MADISON, Ind. (May 2004) To hear him tell it, Jerry Carroll has done everything right to bring NASCAR's coveted Nextel Cup to Kentucky.
He built a state-of-the-art, $152 million superspeedway near the Midwest's largest cities Cincinnati; he's proven that the track can draw a crowd, having twice sold out the 70,000-seat stadium for NASCAR Busch races; the facility is popular with drivers and teams who race or test there; he's convinced the state to expand the roads in and out of the track, including a new road soon to be built connecting I-71 to Markland Dam; and he's got the financial partners to expand to 150,000 seats should the day ever come.
Photo by Don Ward
Kentucky Speedway co-owner Jerry
Carroll tells the Madison crowd he
hasn't given up on a Nex-Tel Cup
race in Sparta, Ky.
But the final piece of the puzzle the decision to award a race to the Kentucky Speedway is the part over which he has no control. That decision rests with the France family, which owns NASCAR and most of the tracks where Nextel Cup races are held.
Despite the proven success of the Kentucky Speedway over the past four years, Carroll still awaits what he believes he rightly deserves a place for Sparta, Ky., on the Nextel Cup schedule. It's the first question he gets wherever he goes. He says it will happen. And when it does, "It will be the biggest thing to happen to Kentucky since the Kentucky Derby."
Carroll delivered his upbeat message April 16 in Madison, Ind., during a kickoff dinner to the fourth annual Regional Business Expo, organized each year by the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce. More than 125 people filled the dining hall at Montpelier Inn Restaurant to hear Carroll tell the story about his dream to build a speedway on the hills of Gallatin County, Ky.
He recounted how he convinced five farmers to sell their land for $9 million their asking price; how raised $40 million from financiers and $8 million of his own money to fund the deal; how he hired the nation's best race track engineer to supervise the monumental task of moving 7 million cubic yards of dirt the largest such project ever undertaken in Kentucky to create a bowl effect for better fan viewing; how he convinced then-Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton to spend $63 million in new roads, with another $30 million to be funded in the next budget to finish the road to Markland Dam; how he persuaded retired NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip to lend his expertise in the final design.
"By that time, we were suddenly up to $120 million in debt, and we had zero races booked," said Carroll.
To solve that, Carroll bought the Louisville Motor Speedway from Andy Vertrees for $5 million to get the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race moved to Sparta. He then landed an Indy Racing League event from the IRL's Tony George and some smaller series races to fill out the season.
The track opened in July 2000 to the biggest crowd ever to watch a Truck Series race. The track later set attendance records for the ARCA and NASCAR Busch Series, and is expecting yet another sellout Busch Series crowd in June.
Still, the ultimate goal to complete his dream still eludes him.
"It's the toughest thing I've ever done; I never expected it to be this hard," Carroll said, referring to the task of getting NASCAR to award a Nextel Cup race. "We've had talks recently, but nothing solid. "We'll get a race; the track is too nice not to."
Tri-State race fans and many drivers who have competed there would readily agree. But now Carroll's chances appear to be impacted by an ongoing legal dispute between NASCAR and another independent track owner, Bruton Smith, who built Texas Motor Speedway. Smith has one Nextel Cup race date but claims in the suit he was promised two races. A high-stakes federal antitrust suit was filed in early 2003 over the matter and may go to court this year. Of the 36 Nextel Cup races, 22 are assigned to tracks either owned or affiliated to the France family, the suit claims.
Attorneys say an antitrust violation occurs when another company suffers financial damage because of a monopolistic situation. A victory by the plaintiffs in the costliest legal battle in NASCAR's 56-year history could mean a change in the way it awards races. The France family could be made to relinquish control of its company that operates its tracks.
"We're just watching to see how that plays out and not taking any sides," Carroll said. "You don't want to get on the wrong side of Bill France Jr. when you're trying to get him to give you a Cup race. But it's well known that they want to own the tracks where they have races."
Asked if he had reached the point of cutting such a deal, he replied, "They can own it."
He smiled. Somehow you get the feeling Jerry Carroll learned a few things from those farmers.
Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of the RoundAbout Entertainment Guide. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.