Mud, sweat and gears

Drivers, fans give the new
Kentucky Speedway the green flag

Rain dampens opening,
but new track passes test

By Don Ward

SPARTA, Ky. – After more than a year of anticipation, auto racing fans from Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana in mid-June got their first taste of big-time motor sports action at what could someday become the new home for NASCAR’s elite Winston Cup series.

Kentucky Speedway

With an eventual Winston Cup race admittedly the ultimate goal, Kentucky Speedway officials spent the June 16-17 weekend inaugurating the new 1.5-mile tri-oval speedway with a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series event that drew an announced crowd of 63,750.
That number may have been much higher, but heavy rains the night before prevented many fans from gaining entrance because the grassy parking areas around the facility had turned too muddy and mushy for parking cars. The resulting backup of traffic on I-71 forced track officials and Kentucky State Police to agree to close the gates. Officials later announced they would refund money for tickets purchased by anyone turned away.
“When you get hit with three inches of rain in about a five-hour period, it makes it really tough,” said Ken-tucky Speed-way General Manager Mark Cassis.
“No one hated it any more than me,” added track developer Jerry Carroll. “I wanted more than anything to get everyone in here tonight. But it had become an unsafe situation.”
“We thought of everything except the rain, and we couldn’t do anything about that,” said Winston Cup driver Darrell Waltrip, an Owensboro, Ky., native who served as a consultant on building the new facility.
Saturday’s festivities began with an afternoon concert by former Eagles singer Joe Walsh. Then a cheetah from the Cincinnati Zoo was briefly let loose in the infield in an attempt to set a new speed record for a mammal.
Waltrip, Carroll, Cassis and Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton arrived in the infield late Saturday afternoon via a black limousine pickup truck to officially open the new $152 million speedway.
Gov. Patton, who admitted he had seen more horse than auto races, said the new track would add to the state’s tourism industry and help “build our state’s image with a first-class facility.” He added that the unique track design, which allowed spectators to see from any seat, “is like being on the 50-yard-line of a football game or the finish line of a horse track.” He predicted that a future Winston Cup race here would “be as big as the Kentucky Derby.”
The four men later joined Kroger Co. president Bob Hodge on an infield stage to present welcoming remarks and to greet each of the 31 drivers who had qualified for the 150-lap “Kroger 225” NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race.
But the start of the race was delayed 24 minutes while track vehicles worked to dry the surface following a brief shower. Finally, after 10 cautions and a 63-minute mid-race rain delay, Greg Biffle of Vancouver, Wash., eventually won the race ahead of Jack Sprague of Spring Lake, Mich., and St. Louis’ Mike Wallace. By the time the checkered flag fell, it was nearly 11:30 p.m.
The pre-opening night festivities on Friday fared much better, weather-wise, with the hard downpours holding off until just after the checkered flag fell on the NASCAR Slim Jim All-Pro race, “The Kentucky 150.” That event, however, had its own weird turn when pole winner Wayne Anderson’s apparent victory before an announced crowd of 36,210 was overturned the next morning when he was disqualified for an illegal manifold setting. Second-place finisher Billy Bigley Jr. was declared the winner of the event, which marked the largest crowd ever for a Slim Jim All-Pro race.
During a weekend news conference, Carroll called the new track “a labor of love in a way, trying to make everything work and build something that is rather unique.” He also admitted that building the facility without a single race scheduled was a gamble. But drivers and fans, alike, raved about the first-class appearance of the new track, and drivers and pit crew members especially noted the friendliness of the place.
“It’s a nice facility, and I’m really impressed with the hospitality here,” said Jason Binger, a pit crew member for driver Steve Grissom from Asheboro, N.C.
“I’ve seen a lot of big NAS-CAR tracks, and this one ranks right up there with any of them,” said Tim Miles, 34, of Atlanta. He works part-time as an instructor for the Richard Petty Driving Experience, scheduled to hold amateur driving classes at the track in September.
Carroll said bringing a Winston Cup race to Sparta would require proving to NASCAR officials that the fan base and a lucrative market exists here, and that his facility would be prepared to handle it.
“Through sheer performance by putting butts in seats we hope to impress the powers that be that we can have a Busch race in 2001 and continue on that mode in 2002 or 2003 to accomplish the feat of having a Winston Cup race,” he said. “That has been our goal, and that is what we are working for.”
Waltrip said, “Hopefully, we’ll get a Busch race down the road, and then sit back and wait like everybody else. We just want them (NASCAR officials) to judge us on our performance. That’s all we ask.”
Following his Truck Series victory, Biffle said, “My opinion is, you’re going to see Busch and Winston Cup races come to Kentucky, with the fans and a facility like this.”
Several NASCAR officials attended the weekend events to witness first-hand the response.
Mandy Smallwood, a public relations official with Jack Sprague’s GMAC-sponsored Truck Series team, said, “It was very unusual to see the big guys here from NASCAR, and that means they are taking this place seriously.”

Back to July 2000 Articles.



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