BUSCH: Busch returns to Kentucky

Busch returns to Kentucky, will Winston Cup go there soon? As the NASCAR Busch Series caravan approaches Kentucky Speedway for their third visit, the operators of the Northern Kentucky speed palace are wondering when the last step of their dream...

Busch returns to Kentucky, will Winston Cup go there soon? As the NASCAR Busch Series caravan approaches Kentucky Speedway for their third visit, the operators of the Northern Kentucky speed palace are wondering when the last step of their dream will be fulfilled. The Busch race, a sellout in the two previous Kentucky races, will again fill every seat (and more) of the 70,000-seat stadium.

The Kentucky Speedway is the brainchild of Kentucky land developer Jerry Carroll, and the track was built in 1999 and 2000 on former farmland between the small towns of Sparta and Warsaw, Kentucky, not far from the Ohio River and less than an hour from Cincinnati, Louisville and Lexington. Carroll and his partners in the venture, Richard Duchossois, Richard Farmer, John Lindahl, and Chris Sullivan, took an enormous risk, spending over $100 million to build a track with no guarantee of a valuable race date. And while the facility has hosted successful races for the Busch series, NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series and All-Pro touring series, plus ARCA's ReMax stock car series and the open-wheeled IRL cars, there is still no guarantee of a Winston Cup race on the horizon.

A String of Successes

Kentucky Speedway has hosted a string of successful events in the short history of the track. Nearly three years ago, in June 2000, the Craftsman Truck Series opened the facility with a full house and a year later, the Busch cars made their first visit in front of another record crowd. Both series and ARCA race there in front of the largest stand-alone crowds they see each year. And while the IRL struggles to draw a large crowd for many of their races outside of Indianapolis, they can point to Kentucky as a successful stop each year. The facility has also had success hosting large concert events, first a multi-band rock show headlined by Metallica, and this past weekend, a Country Stampede show that drew 90,000 spectators to watch over 20 country artists perform on two stages.

Dark Clouds

You must forgive the Kentucky Speedway's managers and owners if they cringe every time rain is predicted on a race weekend - and indeed, rain is in the forecast each day for this weekend's Busch event. On the eve of that first NASCAR CTS event, a large storm dumped over three inches of rain on Gallatin County, and the (then) grass parking areas turned into quagmires. Cars and campers were still being dragged out of the muck 24 hours after the race. Paving and gravel roads have been added since to prevent a repeat of that mess.

The weather problems didn't end there though. A couple of Friday night qualifying shows have been rained out and several races have been delayed for track drying truck parades. A sudden downpour during last year's Saturday night Busch race halted the event for the night and the race was completed on Sunday under sunny skies. Even the Country Stampede was not immune. Last Sunday, a heavy storm blew through in the middle of the day, bringing heavy rain, hail, and high winds. The wind brought down a tent in the infield injuring several spectators, fortunately none seriously.

Traffic Jam

In addition to the rain and mud, the speedway's first Truck race also featured a traffic nightmare. More than 60,000 spectators showed up, and the highway infrastructure wasn't up to the load. Officials delayed the start of the race, but many people never got in the facility as traffic backed up for miles on Interstate 71. Those problems are in the past as Kentucky highway officials have now opened a new exit west of the track to split the load. Improvements continue, with a widened and lengthened ramp from westbound I-71 set to open in time for this weekend. At last week's event preview, Carroll praised the state officials that supported the road improvements in the area.

The BIG Question

The question most asked of Carroll and others at the speedway is: "When will Winston Cup come here?" The question is not an easy one to answer. NASCAR this spring announced a "realignment" in the way it assigns its Winston Cup race dates. Traditional tracks in the southeast are seeing some softness in their ticket sales and tracks farther away from the sport's home area are clamoring for events. While NASCAR wants to hold onto as much of its tradition as they can, it is hard for them to ignore the pressure to expand.

The realignment plan has not been revealed to the public except for a minor shuffling of events: the fall race at Darlington has been moved to give a second race to California Speedway, and the fall race at North Carolina Motor Speedway (Rockingham) has been moved to fill the fall gap at Darlington. With tracks at Kansas, Texas and Las Vegas also wanting a second date, and Kentucky still wanting on the calendar in the face of NASCAR's unwillingness to add more dates to a crowded schedule, expect more realignment announcements ahead.

Not in the loop

Kentucky's position in the line for dates is complicated by their owners being outside the loop of track owners of the majority of the nation's tracks. International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI), controlled by NASCAR's France family and Bruton Smith respectively, own nearly all of the tracks where the series competes, and Kentucky must compete with them for the limited number of race dates that might come available.

"We're Ready"

Carroll talked at length last week about his facility's ability to host a successful NASCAR Winston Cup event, and his efforts to make that happen. He knows that the fan base is there, with only Indianapolis Motor Speedway holding a Winston Cup event within a six-hour drive of his track. He is ready and willing to add enough seats to take capacity over 100,000 if and when a Cup race is announced. "We will be here until a race comes. We're ready," he said.

"No one has done this before," Carroll commented. "When you put up the money we have to build this facility without any guarantee of a race, you are making a statement." Despite that statement, Carroll doesn't expect NASCAR to feel obligated to award his track a race. "NASCAR doesn't owe us a thing. We knew where we stood coming in."

He feels that they have made their case in the best way possible. They have built a beautiful facility, held successful events at all levels, signed a full slate of event sponsors in a tough economy, and garnered much praise from the drivers and teams that have raced there and tested there. Carroll made his point strongly: "We know we have to be better than everyone else. If we didn't give [NASCAR] a reason to change [the schedule], shame on us, but I don't think we are doing it wrong."

The Meijer 300 for the NASCAR Busch Series will take the green flag on Saturday, June 14th at 8 pm EDT. Defending race winner Todd Bodine will attempt to regain the Busch series points lead he lost last weekend at Nashville. The NASCAR Southeast Elite series (formerly the All-Pro series) will race in the Kentucky 150 at 9 pm on Friday night following Busch series qualifying.

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Drivers Todd Bodine