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Kentucky's muddy beginnings spawned a Bluegrass beast

July 07, 2011, David Caraviello,

Kentucky's muddy beginnings 11 years ago spawned a Bluegrass beast

SPARTA, Ky. -- Eleven years ago before the first NASCAR national-series race at Kentucky Speedway, a second interstate exchange on I-71 had yet to open. Nearby residents didn't realize they could make a few bucks by parking cars on their property. The track's parking fields were all grass, and the roads to get to them were all dirt. And then the rains came -- and continued all night before the day of that inaugural Truck Series event, turning the speedway's best-laid plans into mud.

"It rained like cats and dogs overnight, and we were in bad shape," remembers Mark Simendinger, the track's general manager. "We had sold all the tickets. This place was going to be full. Imagine, we've got all new employees, and it's all you can do to communicate to them what plan A is. And before you can even get them to execute that, you've got to go to plan B. And you're not even sure they knew what plan A was. That's what happened."

Sound Off: Kentucky

Kevin Harvick thinks the Sprint Cup race at Kentucky is just what NASCAR needs and Carl Edwards thinks the racing surface will make for an exciting race Saturday night.

For many of those stuck in the quagmire and the traffic gridlock it created, it was a day memorable for all the wrong reasons. And yet, even amid the morass and the frustration, the signs were clearly there -- a sellout for that first Truck event, a standing-room-only crowd for the inaugural race in the now-Nationwide Series a year later, an obvious thirst for NASCAR's big leagues that couldn't be drowned out by rain or satisfied by the presence of Indianapolis Motor Speedway two and a half hours away. It took more than a decade, complete with fractious legal wrangling and a sale of the property, but Thursday, Kentucky's long-awaited hope was finally realized when Sprint Cup cars roared to life at the 1.5-mile facility.

"Obviously, there are a lot of things that have to play out in this sport to make things work, and things are planned so many years in advance," said Kevin Harvick, who won the track's first Nationwide event in 2001. "When you do have a new facility, I think everybody wants to see if it's able to keep bringing the fans in. The longevity of that particular facility has to be proven, I think, to get to this level of a race. It's great to see. I know it took 10 years, but we're here."

The track that first welcomed NASCAR in 2000 is the same facility as the one that will host the Sprint Cup tour on Saturday night, but in many ways it's very different. Kentucky's infrastructure has improved, with dirt roads being replaced by gravel or asphalt. Most notably, the grandstands have ballooned like a weightlifter on steroids. A venue that once held 66,000 has expanded to 107,000 -- the seats divided into towers named Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana -- and Thursday, the newer multicolored additions gleamed in the afternoon sun. It's also owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith, who bought the track from founder Jerry Carroll three years ago in a move that was key in the facility landing a Cup event.

Reviews Thursday were mostly positive, although Tony Stewart remarked that the facility has "not near enough SAFER barriers for what we're doing here and how close the wall is to the race track." The surface also is one of the bumpier ones drivers will encounter all year. Simendinger said as of right now there are no plans to repave, although that decision will likely ultimately be made by parent company SMI. Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition, said the surface and the barriers would both be evaluated after the race.

"The race track, they've taken on a lot of work since they've announced the date here," Pemberton said. "As always, we'll evaluate the facility itself and where SAFER barriers need to go as we do throughout the year at every race track. We'll see what the race track actually has planned for the surface. We know this has got some age on it. We'll just wait and see what the race track, what they feel they need or can do moving forward."

There were times, it seemed, when Kentucky never had a chance. Not with the schedule so full, not with Indianapolis so close, especially not after Carroll tried to force NASCAR's hand by suing the sanctioning body. Going back to North Wilkesboro felt more realistic than going to the Bluegrass State. But as is his habit, Smith made it happen. He bought the track for $78 million. The lawsuit, which claimed NASCAR had violated antitrust laws by not allowing race tracks to bid for events, went away. The path was cleared for SMI, with NASCAR's approval, to realign events at its properties and move an under-performing race from Atlanta to a potentially more successful home in Kentucky. The Cup date was awarded this past August, and Smith held a blowout complete with jazz bands and ice sculptures to celebrate his new prize.

So much had been done, but so much was still left to do. At the announcement 11 months ago, the only specifics were a Nationwide race July 8 and the Sprint Cup event July 9. Simendinger said he didn't know Thursday night's Camping World Truck race would be added until later that month. Smith promised sweeping upgrades costing up to $100 million, including 50,000 more seats. Fortunately the track had been built to be expandable, with footings for potential new grandstands already in place. Simendinger said the only hitch was in preparing the camping areas, where grading and grass-planting efforts were hampered by heavy rains this past spring.

There was also the matter of selling tickets, no small detail given the role sellout crowds had played in bolstering Kentucky's case for a Cup race, and the thousands more seats the facility suddenly had to fill. As expected, Simendinger said the track experienced one spike right after tickets went on sale, and another in the wake of the Daytona 500. At some point he anticipated a sales dip, and he got it, with one notable caveat -- even at their lowest point, ticket sales for Kentucky's first Cup event were well ahead of anticipated. At one point, they were 30,000 tickets ahead, with advertising and promotional money still to spend. It was no surprise on June 30 when the track announced a sellout.

"To have an event like this is huge for this area, and it's very deserving to be here."


"What happened was, when we came down to the trough, the trough wasn't as low as I thought it would be," Simendinger said. "And we kept clicking along at a higher level, week after week after week after week. The down low wasn't as low, so when it was time to ramp back up, we didn't have as far to go. I could have told you three months ago we were going to sell out, because I could see how far ahead we were."

Carl Edwards, who's been competing here since his Truck debut at the track in 2002, could see it building. "I don't know all the details, but I've been coming here nine years now with the Truck Series, and every time I come here a number of fans always ask -- 'When are the Cup cars coming? When are we going to get a Cup race?' It's a big deal to the fans here," he said. "I don't know what happened behind closed doors here, but it's the perfect place for us to be racing. The fans seem to be very excited about the race."

Stewart, who lives about 90 minutes away in Columbus, Ind., isn't surprised. "This is an area that's got deep racing roots, and a lot of dirt-track racing roots around here," the two-time NASCAR champion said. "To have an event like this is huge for this area, and it's very deserving to be here."

A crowd of more than 120,000 is expected here Saturday, a giant spawned from those muddy beginnings 11 years ago. The first official activity was a test session Thursday to help drivers and crew chiefs figure out a track whose bumpy surface and unique corner configurations make it very different from other 1.5-mile venues on the schedule. As race day approaches, the unbridled euphoria that defined Kentucky's official ascension to the Sprint Cup tour 11 months ago has been replaced by a quiet satisfaction, and focus toward work to be done.

"Right now, we're kind of in race mode," Simendinger said. "I wouldn't say it's not any different, because it is different than last year when we put on our Nationwide race. But you do a lot of the same stuff. ... Now it's bigger, and it's longer, and it's more. But we're all kind of in race mode right now, and doing what we do. We've been doing this for 10 years. But is it exciting to have the Cup guys here? Sure. It's been our goal."