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A New Era

Kentucky Speedway founder Carroll
reluctantly accepts new role
behind the scenes

He is staying on staff as a consultant

 

 
(September 2010)
Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

Jerry Carroll waited 11 long years to land a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Sparta, Ky. But when the day finally arrived Aug. 10, the Kentucky Speedway founder was nowhere to be seen. Instead of holding court in the throng of reporters and photographers telling everyone “I told you so,” he was inconspicuously standing backstage chatting with a few media members who had sought him out.
“They want me to appear on stage, but I really have nothing left to say,” said Carroll, 65, prior to the start of the largest press conference ever held at the track, drawing several hundred media, politicians and VIPs. “I’ve already said everything there is to say for the past 11 years – that this track deserves a Sprint Cup race.”

"It’s a different time now; a different era (for the Kentucky Speedway)."

– Jerry Carroll, track founder

Defiant to the end, the Aurora, Ind., native and former golf pro and real estate developer spent the better part of the last decade trying to convince the powers of NASCAR to award his 1.5-mile track a Sprint Cup date. He tried everything, finally resorting to the courtroom in 2005 and suing the race organization in an anti-trust lawsuit, seeking to force NASCAR to give the track a race.
But even that attempt failed.
Carroll finally had to sell the track to Speedway Motorsports Inc.’s Bruton Smith to get his wish of seeing NASCAR’s premier racing circuit come to the Bluegrass State. The sale was announced in May 2008, and Carroll was retained by SMI as a paid consultant. Even after the sale, NASCAR refused to place a Sprint Cup race at Kentucky until the lawsuit was resolved. Finally, in May, almost five years after it was filed, the lawsuit ended when the former owners did not appeal the lower court’s ruling against it.
“Bruton has been very good to me,” Carroll insisted as the media settled into their seats for an hour-long press conference emceed by NASCAR legend and Kentucky-born Darrell Waltrip, who lent his expertise to the track’s design. The event featured speeches by Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, several other politicians, Smith and NASCAR driver Joey Logano.

Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip

“It’s a different time now; a different era (for the Kentucky Speedway),” Carroll said, looking across the sea of TV cameras poised atop a makeshift balcony ready to film the impending ordeal, complete with shrimp cocktail and wine served by black-tie waiters.
Since opening the track to its first event in June 2000, Carroll says he has remained optimistic for a Cup date, despite all the road blocks and dead ends. “Every day I thought this day would come. I just didn’t know when. I never thought we didn’t have a shot. It just made sense,” he said. “But without Bruton, we wouldn’t have done it because you have to be in NASCAR’s inner circle. And he’s the only guy in the world who could have made it happen.”
Smith, who owns seven other race tracks that host NASCAR Sprint Cup events, announced that Kentucky’s race would be held July 9, 2011, and be paired with a Nationwide Series race the night before. The latter circuit has been racing at the Kentucky Speedway every June since 2001. In fact, the track has set Nationwide Series attendance records for the event.
Kentucky also has played host to NASCAR Truck Series races every year since it opened and will hold two Truck Series races in 2011. The first is scheduled for Thursday, July 7, kicking off the weekend of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races. The second is scheduled for Oct. 1. Track officials expect the IndyCar Series to soon announce it will hold its race at Kentucky on Saturday night, Oct. 2. The IndyCar Series has not yet announced its 2011 schedule, but it has held a race at Kentucky every year since 2001.
Kentucky’s 400-mile Sprint Cup race will make it the 23rd motorsports facility on the 36-race series schedule and the first facility to be added to the national tour since Chicagoland Speedway and Kansas Speedway staged their first series races in 2001.
Carroll said he was pleased with the July race date because it is in midsummer when families can come. He expects record crowds because of the track’s strategic location near Cincinnati and Dayton in Ohio, and Louisville and Lexington in Kentucky, all untapped NASCAR markets. “We have proved with the Nationwide Series that this is a rich market that will pay off,” he said.
Those who stuck by Carroll through the years praised him as a visionary who saw the potential in what was then only a cow pasture in the hills of rural Gallatin County.
“I am happy for the entire Kentucky Speedway team, but I am especially happy for Jerry Carroll because he never gave up on his dream,” said Mark Simendinger, general manager of Kentucky Speedway. “He has had a lot of setbacks along the way and he never quit.”
Simendinger worked for Carroll Properties real estate firm and as an associate in the mid-1980s when Carroll bought what was then Latonia Race Course in nearby Florence, Ky., and renamed it Turfway Park. Carroll negotiated to buy the dilapidated horse track for $13.5 million. After many upgrades to the facility and successfully drawing several prestigious horses races and out-of-state simulcasting to the track, Carroll divested his interest in the track for $36.9 million just after breaking ground on the Kentucky Speedway.
Waltrip, for his part, praised Carroll for building what he called the a beautiful facility that is loved by fans and drivers alike. There’s not a bad seat in the house. And the drivers love it here.” Carroll hired Waltrip early on as a consultant on the track’s design to make it fan- and driver-friendly. Waltrip has remained steadfast as one of the track’s strongest proponents for a Sprint Cup race.
Though Carroll was recognized during the press conference for having had the vision, the occasion seemed bittersweet for him. That emotion was evident in his words as more reporters gathered around him after the press conference had ended.
“Risks reap big rewards – that’s why people take them,” said Carroll, who should know. “You’re always satisfied when your dream happens. But you want to lead the charge, and I wasn’t able to do that.”
The Kentucky Speedway was built in 1999 at a cost of $152 million and was sold to SMI in a $78.3 million deal. So Carroll and his investment team lost money on the sale of the track to SMI, but they were able to see their dream of landing a NASCAR Sprint Cup in Kentucky come true, even if it didn’t occur on their own terms.
Asked if he would do it all over again, Carroll quickly replied, “No. It was too hard. Maybe we were naive to think NASCAR would simply award us a race, but we never had a chance without Bruton Smith.”

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: Don@RoundAboutMadison.com.

 

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