By Don Ward
SPARTA, KY (May 2005) - Developer and entrepreneur Jerry Carroll is not a man who likes to hear the word No.
As a lifelong deal-maker, he is a man driven to make things go. And after five years now of stonewalling and noncommitment from the France family-owned NASCAR down in Daytona Beach, Fla., Carroll has had enough.
He believes his state-of-the-art, $150 million Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky., has more than proven itself a winner among fans, among race drivers and among big corporate sponsors, some of whom are on board with the track with or without a Nextel Cup race, and others who have verbally committed to coming aboard as soon as there is one. At a press conference May 26 to announce the new sponsor for the IndyCar Series Amber Alert 300, Carroll held court outside to let off a little steam about his dealings or lack thereof with NASCAR over his bid to get a Cup date.
He correctly points out that, even without Nextel Cup, the Kentucky Speedway has never held a race without a sponsor in its five-year existence, unlike many other race tracks that have Nextel Cup dates. Carroll also cites the previous four sellout crowds for the tracks NASCAR Busch Series events, among the highest purses in the Busch Series, the largest crowd ever for an ARCA Series race and among the largest for an IndyCar Series event.
So whats the problem? Are the NASCAR owners not seeing what Carroll says is the obvious to award the Kentucky Speedway with its own Nextel Cup event?
Mike Helton (NASCAR president) was here at the Busch race last year, and he said this would be a great place to have a Nextel Cup race, Carroll says. We get rave reviews from the drivers all the time; they love to come here. Weve got more Nextel Cup teams testing here than anywhere else. So our question is, why dont we have a race?
Getting the answer he wants to that questions is a matter of politics and money. The France family not only owns the series, it hold a majority interest in the public-traded Inter-national Speedway Corp., which owns most of the tracks where Nextel Cup races are conducted.
Indeed, it has been a frustrating ride for the Kentucky Speedway owners in dealing with NASCAR. Soon after the track opened, they had to sit by and watch two later tracks Kansas and Chicagoland come online and get Nextel Cup races. In fact, Las Vegas is the only other recent track that was built without the guarantee of a Nextel Cup race and was later awarded one. Kentucky Speedway remains the largest and newest race facility in the country without a Nextel Cup race. And it was built by the same people who designed and built the Las Vegas track.
A year ago, NASCAR announced a re-alignment of its race schedule to move events from older facilities to newer ones to meet the needs of its corporate sponsors and to make more money. Much to Carrolls dismay, that re-alignment did not include Kentucky. To make matters worse, NASCAR has recently indicated it will create two new races on the schedule to be conducted at yet-to-be-built race tracks in New York and Seattle. But in recent months, problems have arisen at both locations in the construction of those facilities.
Carroll is asking why NASCAR cant put one of those new races at Kentucky until the new tracks are built. Thats five years away before either of those tracks open, so why not give us a shot in the meantime to prove ourselves? he asks, rhetorically. To duplicate this facility somewhere else it would take $300 million, and heres a facility sitting around thats not being used.
The Kentucky Speedway was designed with an eventual Nextel Cup race in mind. Should the track receive a Cup date, the owners plan to expand seating from its current 70,000 to 120,000, or even larger, if necessary.
They believe the Greater Cincinnati market offers prime corporate sponsorship opportunities for a Nextel Cup. Theyve already proven that fact even without a Cup race. And they have cultivated an incredible fan base that is geographically untapped by the current NASCAR map.
We have big sponsors people like Proctor & Gamble who have told us they are interested in coming aboard when we get a Nextel Cup race, Carroll says. And Kentucky has a great image nationwide for being a winner in the sports world. Youve got the reputation of Churchill Downs and three consistently top-rated college basketball teams in this Tri-State region.
So Carroll says his ownership group is ready to make things happen, even if it means stirring things up with NASCAR. I hate the word try. You either do it or you dont do it. And the over the next 30, 40 or 50 days, the owners of this track are going to get together and figure out a way to get it done."
The group has already visited several older race tracks that have two Nextel Cup races in an apparent attempt to negotiate a deal to buy another track and move one race to Kentucky. Tracks that have two race dates are Loudon, N.H.; Dover, Del.; Martinsville, Va.; and the Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa.
"Even if they're willing to sell, it won't be cheap; we'll have to pay market price," Carroll said. And even then, there's no guarantee NASCAR will approve moving the race to the Bluegrass.
Carroll also took the opportunity to dispel the notion that the Kentucky Speedway might be sold. His concern was heightened by a mid-May report in the Cincinnati Business Courier that indicated that idea was being considered.
This race track is not for sale, Carroll insisted. While it has been in the press before, that idea has never been raised with NASCAR. You look at the owners of this Chris Sullivan (of Outback Steakhouse), Dick Farmer (chairman of Cintas Corp.), Dick Duchossis (majority owner of Churchill Downs) and John Lindahl (Nashville-based owner of State Industries) these guys not guys who walk away. These are not guys who are hurting for money. These are guys who get things done.
Carroll, himself, is dedicated to finishing what he started. And that includes landing the big race.
Im a developer, he said. I grew up with joint ventures. My kids knew the words joint venture before they knew the word daddy. But we are looking at every possibility now. We need to be creative. Weve been at this a while, and now we need to get this done.
Mark Cassis, the Kentucky Speedways executive vice president and general manager, also expressed his frustration with the situation, saying, Sure, theres disappointment, but our spirit is relentless. When you have Nextel Cup races going on at 40- 50-year-old venues, and you have this wonderful venue sitting here unused, it doesnt make sense, financially or otherwise. Its getting to the point where its inexcusable.
Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259.