship, to make this place work."

Carroll described Tuesday as "bittersweet."

"It was my dream to bring Cup racing to Kentucky and now it's come true. And I really like Bruton Smith. But he did what I couldn't. I can't help but be a little, well, sad about that," he said.

In a sentence you don't see written real often, also deserving credit for making Tuesday possible is Kentuck's bipartisan political leadership. Across three governors (Paul Patton, Ernie Fletcher, Steve Beshear) from both parties, state government has consistently backed the pursuit of Cup racing.

"My guess is this will be the largest economic impact of any multiday sporting event Kentucky has ever had," Gov. Steve Beshear said. "Two, three years into this, you'll see any investment by the state will be small compared to the economic impact that results."

In finally relenting to a Cup date in Kentucky, NASCAR figures to benefit, too. The sports now seems stale. Its TV ratings are stagnant. Many Cup races feature ample empty seats.

NASCAR could use some buzz.

Kentucky — the Speedway and the state — will provide that in spades.

"This is very big for NASCAR, what we did today," Smith said.

As ol' DW would say, boogity, boogity, boogity, Kentucky is going racing, boys.

This is going to be fun.

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